Why sexism persists

6 March 2022
Diane Fieldes

If more evidence was needed of the continued pervasiveness of sexism in Australian society, the response to Brittany Higgins’ allegation that she had been raped in Parliament House by a fellow Liberal Party staffer in 2021, and the outcry about Grace Tame’s refusal to smile at Prime Minister Scott Morrison at an Australian of the Year get-together earlier this year, provide it.

Higgins’ allegations, along with a historical rape allegation against Attorney-General Christian Porter being made public, prompted large protests around the country. Morrison’s response to the rallies was to tell participants that they should be grateful they weren’t being shot, while Defence Minister Linda Reynolds saw fit to refer to Higgins as a “lying cow”.

Tame’s stance likewise attracted both sympathy and conservative vitriol. Journalist and former Liberal Party staffer Peter van Onselen called her “ungracious, rude and childish”, while Jenny Morrison complained about her lack of “manners”.

Tame’s popular Twitter response was unapologetic and to the point: “The survival of abuse culture is dependent on submissive smiles and self-defeating surrenders. It is dependent on hypocrisy. My past is only relevant to the extent that I have seen—in fact I have worn—the consequences of civility for the sake of civility”.

These high-profile cases of women being mistreated by powerful men and women resonate because so many women in Australia today have been on the receiving end of this sort of sexism.

Rates of sexual assault are appallingly high. Data from Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety in 2018 indicates that one in three women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by a man they know. On average, one woman is killed per week by a domestic partner, and ten are hospitalised each day because of family violence. The Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace, released in March 2021, indicates that this is a serious issue in the workplace, not just in social or family life.

And while it is true that women today have more economic independence and legal rights than in decades past, and that many sexist ideas are no longer socially acceptable, fundamental inequalities remain in every facet of Australian society.

At work, women continue to earn less than men and are more likely to work in part-time or casual jobs. Figures from November 2021 put the gender pay gap at 13.8 percent, which translates to a difference of $255 per week for full-time work. The Financy Women’s Index, which provides a snapshot of gender equality across the Australian economy, reported last December that this gap was widening, with the Index’s “time frame to economic equality” now standing at 59 years.

Women face a series of other barriers in working life. Lack of childcare and difficulties associated with having and caring for children while working are a key one. The shortage of social services, from paid maternity leave to decent aged care for elderly family members, all affect women’s participation in the labour market. Forty percent of employers still do not offer anything above the government’s Parental Leave Pay of eighteen weeks at the minimum wage, and the pandemic has highlighted the terrible conditions inside aged care. Where necessary and high-quality care is denied to those who need it, women almost invariably take the financial hit to fill the breach.

The burden of domestic work also falls disproportionately on women. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, almost two-thirds of the total work women perform in a week is unpaid, compared to just over 36 percent for men. The value of this work is equivalent to about 50.6 percent of GDP.

Sexism permeates every aspect of life. Pop culture is saturated with demeaning, hyper-sexualised or otherwise stereotyped portrayals of women. We are still bombarded with images of how women should behave and look. Advertising uses women’s bodies to sell more products.

There is increasing pressure on women to conform to impossible and harmful stereotypes, leading to a situation in which women, even as young as mid-teens, are anxious to undertake cosmetic surgery in the pursuit of the supposedly ideal body or face. Then, at the other end of life, cosmetic surgery is promoted as the way to retain youthful allure to men. And insultingly, this is all packaged as women doing things “for ourselves”.

Far from gender stereotypes having anything positive about them, they reinforce and normalise harassment and commonplace abuse. An estimated 90 percent of sexual assaults go unreported, in part because abusive behaviour between men and women is accepted as natural or unavoidable.

This reflects and reinforces the fundamentally unequal position of women in relation to production and the broader economy.

It is often said that capitalism doesn’t oppress women, men do. We often experience sexism through individuals’ bigotry or abusive behaviour. But so long as there is real structural inequality, ideas that justify this will make sense to people, regardless of how much diversity training they are subject to. To eradicate bigotry, we need to smash the structurally unequal, hierarchical system of capitalism.

