Is feminism still relevant?

Posted in: Bloggery

The political landscape has changed quite dramatically over the last few weeks. Julia Gillard, in her farewell speech as Prime Minister, said “I do want to say the reaction to being the first female prime minister does not explain everything about my time in the prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership.”

Julia Gillard was condemned for playing the ‘gender card’ when she spoke about ‘men with blue ties’, which quite a few gender equality proponents felt was a misstep, although to others it achieved its goal of wedging Tony Abbot on abortion.  Her earlier ‘Misogyny’ speech to Tony Abbot was broadcast worldwide on YouTube and received much support internationally.

The word “feminist” can be provocative and emotional for some women. Some younger women these days find it hard to associate themselves with a radical feminist tag and may cringe at the thought that the feminist label would be attributed to them. Yet women these days are very fortunate that generations of women who have gone before them have fought hard for the rights that many take for granted today. Thanks to the achievements of feminists in the sixties and seventies, Australia has gender equality legislation and many younger women today do not experience the blatant sexism and discrimination that existed in workplaces decades ago. Women are better off now than ever before –women are emerging in greater numbers in many traditionally male professions such as engineering and science. A woman has held our highest political office and we have the first female Governor General.

Yet equality has still not been achieved in Australian workplaces. Although over 50 percent of university graduates are women, only around 9% of executive officer positions and less than 4% of Board directorships in the ASX 200 are held by women.  Many people used to believe that if you simply filled the pipeline with women graduates, over time they would rise to the top on merit without the need for further intervention. This is clearly not happening. Then there is the pay gap, which is as large as ever and widening, with women in Australia earning about 86 cents for every dollar earned by men. Where does feminism fit into this scenario?

A whole new discourse is emerging around feminism, following the publication of Anne Summers’ recent book, The Misogyny Factor and the Victorian Women’s Trust ‘Switch in Time’ examination of misogyny in politics. We are also reading an escalating social media commentary with the emergence of the Destroy The Joint movement, which was catalysed by Alan Jones’ misogynist comments as well as some recent online disputes between various feminist thinkers.  So, how do we describe feminism in this context and are we seeing the emergence of a third-wave of feminism?

Susan Faludi describes feminism as the freedom for women to define themselves instead of having their identity defined for them’[1] Perhaps this is a description that younger women today can relate to. It seems to have been the guiding imperative for many of the women leaders profiled in the Macfarlan Lane publication Sideways to the Top, to be released late July.  These leaders defined their careers for themselves rather than waiting for others to determine their careers for them. They found their own voice, they took charge of their careers rather than expecting or waiting for their employer to recognise them, or put them on specific high potential or women leaders programs or allocated mentors to them. These leaders and sought out their own sponsors, navigated their own career development; they were not afraid to step up and ask for pay rises when they were due, and they refused to be captive to an organisation’s culture or limitations.

Did they experience blatant sexism or discrimination, or the glass ceiling?  Yes, some definitely did. Others saw their gender as being an advantage in business. Yet others did not personally experience sexism, but knew of women who had, or had observed it at work.  Many of them recalled examples of the gender double standard, where women were intentionally or unintentionally ignored, marginalised, expected to work harder, had fewer opportunities, were judged more harshly for mistakes, or were held to different standards than men. There was general agreement that women often face more barriers to becoming leaders than men in the corporate world, and that discrimination, bias and stereotyping holds back many women from realising their potential. It is one of the reasons many women reject the corporate world and pursue self-employment in order to succeed.

As Heather Carmody concludes in her chapter in our book, The Gloves Are Off in The Diversity War, “CEO’s need to hear the following message: if you can’t attract, develop and promote women, you know you’re losing ground in the labour market and workplace culture. If a bunch of lookalike blokes is the best you can do and best you want to do, you can be certain you will have a problem. Those blokes are a shrinking pool. The growth is with non-lookalike blokes … and women.”

Feminism is still relevant today because women and men are still not yet on an equal playing field. We need to continue to challenge the beliefs, stereotypes, attitudes and behaviours that are barriers to women progressing if we wish to retain them in large corporates. Otherwise we will see an increasing number of women opting out and establishing their own businesses – to their great benefit but to the corporate world’s great loss.

This month’s blog has been written by Norah Breekveldt, Director of Macfarlan Lane.


[1] Faludi, S. (1992) Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women. London: Chatto & Windus