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Why Gender Inequality Persists - a Symposium

In the wake of Margaret Thatcher's demise, much reflection has been generated on women in politics and the role of gender then and now.  An alternately febrile and distant press has called her the worlds finest feminist and the worst feminist ever.  Thatcher would have been accustomed to this divided response.  The Australian's Janet Albrechtsen holds her up as an example of feminism as something you do, rather than talk about.  She apparently had the ability to see the wide river which the deltas of history were oozing into and she rejected the decline of Britain as the inevitable price for the empire's youthful folly.  The first may be true in domestic or Atlantic terms, however her foreign policy with regards to Africa, Chile, Pakistan, Iraq and Cambodia seems muddled at best.  Her passionate nationalism was a fresh and bracing wind at Number 10, salted as it was with Cold-War thinking.  These vicious convictions seemed to subsume any talk of gender, or the fact that she was, undeniably, a woman.  She believed that the job of government is 'to set the framework for human talent to flourish.'  Perhaps she did not believe this was already achieved during her tenure, as she promoted only one woman to cabinet; but she did believe greater freedom was available for everyone, with some hack and slash restructuring.  

Twenty years after her downfall it could seem that such a framework is yielding results.  Australia has a female Prime Minister and Governor-General.  If she wants to, Hilary Clinton will be the first contender for U.S. president who is not the former vice-president and also not the underdog.  Women occupy top positions within Google, Apple, Microsoft, the United Nations and the World Health Organisation.  We all the know the figures however.  The glass ceiling isn't broken, it's just getting glassier.  Women still account for 8% of company executives globally, and in Australia are paid 16.9% less than men.  This means that to even it out, men wouldn't have to come back from Christmas holidays until mid February (an interim measure I'm more than happy to consider).

Protests on the issue of gender have also been brought to boiling point internationally.  The recent persecution from high profile Muslims of Amina Tyler for posing topless with 'My body belongs to me' written in Arabic across her chest has been stark and infuriating.  The groundswell of support for punk-rock band Pussy Riot, currently imprisoned in Russia, has refused to abate.  All these events break down into a thousand different issues, but the hard fact of gender inequality lies at the core of them all.

In this complex and politically tense environment, I asked three women to comment on Thatcher, feminism, and gender inequality.  Here is what they said.

Danika Maxwell
Danika is currently studying economics with majors in public policy and online shopping although her degree often falls into the background, given her mysteriously increasing volunteer commitments. All she really wants in life is a puppy.

Coming from a family of strong willed, opinionated and fiercely independent females, there was something about Mrs. Thatcher’s confidence, ruthlessness and success as a leader that aligned with my moral compass, and still does. Whether she was a proponent of the feminist ideals, or quite the opposite, isn’t a question I can provide a straight answer to. All that I can be certain of is that Margaret Thatcher lived her life, as a politician at least, according to my version of feminism. As a leader and as a member of the political sphere, she worked twice as hard as her male counterparts - ensuring it was merit that opened doors rather than her sex. Politics of victimization wasn’t a trap Thatcher ever fell in to. She forced society to understand that women can be unpleasant, brutal and emotionless, not just nurturing, understanding and pleasant. Most importantly, her intellect and leadership were what forged her lengthy career. Perhaps her policy choices did absolutely nothing for females or equality as a whole, but I truly admire what she achieved as a woman.

Kat Henderson
Women are still oppressed.

1. Workforce: Whilst women make up 51% of the workforce, women earn on average 67c for every a $1 a man earns in Australia. A woman who graduates university with a bachelor degree will earn $1.8 million throughout her working life compared to the $3.3 million a man will earn with the same qualification, that’s a $1.5 million difference. Women also are more concentrated in PT and casual work, receiving less pay, less leave and fewer benefits. And the jobs women do tend to reflect the ideological position of women in the family as nurturers, carers and cleaners – that is, female dominated industries are mainly nursing, teaching, aged care and social work.

2. The Family: The 2006 Australian Census confirmed that women still do around three times as much childcare and housework as men on average and spend 6 times more time on the laundry. The most recent estimate of the value of unpaid work in the Australian economy (91 per cent of which was household work, and 63 per cent of which was performed by women) was $261 billion in 1997, which equated to 48 per cent of Australia's Gross Domestic Product. The UN Development Program valued women’s unpaid or underpaid labour in the world at $11 trillion. That’s $11 trillion the capitalists have saved through oppressing women.

3. Sexuality: Furthermore, this kind of inequality means that the stereotypes of man as the protector and the provider, the woman as caring, loving wife and mother, dependent on the man and devoted to her children, are to an extent reflected in the oppressive reality of family life. The emphasis on monogamy and women’s role as mothers and nurturers also lays the basis for the denial of women’s sexual needs and in turn, their treatment as sex objects. For women, you can’t win. If we enjoy sex, we’re “sluts”. If we decline sex, we’re frigid. For women, sex isn’t a pleasure but something that is expected and is to be endured. If we kiss another woman we’re only doing it because our boyfriends like it (to paraphrase Katy Perry), so our sexuality is completely trivialised and exists for the titillation of men.
4. Autonomy: Women don’t even have control over their own bodies – there are only 2 states in Australia where abortion is not a crime. 70 000 women die a year from unsafe abortions.
5. Appearance: Then there’s women’s appearance which is constantly scrutinized from every aspect, whereby if you don’t mimic the appearance of Barbie (whose measurements wouldn’t enable her to stand up if she was converted into a real person) you’re ugly, undesirable and need to engage in some retail therapy, diet, or cosmetic surgery pronto. Not only does capitalism create these insecurities, it profits off them. So while the ruling class are making money, 1/5 12 yr old females in Australia use fasting and vomiting to lose weight and 1/4 wants plastic surgery. 1/100 adolescent females in Australia suffer anorexia.
This is but a snapshot of women’s oppression today.

Tonile Wortley
I think gender inequality still exists in western society because we allow it to exist. We may not want it to, but everything about our inherently patriarchal society sets up gender equality for inevitable failure. I am always irritated when, after a woman is appointed to the head position in an organisation, the media raves about how wonderful it is that a woman is in charge. And yet, when a man is appointed to a position of equal importance, his gender is never a factor in acknowledging his success.
In 2013, there should be nothing remarkable about a woman running a company, or a state, or a country. If a woman was the best candidate for the role, we should celebrate the success of her triumph and avoid passing comment on how fantastic it is that a woman was chosen as ‘the best’. A woman being appointed to a position of power will always be big news, but gender cannot remain a factor if we want to leave inequality behind. If we place importance on gender, we are encouraging the opinion that woman are less valuable than their male counterparts and are also less likely to secure powerful positions.  
I respectfully tip my hat to all the wonderful, powerful women working hard around the world. I just hope that the generations of women after them have a healthier understanding of their worth and value to society.


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