Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Review: The Misogyny Factor, by Anne Summers

The 1970s were an extraordinary time for women. Finally, they were speaking out and taking action for matters that were specific and important to women; letting society know that how they were being treated was not ok. 

Fast-forward forty years later to 2012. Australia has its first female Prime Minister, a female Governor General, as well as a number of female MPs. While this progress is something to be proud of to some extent, how far has Australia really succeeded in terms of women's issues since the 1970s? That's the question Summers explores in The Misogyny Factor.

Summers begins with the matter-of-fact statement that despite the aforementioned 'achievements' of women, the state of women's affairs in Australia is little to gloat about. Sure, more women are in positions of leadership than ever before, but to what extent does that reflect society's acceptance and support of women in these positions? Just how inclusive is Australian society of women, particularly in terms of workplace involvement?

Not very, argues Summers. After all women's workforce participation, disparities in pay, the little number of women in senior company positions (which in Australia happen to be some of the lowest in the developed world for ASX listed companies), and domestic violence are all still issues affecting women despite four decades of attempts for change. In other words, the misogyny factor, which is the 'set of attitudes and entrenched practices that are embedded in most of our major institutions...that stand in the way of women being included, treated equally and accorded equally,' needs to be overcome. Importantly Summers notes that the misogyny factor is not only perpetuated by men, but by women as well. 

For example, Australia's childcare system isn't particularly accommodating to women, who tend to be the main carers for their children. In fact, it's as good as disapproving of working mothers. Why else is there no alignment between work, family and schools, not to mention a lack of affordability and accessibility, for families needing to send their children to child care? Unlike in countries like France, whose child care services are state regulated and tend to be close to schools where siblings might attend so that mothers don't have to drive across suburbs to pick up their children from various locations.

In terms of equal pay, the lifetime earning prospects of women who have spent years at university is still significantly less than men who have spent the same amount of years at university. This was one of the most shockingly pertinent points for me as a young woman, particularly when Summers states that, 'simply being a women is the major contributing factor to the [pay] gap in Australia, accounting for 60 per cent of the difference between women's and men's earnings.' To put those percentages into direct monetary figures, NSW male law graduates earned $70,300 in 2009, as opposed to the significantly lower figure of $63,500 that female law graduates earned with the same qualifications. How is this still happening in 21st-century Australia?

Summers discusses a myriad of other ways that women are excluded from full and equal participation in Australian economic and public life: if women do poorly in their job, the whole sex shares the blame; if women on Boards decide to make changes they are disliked; and if women are in positions of leadership, they are likely to have gotten there by behaving like men (which is hardly the point). Summers asks why can't the army - an organisation that orders to kill - order to not sexually attack its female members? And then there's Summers' discussion of Julia Gillard's prime ministership, and the many ways she was subject to sexual discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying. All of these points, and many more, make for an incredibly engaging read. 

If the economic potential of women was properly unlocked by appropriate support from local, state and national levels, it would have substantially positive effects on Australia's economy. If this also happened globally, then the effects on the global economy would be astronomical. In fact, 'the Economist points out that the increase in the employment of women in developed countries during the past decade has added more to global growth than China has, and that's a lot.' Hillary Clinton mentioned this at the 2011 APEC Women and the Economy Summit - facts that you can't feel anything but baffled by. And yet, for some reason, little is being done to continue unlocking the economic potential of women. Why on earth is this the case?

Summers doesn't necessarily offer any clear-cut solutions to these issues, for they are understandably too complex to be discussed within the 160-odd pages of this book. What Summers does do is offer a rational, intellectual discussion of where things have gone wrong, where proposed changes should start, and why it is so important for these changes to happen. This frank, unapologetic book is a must read for anybody curious about the issues facing women in contemporary Australian society, and it'll surely leave you wanting to know more, as it has for me.

Want More?

The Wheeler Centre recently held a session called 'Women at Work' - another insightful discussion about women's opportunities in the workforce. Listen to it here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Read more: