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Edition 39

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Putting gender back on the agenda

SHOWING A VISITOR around can be excruciating as well as exhilarating, especially when show-casing the many wonders of the place we are now proudly calling home, Tasmania. Our young international guest is a PhD student in architecture, introduced to us by mutual friends in Berlin – culturally sensitive, environmentally conscious, with exquisite manners. Also a little shy, as are we, strangers to each other until now. We whisk her away from the delights of Salamanca and the waterfront docks, first up the mountain and now on the ferry to the Museum of Old and New Art. Sun shining, water sparkling, a gentle breeze blowing. Perfect. We are eagerly anticipating her reactions to MONA. And confident she will be awed by the spectacular building, its design, engineering feats, materiality, location, and intrigued by its remarkable collection so astoundingly displayed in that magnificent space.

But right now I am squirming with embarrassment, wondering what she is making of the two red-faced, beer-swilling Australian men ignoring our efforts to negotiate a small share of the limited seating on the afterdeck. Their ample thighs spread and beefy arms flung wide, their posture, behaviour and grunted exchanges to each other could not shout more loudly that they are being dragged unwillingly by their (neatly seated) female companions on this 'wanky art gallery trip'. Proximity seems risky – our young friend too tall and foreign; the man in our group big and strong enough, but with those questionable long blond curls; and as for me, I never know whether decades of being a publicly active and unapologetic feminist can be read on my face. The need for more beer soon takes them away to stand a little unsteadily on the deck. Gratefully scrambling into the space vacated, we exchange conciliating smiles and reassuring words with their abandoned women friends. We're genuinely relieved they are from the mainland: protective of our precious Tasmania, where we live by conscious choice rather than the happenstance of birthplace, we are keen for our young visitor to take rave reviews back to Germany of our new home state.

Then MONA weaves her magic spell on us, all of us. Those very same blokes of the avoid-eye-contact-at-all-costs experience an astounding, aesthetic-driven transformation, rushing up to share their delighted exhilaration at it all. As if we were their closest and oldest friends, as if they'd survived a death-defying bungy jump rather than just entered an art gallery. The terrible beauty, the awesome power of it all jolts them awake, open, almost naked to the experience of a different way of seeing, being, feeling, thinking, understanding. Hungry for more, they hurry off so we never learn what exactly had excited them so much and so quickly. But I am desperately curious about their encounter with Greg Taylor's stunning CUNTS… and other conversations (since removed from MONA's walls, allegedly because it was so popular), comprising more than a hundred and fifty exquisite, ceramic sculptures of vulvas.

Now I am walking slowly along the wall displaying them, every one of them beautiful, each different in both visible and indefinable ways. All life-sized and all life-modelled by real women, themselves differing by age and culture as much as the shape of their vulvas. I am mesmerized by their beauty, the artist's courage, and the work's audacity. The scale and variety of the piece demolishes the cruel notion of an ideal vulva, those toxic messages to women and girls, of ever younger ages, that what they look like is more important than who they are, what they think, learn, do, achieve and contribute – and that our genitalia is in need of perfumed cosmetic intervention at best, and surgical mutilation at worst. Yes, we've come a long way baby, and this wonderful sculpture takes us further down that path while reminding us how far we still have to travel. I remember Eve Ensler talking about the thousands of women all over the world who poured out their souls in a seemingly endless stream after seeing her wonderful play The Vagina Monologues[i]. And I try to imagine the impact on the multitude of MONA visitors seeing this work, and on the women whose vulvas are its subject and its silent, nameless stars.

 

BUT HOW ARE things in genderland in Tasmania, as we move towards the middle of the twenty-first century? Is feminism (still) a dirty word here? Are we all post-feminist now? Is feminism ­– everywhere – analytically off-target, no longer needed when the mantras of individualism and personal choice make us deaf and blind to institutionalised disadvantage, persisting patterns of gender-determined disadvantage not being detectable on the pulse of personal experience? Have the feminist objectives of gender equality in all areas of life been achieved? Certainly not, according to data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics[ii], Australian Human Rights Commission[iii], the OECD[iv] and the United Nations.[v] Is waving the post-feminist age gag-flag mainly a clever ploy to deflect attention from all that data, and an easy way to silence women's voices, to nullify our activism and agency? Why measure and report on something which doesn't exist, or at least doesn't matter? There you go, silly (old?) women, making a big fuss about nothing again.

