Where have all the women gone?

The end of equality
Anne Summers

I have called this paper "Where have all the Women Gone". I hope you will both recognize - and forgive - the blatant allusion to a 1960s hit song. It was a sappy song but its sentiments were worthy. These days we have plenty of sap but perhaps not so much worthiness.

I propose to put to you that as a society we cannot claim to have addressed, let alone solved, the question of equity in the modern world if women are left out of the equation.

That might seem like rather a superfluous observation, even naïve. However, the assumption prevails that the so-called "women stuff" has all been taken care of. It's passé; so 80s, that women stuff. We're all feminists now. All the battles have been won - look at how young women can do anything.

Listen to the prime minister, John Howard on this subject: "We are in the post-feminist stage of the debate," he said about working women in 2002: "The good thing about this stage is that I think we have broken through some of the old stereotypes. I find that for the under 30s women ... the feminist battle has been won. That is not an issue. Of course, a woman has a right to a career. Of course, women are as good as men. Of course, they are entitled to the same promotion and they can do it as well. Of course. That is accepted ..."

I'm glad he thinks it's settled. As I argue in my new book The End of Equality, I think he is wrong.

Just as I think it is wrong that the term "gender" has replaced "women" in so many areas. Gender is a nice, safe academic term. It addresses theories, concepts. In the process, the actual facts of women's lives all too often get lost.

It is all very well to have "a gendered perspective", to understand power differentials and so on, but we should not lose sight of the basic conditions of women's status - in relation to men, and in relation to the goals we set ourselves a generation ago.

I think this is what has happened.

These attitudes and views have provided a convenient smokescreen that has obscured the reality in 21st Australia. Far from women having finally reached their rightful place shoulder to shoulder with men in every occupation and avocation, the reverse is true, the clock is ticking backwards.

We cannot ignore the facts of our regression.

Despite appearances to the contrary, the proportion of women in full-time employment has not increased in thirty years. More Australian women work part-time than at any time in our past, and more than in any other country in the industrialised world. In a great many cases this is not from choice - they'd rather have full-time jobs - but because of the lack of childcare and other support for working mothers.

As a consequence of working fewer hours, most women do not earn enough money to support themselves. Equal pay is a myth. Women are earning less, in relation to men, than they did a decade ago. Women's total average weekly earnings are just 66 per cent of men's. In May 2002 women averaged $555 per week while men got $839, and this was a larger gap than ten years earlier.

At the same time, the number of women totally dependent on welfare has increased to an unprecedented degree.

There are now almost one and a half times as many female-headed sole parent families with children than there were at the beginning of the 1990s and two-thirds of them are totally reliant on government support. These families receive only about half the income of families with two parents where the women are more likely to be in the workforce, even if only part time.

There are now more divorced women aged over 60 than there are widows and many of these have limited means of support due to lack of superannuation and not yet being eligible for the age pension (due to the phase in of equal retirement and qualifying ages for men and women).

As a result of all these factors, there are more women living at the economic margin, or in actual poverty, than ever before.

Many of the services women need in order to be able to participate equally in society, such as childcare, simply are neither adequate nor affordable.

There is, in fact, a childcare crisis in this country, with estimates of a shortfall of as many as a million places needed to meet the demand; in addition, the cost of care exceeds the means of all but the most well-off of parents.

For many parents and, especially, for women who want employment, this crisis in childcare is a constant source of anxiety and even panic.

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