Margaret Reynolds once argued that there were male ‘factions’ in parliament that disadvantaged women. She then proposed that if more women became politicians, there would be a ‘level playing field’ that would help balance equity, and fulfill a ‘democratic deficit’ in parliament. This is a similar process in workforce recruitment, as women have to compete with men for work, and fill positions that require women at the same time. Social institutions mainly emphasize concepts of the level playing field so that both men, and women, can find work within them fairly. It promotes unbiased opportunities in the workforce, so that all ‘players’ will be treated equally. (Reynolds in GEN14 2012, p.7-8)
Women have always had strong views and opinions about seeking independence and equality in Australia, as ‘femocrats’ (feminist bureaucrats) have been upholding the rights of women since the late 60s and early 70s (Eisentein in GEN14 2012, p.9). They have since succeeded in bettering the access of women to social institutions, and have helped establish the following concerns, aided by the Labour party through the National Agenda for Women (1988):
education and training; paid workforce experience; caring, voluntary and domestic work; childcare; income security; violence against women and children; assaults on the dignity of women and through the media and pornography; health and other matters. The special needs of aboriginal women; women from non-English speaking backgrounds; older women; and women living in rural areas were identified (Weeks in GEN14 2012, p.10).
If we were to imagine the absence of a ‘level playing field’ and the scenarios women may encounter in social institutions because of it, there would be many issues stemming from a lack of fulfillment of the needs and concerns of women. Let’s now examine a few of them.
Securing a suitable income would become an issue, as more women might feel a lack of ‘incentivisation’ (the belief that economic progress and wellbeing follows from individuals being given the incentive to take the responsibility) (GEN14 2012, p.11) to work. Instead, they will have to seek economic independence from elsewhere. Whether it’s from members of their family, spousal support, or government welfare, these sources of income will only underline the gap in full-time pay rates between men and women. Insome areas, (South Australia, for example) the gap has been reported to be significant, with women’s earnings only ‘about 85% of men’s (counting only full-time, average weekly, ordinary time earning)’ (Pocock in GEN14 2012, p.18). This earning gap will surely become worse with a continued lack of women in the workforce. In addition, not encouraging women to seek full-time employment will increase the ‘overrepresentation of women and young people and the less educated’ (Richardson & Harding in GEN14 2012, p.16) as was found in the survey among part-time workers in the late 90s.
A related concern is what happens to the self worth of women, and their economic value, as they will struggle to maintain benefits, such as equal pay, or availability of employment. It will also affect their status in social environments by encouraging others to identify them as inadequate. Women will be viewed without aspiration, as they assume more traditional roles. For example, they could revert to being known as the ‘angel of the house’ whose responsibilities were that of maintaining the ‘private world of the home’ (GEN14 2012, p. 5). This will impact the ‘feminisation’ of poverty, as more women will pursue families instead of work, because of increased difficulty in accessing full time work with all its attendant benefits (GEN14 2012, p. 15-16). Although, we need to remember ‘that not all women want to work full-time and, indeed, many do want to stay at home’ (Johnson in GEN14 2012, p.15).
The lack of a ‘level playing field’ can impact more than simple male and female roles. Different levels of equality between women (in terms of class, race, and age) will also be questioned. And how ‘formal equality’ (that ‘entails treating everyone the same without regard to differences emanating from sex and other characteristics, thereby ignoring the potentially devastating effect of equal treatment on those who are not similarly situated to the benchmark’ (Thornton in GEN14 2012, p.12)) will be affected. This could lead to inter-feminist factions which might enact a ‘powerful counter assault on women’s rights’ (Faludi in GEN14 2012, p.11) such as those which occurred in America as old ways of feminist thinking came under fire. This might even weaken the feminist cause by reinforcing stereotypes about ‘cat fighting’ amongst women. However, these factions give voice to minority feminists and have led to the eventual rise of current third wave feminism.
The most detrimental place we could imagine the absence of the level playing field would be in the Australian government. Without women playing ‘femocrat’ roles within parliament, ‘brokering the policies and programs’ (Yeatmen in GEN14 2012, p.11) towards women’s rights no programme of improvement could be suggested, devised or implemented within society. This will also affect our current topic of gender studies, in which the humanities could be further ‘radically at risk from economic and corporate culture determined to prove its own aggressive masculinity’ (Threadgold in GEN14 2012, p.11) as institutions who currently participate in the studies of women by gender, will detach themselves from it.
In summary, the absence of the level playing field would influence many areas of the way women live their lives, whether it’s employment, socialization, or the ability to meet their needs. Women who seek equality in such an unequal context would struggle to avoid society’s negative views and perceptions of them, as the idea of women being leveled with men might be poorly received. Indeed, as I’m sure the feminists who paved the way for our current ‘level playing field’ can attest, the path toward equality has been hard fought.
GEN14 Defining Women: Social Institutions and Cultural Diversity Study Guide, 2012, Griffith University, Brisbane.