Capitalism is a system not only of exploitation and economic inequality, but also many forms of oppression, i.e. the unequal treatment of various groups based on perceived racial, sexual, national or other differences. In the case of women, the system depends on women both as a source of cheap labour and to perform the unpaid labour of rearing future workers and providing caring services the state refuses to pay for.

Women’s worse position in the workforce vis-à-vis men means bosses make more profits from their labour. For women, it has disastrous social consequences, affecting their self-confidence, economic independence, personal choices and standard of living.

For working-class families, for example, economic necessity dictates that the higher-earning parent should continue working while the other looks after the children, regardless of the wishes of those involved. Given the gender pay gap, this is the key reason why it is mainly women workers and not men who leave full-time work once they have children. This creates a situation in which women tend to be economically dependent on men, which affects relationship dynamics. And it has a cumulative effect that means women tend to end their working lives with much less superannuation, savings and assets than their male counterparts.

Low pay and less financial independence give legitimacy to sexist social attitudes, especially the idea that women’s key role and natural desires are to care for others, with paid work secondary. While this massively disadvantages working-class women, it benefits the capitalist class by cutting their wages bill and undermining solidarity between women and men.

The family is the other key site of women’s structural oppression. It is where the vital work of raising and socialising children is done—as far as the bosses are concerned, an extremely efficient and cost-effective mechanism for producing the next generation of workers. As the most recent Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey indicates, the total working time (paid plus unpaid hours) undertaken by women (and men) dramatically increases when they have dependent children, most of which is an increase in unpaid work. In 2019, partnered women without dependent children on average worked a total of 48.5 hours per week, while partnered women with dependent children worked 75.7 hours per week.

Within the family, women’s roles are loaded with expectations and responsibilities that do not apply to men, particularly regarding caring for young children. Bosses also use the stereotyped idea that the proper place for women is caring for children at home, not working for a wage, to justify low wages for women. Government policy and service provision (or the lack of it) acts to promote and further entrench this reality.

The idealised nuclear family is also the basis for the oppression of those whose gender identity or sexuality does not conform to the norms assumed by the family structure. The liberation of women is therefore inseparable from that of LGBTI people.

All this is the backdrop against which sexist ideas are created and normalised. Sexism provides justification for this structural oppression. It ensures women stick within their set gender roles such as being seen as nurturing or subservient.

The hyper-sexualised presentation of women that is common today encourages both women and men to view women primarily as objects. Even worse, it promotes the expectation that women should actively embrace their sexual objectification, rather than question or challenge the relentlessly sexist and demeaning presentation of women. The only beneficiaries of this are advertising executives, the beauty industry and associated parasites such as the sex industry bosses who say sex work is empowering.

All this helps to explain why, although capitalism has held out the promise of equality between men and women, it cannot deliver it for the vast majority of women. Only a tiny minority of fabulously wealthy women can escape the harshest aspects of oppression, and frequently this is dependent on the provision of cheap cleaning, child-minding and other services by low-paid women workers. So while it is possible for some privileged women to climb the corporate ladder today, they do so, like all bosses do, on the backs of exploited working-class people.

Keeping people in their place, and forcing those oppressed and marginalised in capitalism to accept their lot is fundamental to running a modern capitalist state, even at the same time as CEOs and politicians mouth off about diversity and inclusion. This explains why the Morrison government voted against 49 of the 55 recommendations from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work report being included in legislation, despite simultaneously feigning horror at the sexist culture of the federal parliament.

Equal pay, access to birth control and abortion, better maternity leave, and free and reliable childcare are all gains that would massively improve the lives of all workers, men as well as women. They are also things that bosses, regardless of gender, have fought against, historically and today. To rid ourselves of sexist attitudes entirely means we need to rid ourselves of the economic structure in which they are rooted.

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