I am finding the relative silence on gender issues in Tasmania a bit unnerving, when so much else seems to be on the move in this special island state. It's especially puzzling given the effectiveness of activism in Tasmania surrounding other progressive social movements, including environmentalism, gay rights and now marriage equality. Is gender off the Tasmanian agenda because everyone has enough on their plate already? Or maybe other priorities seem more important – so the gender agenda can wait? (Not now Narelle, we have a world war to fight.) Or maybe things are somehow different here, that applying my mainlander's lens misses the point of what's really going on? If that's the case, shouldn't we talk about it anyway?

Undeniably there are some extraordinary women here in Tasmania. They're achieving and contributing remarkably in education, tourism and economic development, in the wonderful world of great Tasmanian food and wine (including primary production, manufacturing and sales), in literature, the visual arts, design, architecture and the wider cultural economy, as entrepreneurs and philanthropists. And women certainly appear to be prominent in public administration – our Lara Giddings is the only woman (and still the youngest?) Australian premier right now, and we boast a Tasmanian princess, Denmark's Princess Mary (nee Donaldson). Yet no one seriously suggests, by comparison, that one black president in the United States of America means there is no longer race disadvantage in the nation he leads. The gender pay gap in Tasmania stands at 89.7 per cent – the lowest nationally[vi] but this is likely because the earnings of Tasmanian men are lower relative to other parts of Australia, rather than women's being relatively higher. While women outnumber men nationally largely due to women's longer life expectancy, in Tasmania there are over thirteen thousand more of us,[vii]the greatest imbalance nationally. Do more men leave or more women move here, or both? And while there is a solid cohort of more than twenty thousand women employed in the public service, the state's largest employer, the higher you go the fewer women you find[viii] – as elsewhere. Nonetheless, Tasmania's lower than average weekly earnings[ix] means those middle-range public service salaried women are more advantaged relative to the rest of the population than their sisters on the mainland. All of this creates the impression that a fair proportion of Tasmanian women are at least comfortable and making their mark – if not (except for princesses and premiers) necessarily wielding much power where it counts.

There are also some worrying statistics, analyses by Tasmania Council of Social Service (TasCOSS)[x] show that Tasmanian women and girls are disproportionately represented amongst those experiencing poverty, homelessness, violence, sexual assault, and social exclusion. Women comprise almost 90 per cent of sexual assault victims in Tasmania and 84 per cent of victims of family violence. [xi] And Year 10 is the highest qualification for over 36 per cent of the women of Tasmania, compared to 32.4 per cent of our men[xii] – both more than 10 per cent higher than national averages, but with the Tasmanian gender gap greater. Women comprise 82.1 per cent of Tasmania's single parents[xiii] and in 2009 our rate of teenage motherhood was nearly twice the national average.[xiv] This should raise real concern about intergenerational under-education and poverty, and their intersection with gender. The circumstances and life opportunities of this significant segment of Tasmania's female population contrast uncomfortably with those of the more articulate cohort of women in the business, professional and public sectors.

 

PROGRESS TOWARDS GENDER equality would benefit Tasmania as a whole. Tasmania has the lowest labour force participation rates for both men and women,[xv]with women's lower than men's nationally. However, here in Tasmania the initial participation rate is higher for younger women,[xvi] dropping dramatically when child birth and care responsibilities take a large cohort out of the workforce altogether,[xvii] also a critical time in terms of career progression and productivity. Nearly twice as many Tasmanian women as men would prefer to be working more (paid) hours.[xviii] Women's superannuation balances are much lower and we are much less likely to have any superannuation[xix] – a serious 'sleeper' issue given women's over representation amongst older Tasmanians.[xx] Imagine the impact on Tasmania's labour participation rates, productivity and economic bottom line if structural arrangements (and cultural assumptions) facilitated gender equality in terms of work and care responsibilities. Men as well as women could better manage work and family responsibilities without damage to either, children could spend more time with both their parents, women could attain real economic independence, and men could be freer from the life-time burden of being sole/prime bread winner. The benefits in terms of enhanced well-being for individuals, families and communities would stretch far beyond purely economic indicators.

