Monday, December 05, 2005

Tania Domett and Jacqui True: Fight continues for gender equality

Tapu Misa's comment in her Wednesday column describing New Zealand as "toxic for men" and "a haven for powerful women" is somewhat overstating things.

It is true that the Prime Minister, the Governor-General, the Speaker of the House and the Chief Justice are all women. It is also true that the CEO of our largest company, Telecom, is a woman. Apart from these exceptional women, however, the status of New Zealand women in general is a little shakier.

Some examples: recent statistics report that the gender pay gap has widened so that women now earn 82 per cent of men's pay - much less than the 87 per cent they earned last year. Within New Zealand's top 500 companies, in 2000, only 2.4 per cent of senior managers were women.

Women are still overwhelmingly concentrated in occupations that afford low pay and few protections. Women make up 72.4 per cent of the part-time work force, yet only 37.3 per cent of full-time workers, impacting on them financially and professionally. And, last year, Women's Refuge helped 22,500 women and children to escape violent relationships.

Dame Silvia Cartwright, contemplating the retirement of our famous women leaders, said in a recent address, "Do you really believe that we will all be replaced by women? This, I think, is an event a bit like Haley's Comet, only to be seen on rare occasions and perhaps more faintly each time it occurs."

Misa writes that feminism has given women the "freedom to choose". Certainly, legal and institutional changes have established a formal equality between men and women. Yet, life choices are often mediated by social norms that are bound up in gender, culture and often class.

As a consequence, some people are more free than others to chart their life course.

While Misa's daughter may presently be a "living testament to the triumphs of feminism", this is unlikely to last, unless we experience societal change. As the younger generation enters the labour market, and, particularly, contemplates having children, they will come up against gendered notions of the proper social roles for men and women.

Men's roles are still defined primarily in terms of their involvement in the paid labour force, as breadwinners; women's in terms of their unpaid work as mothers, as caregivers, as nurturers.

This has discriminatory effects: for men who seek to involve themselves in their families as equals with their partners; for women who are criticised for the enjoyment, not to mention financial independence, that they derive from their paid work roles.

Furthermore, it is ironic that even as society continues to hold women primarily responsible for the family, those women that do choose to be stay-at-home mothers are often told that what they do isn't "real work".

Collective political activism generally has declined against a backdrop of rising individualism and increasing work hours. This has not only meant fewer prospects for common ground, it has also limited the free time available to try to find it. The women's movement has not been immune to these changes. However, it is definitely not "dead".

Feminists have different views on what it would mean to achieve gender equality. Some believe participation in paid work will result in gender equality, while others believe it lies as well in the systematic valuing of unpaid care work that many women, and some men, do in the home and community.

Far from being anti-male, many feminists consider encouraging men's role as fathers to be crucial to gender equality, a view shared by many in the burgeoning men's movement.

Despite the differences among women, feminists are united in our recognition of discrimination that occurs as a result of gender roles and stereotypes. Furthermore, we are united in our attempts to realise gender equality: through our advocacy, politics and everyday lives.

* Tania Domett is a researcher and Jacqui True a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Studies, University of Auckland.

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