The Hard Road


There is plenty to celebrate on International Women’s Day, and no shortage of parties, breakfasts, seminars and more or less thoughtful commentary to mark it.

But it’s also worth remembering that the achievements have never come without hard work, enormous courage and that they remain fragile.

Thanks to Wilcox

The meetings of the Commission for the Status of Women at the United Nations in New York also demonstrate how hard gender equality is. Countries of all political persuasions persist in using the Commission’s processes to either promote a particular domestic agenda, get even with an old enemy or, as in the case of various resolutions moved at last year’s meeting, to get even with a new enemy.

On that occasion, which was also the tenth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, a number of countries opposed resolutions moved by the United States, for example, because they did not like the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq. Similarly the US has been known to vote with the Holy See and Arab nations in opposition to women’s ‘reproductive rights’ which, in the UN context, is said to be code for abortion rights.

There are also north-south divides at the Commission. Developing countries consider many of the Commission’s outcomes expensive to implement at a domestic level and frequently inconsistent with their country’s broad cultural receptiveness to the notion of gender equality. The G77, as the group of developing countries is known, frequently resort to demanding that references to international aid be included in the text. European and other First World countries fight just as hard to have those references deleted.

Australia was one of the first signatories to the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The Convention has been signed up to by more countries than most UN treaties 182, at last count. But its effectiveness is limited because of the huge number of reservations held by signatory States and the absence of an independent auditing mechanism.

Australia has two reservations. One relates to the role of women in combat and the second concerns the absence of a national scheme of paid maternity leave (or its equivalent social-welfare benefit). These ‘temporary’ reservations have been there for 25 years.

Australia is not alone.

Domestically, our enabling Act contains a number of unique exemptions. For example, the Sex Discrimination Act exempts religious institutions from sexism, although the Race Discrimination Act does not exempt them from racism. So, it’s okay to only have men priests, but it’s not okay if they are all White.

Then there’s the treatment of sexual vilification. While it is unlawful to vilify someone on the basis of race unless its purpose is genuinely in the public interest or for the sake of art it is, as we know, alright to vilify men and women, outside of sexual harassment provisions.

Now, in a jokey, blokey sort of place like Australia, it’s hard to imagine a ban on sexist jokes. That hasn’t stopped women loudly objecting, and perhaps sexual joking is wearing a bit thin. Even men are now also fighting back at the constant barrage of jokes about their domestic incompetence (not, I note, their sexual proclivities). So maybe a culture change really is occurring despite the absence of legal constraints. As the comedians complain, there’s not much left.

But where there is constant complaint is in the area of the portrayal of women particularly in advertising. To make the vilification of men and women unlawful would mean the end of advertising. The sexualisation of women is an essential part of advertising cars, underwear, sporting equipment (anything really that men buy), as well as high-end fashion advertising. And no amount of complaining from women is, apparently, going to change that. Models bearing the marks of assault, anorexia or drug use, it seems, sell clothes.

Men also have cause for complaint when it comes to things women or children buy, men are continuously presented as bumbling idiots, incapable of getting their child to school without a rush to McDonald’s, for example.

In their defense, advertisers say they reflect current standards but don’t set them. But they certainly reinforce gender stereotypes we could do without.

This is not meant to be a diatribe against advertising, or the Sex Discrimination Act, or the United Nations this is a long story with a simple point: gender equality ain’t easy. If it were we’d be there by now. We’ve been at it for at just over 200 years, if Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is taken as the starting point.

Countries, cultures and people fight very hard to hang on to their traditional values, and the roles of men and women lie at the heart of those values. Warriors for equality between men and women must be vigilant.

The landscape of challenge constantly changes. Women today can work, have careers and pursue public office. Men can choose to be devoted family men, part-time or under-employed workers. There are an increasing number of couples where she is the major earner. There are also men and women who prefer traditional gender roles. The old has not, and must not, be thrown out for the new or we merely replace one form of discrimination with another.

But that does not mean that we have reached Equality Nirvana. Not just because women aren’t equally represented in the world of work, but because men and women are still being forced to make different choices.

Childlessness, for example, is the often unwilling choice of women with a tertiary education, or in managerial or professional employment. They are more likely to be childless than any other female socio-economic group, an outcome all the more irksome to many because their male peers well educated or high-earning men actually have the highest fertility of any male socio-economic group. It is men with Year 11 or less education that have the fewest children. For both men and women this is a sad reflection on traditional gender roles.

Is this progress, you way well ask?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.