Power and privilege: equity sticking points

Restructuring of society and institutions needed

Joan Lemaire
Senior Vice President

September 4 will be the 20th anniversary of the 4th United Nations (UN) World Conference on Women, where secretary-general of the conference Gertrude Mongella roused the of delegates with her call to action: “This historic conference is not about business as usual. It is about changing the status quo which is characterised by inequality.”

As the ACTU advisor to the Australian Government delegation and one of the 13,000 attendees at the Conference, I found the days that followed inspiring, challenging, and on occasion disappointing. The debates around the Platform for Action for gender equality canvassed a gamut of views, including some male and female delegates to the conference opposing policy and strategies that would “allow” women in some countries inheritance and property rights, prohibit child labour, provide girls with equal access to primary education, support equal pay, and address violence and discrimination directed at women and girls.

After a week of long days and nights of debate and strong lobbying by non-government organisations attending a nearby forum, the Platform for Action was finished. It set policy for both the UN and member nations. The Platform for Action fundamentally changed the focus and direction from previous policy and actions set by the first UN World Conference for Women in Mexico in 1975. The conference called for “the integration and full participation of women in development”, the elimination of gender discrimination, gender equality and an increased contribution by women in strengthening world peace.

Rather than focusing on legislation and policies that would integrate women into existing structures and legislate against discrimination that could flow from this process, the Platform for Action identified the need to shift the focus to unequal power relationships within countries and their institutions. The UN Division of Women in their review of the strategies adopted between 1975 and 1995 determined: “the need to shift the focus on women to the concept of gender, recognising the entire structure of society and all relations between men and women within it had to be re-evaluated. Only by such a fundamental restructuring of society and its institutions could women be fully empowered to take their rightful place as equal partners with men in all aspects of life.”

This approach meant and promoting the benefits of gender equality for both men and women.

The difference in the approach can be illustrated by girls’ education strategies adopted during the late 1970s and 1980s, which focused on increasing participation of girls in maths and science and encouraged girls to take on male dominated professions and trades. There was not a similar push to encourage boys to succeed in English and the humanities or to pursue careers in highly feminised occupations. While it was recognised that there was the prospect of higher pay for girls in male dominated trades and careers, there was no challenge to the view that highly feminised areas of employment in teaching, nursing and care should be equally valued. When girls began to achieve higher results in the HSC there was a strong reaction from the media and other groups suggesting that girls had been advantaged at the expense of boys. There was no analysis of the fact that despite girls achieving these results there was still a significant pay gap between male and female earnings and an under representation of women in the most highly paid positions.

Rather than support a debate that attempted to set girls and boys’ interests as binary opposites, or try to establish one group or other as competing victims, Federation pursued a gender equity policy. This was based on the need, identified in the Platform for Action, to look at inequality and power relationships within society and its institutions.

Federation’s gender equity strategies are based on an understanding of the construction of gender and an understanding of different relationships of power and privilege. These strategies recognised that not all men or women have the same opportunities, and access to education, careers and institutions in society. Class, race, culture, poverty and sexuality all play a role in terms of how some groups are advantaged or disadvantaged.

Unions have fought for job security, paid parental and maternity leave, equal pay for work of equal value, against discrimination based on sex, age, gender, sexuality, safe workplaces and improved pay and conditions. But at the same time successive state and federal governments have slashed public services and public sector jobs, promoted privatisation and increased competition.

Industrial relations laws have restricted workers’ rights to organise and take action. In Australia, and many other countries, the gap between rich and poor has substantially increased. Since the launch of the Platform for Action there has been some progress towards gender equality but there hasn’t been a restructuring of society and institutions that better supports gender equality or a more equal society.

Federation will continue its campaigns, which are all based on achieving a more socially just, equal and fairer society for both women and men.

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