Plenty of gender-disaggregated data can be rolled out showing all is not well in Tasmania for men and boys either, in terms of education, health, incarceration, suicide and so on. But perhaps it's time to move beyond arguments about competing levels of disadvantage, beyond 'women's issues' and 'men's issues'. Tasmania would do well to focus on gender relations, based on acknowledging that the current gender settlement – as assumed, espoused or actually lived – is not perfect for anyone, the fractures showing in statistics such as those cited above. As useful as gender disaggregated data is for identifying public policy priorities and designing services, perhaps we could adopt or develop different measures to track the state of play for gender relations in Tasmania, to plan and monitor progress towards building a better place? If there is something special on the move in Tasmania, why shouldn't we lead the nation (and beyond) on the gender front? Surely it is possible to identify more satisfying, more productive gender arrangements here in Tasmania which would resonate with the experiences and hopes of men as well as women, including younger ones? ow about we explore gender arrnagments, cultural and structural, which resonate with the experiences and hopes of men as well as womenHow about we begin to talk about it?

 


References

[i]Interview of Eve Ensler by Margaret Throsby on ABC FM, 8 February 8, 2013

[ii]Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 4125.0 - Gender Indicators, Australia, July 2012, accessed online at http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4125.0~Jul%202012~Main%20Features~Contents~1

[iii]Australian Human Rights Commission, June 2010, Gender Equality Blueprint 2010 accessed online at http://humanrights.gov.au/sex_discrimination/publication/blueprint/index.html

[iv]OECD Development Centre, March 2013, Transforming social institutions to prevent violence against women and girls and improve development outcomes, accessed online at http://www.oecd.org/social/poverty/OECD_DEV_Policy%20Brief_March%202013.pdf

[v]UN Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality (IANWGE), Women Watch – Information and Resources on Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women, accessed online at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/

[vi]Women in Tasmania 2010 – information series, Department of Premier and Cabinet, accessed online 11/03/13 at http://www.dpac.tas.gov.au/divisions/cdd/information_and_resources/women_in_tasmania_2010_-_information_series

[vii]ABS June 2012

[viii]68.9% of Tasmania's public servants were women as at June 30 2009, but only 30% of those at State Service Officer level, Office of the State Service Commissioner, State Service Commissioner Annual Report 2008-2009, 'Headcount by Agency and Gender 30 June 2009' Hobart, Tasmania, 2009, Table 38Office of the State Service Commissioner, State Service Commissioner Annual Report 2008-2009, 'Headcount by Agency and Gender 30 June 2009' Hobart, Tasmania, 2009, Table 38

[ix]Women in Tasmania 2010, op.cit.

[x]TasCOSSSubmission to the Community Development Division,

Tasmanian Department of Premier and Cabinet on Tasmanian Women's Plan 2012-17, January 2012, accessed online 11/03/13 at: http://www.tascoss.org.au/Portals/0/Policy%20&%20Research/TasCOSS%20submission%20to%20Tas%20Women's%20Plan.pdf

[xi]Ibid, data for 2008

[xii]ABS, May 2010

[xiii]Women in Tasmania 2010 – information series, Department of Premier and Cabinet, accessed online 11/03/13 at http://www.dpac.tas.gov.au/divisions/cdd/information_and_resources/women_in_tasmania_2010_-_information_series

[xiv]7% c/f 4% July 30th 2011 quoted in "Managing Teen Pregnancy", presentation by Nerine Brimfield and Fiona Savory, 30 July 2011, General Practice South Antenatal Shared Care Update 2011

[xv]Department of Premier and Cabinet, Tasmania, February 2010, Women in Tasmania – Information series accessed on line at http://www.dpac.tas.gov.au/divisions/cdd/information_and_resources/women_in_tasmania_2010_-_information_series/economic_security_and_financial_independence.

[xvi]By 4.5% between the ages of 15 and 19 years old, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census 2006, "Labour force by age by sex – Tasmania", ABS, Canberra, 2007

[xvii]By almost a quarter, from 4.5% greater than younger men at ages 15-19 to 17.9% less at ages 25-34, Ibid

[xviii]9.8% for women compared to 5% for men, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Force Australia February 2010, ABS, Canberra, 2012

[xix]Dept. Premier and Cabinet Tasmania, op.cit.

[xx]As at June 2009, 72.1% of Tasmanians over the age of 90 were women,Dept. Premier and Cabinet Tasmania, op.cit.


From Griffith Review Edition 39: TASMANIA – The Tipping Point? © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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