The Age (Melbourne)
20 March 2010
By Kelsey Munro
Three ideas you won't hear in Parliament: introducing quotas to guarantee a number of women MPs; making half the senior public service jobs part-time to encourage more women to apply; or mandating paternity leave to ensure child-rearing is more fairly shared.
Yet while the po-faced feminism of old has become, as writer and academic Rebecca Huntley puts it, "daggy or passe", a new front is opening up.
In this election year in Britain, for example, academic Fiona Mackay detects a resurgence under way. A run of new books is reinvigorating the topic, including Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, by Natasha Walter; The Equality Illusion, by Kat Banyard; and a reissue of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.
There's new energy in campus women's groups and gender studies courses; a blooming of feminist blogs; and membership of the venerable British women's group the Fawcett Society jumped 25 per cent last year, she says.
Research suggests that while the term "feminist" might be out of favour with young women, its central tenet of equal rights and opportunities is anything but. "It's hard to tell, but I think something is happening, that women are getting angry again," says Mackay, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Edinburgh. "There are a lot of really uncomfortable truths about the fact that women's position is still disadvantaged, and it's systematic. It can't be explained away as a series of choices."
Yes, 1970s-era feminism is finished, a victim, according to some narratives, of its own success. In Western countries feminism achieved the mainstreaming of once-radical claims for women's rights to self-determination, Huntley says.
But then it split into warring factions preoccupied with incompatible concerns and sometimes self-defeating trivialities: the cosmetics of sexual empowerment versus exploitation, gender separatism and glass ceilings.
Today those fights continue around the fringes, while in the centre is the harsh reality: a 17 per cent pay gap and scandalously low representation of women in Parliament and on corporate boards mean that even in Australia there is still a long way to go to achieve true equality, says Professor Louise Chappell, a researcher in gender and politics at the University of NSW.
With women making up only 27 per cent of lower house MPs and 35 per cent in the Senate, Australia is on a par with Afghanistan, but doing better than the US (16 per cent in Congress) and Britain (close to 20 per cent). However, we lag behind Cuba (43 per cent), Sweden (46 per cent) and Rwanda (56 per cent).
"Those countries where women have higher representation are countries that have quotas," Chappell says. "Quotas are not the perfect solution, because … there are debates about the best person not getting the job. [But] without those sort of measures it's really hard to overcome entrenched stereotypes."
Huntley says that while there are notable women such as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the experience of a few striking individuals does not represent the reality of women's power in politics.
Gillard says that instead of parliamentary quotas, the onus should be on political parties to recruit candidates of merit from "particular groups".
Since 2002, the ALP has required 35 per cent of candidates for winnable seats to be women, but the Liberals are against resorting to quotas.
Finding ways to boost female representation is important, says Karen Beckwith, a political science professor from Case Western University in Cleveland, who, along with Huntley, Mackay, Chappell and others, will debate the new fronts of feminism and politics in Sydney on Monday.
"Women constitute half the population ... I see no reason why they shouldn't constitute half the elected government," Beckwith says. "Women constitute a majority in university, in postgraduate study. We should be asking, what's wrong here?"
The US party system requirement for independently financed, self-nominated political candidacy erects barriers, she says. But she sees some progress.
"Parties have been responsive ... because they think that by running a woman against an incumbent they may be able to win when there's a perceived gender gap, a marginal district, or a man who's behaved in a scandalous way."
Dr Susan Goodwin, a senior lecturer in policy studies at the University of Sydney, who is also joining the debate, sees a novel alternative to the revival of affirmative action. She says the time demands of management jobs effectively preclude mothers from advancing to higher positions, and that creating part-time senior roles in the public service would change that.
"Many men just don't seem to feel they have to be devoted to their family in the same way women do … It means those women with kids doing senior jobs are under all this additional pressure and men aren't," Goodwin says.
Which takes us back to feminism's oldest battlefield: the domestic sphere. While women have become more involved in the paid workforce, research repeatedly shows men have taken up little of the slack at home. A solution for those who can afford it is to hire a cleaner or use childcare - to outsource what men won't take on. For those who can't, women still tend to carry the burden of household duties.
"We haven't necessarily got men taking on some of those [domestic] responsibilities or redefining those roles," Huntley says. "The solution … is not just to kick this work down the food chain."
Taking time off to raise children is a factor affecting women's position in many ways, from the pay gap to less superannuation to career seniority.
Says Mackay: "Having a human life which involves caring for other people shouldn't have such a detrimental effect on your career."
Both major parties in Australia "support" flexible work conditions, and paid parental leave is finally on the political agenda. In the US, it's a distant dream, but in Britain statutory maternity pay lasts 39 weeks.
Chappell points out that feminism has a lot of work to do in the many countries where women still have few rights and are subject to sex trafficking and other abuses. But a reinvigorated, diverse feminism has a lot to say in advanced industrialised countries, too, she says.
"These inequalities are still the product of policies and decision-making that's happening within political institutions and workplaces. Feminism offers a way of critically thinking about it and really shining a light on these things."