Judging what is and isn’t fair is far more dependent on personal values and our view of how the world should operate than an objective set of principles we all share.
I’ve been having a lot of conversations about this lately – particularly in the Defence Force where significant work is being done to address gender equality and as a result a lot of people think women are getting an unfair advantage, while lowering standards.
Some of the same themes were also in my mind when I read the data released recently by the Human Rights Commission on pregnancy discrimination (part of the National Review on discrimination related to pregnancy, parental leave and return to work).
Half the mothers interviewed had encountered discrimination when expecting a child or returning to work, and 37% were threatened with redundancy or dismissal. Sadly, this bleak picture hasn’t really shifted in years despite claims to the contrary.
The reason for some of this shoddy treatment is the belief that having mothers in the workforce at all – and paying them maternity leave – is fundamentally unfair to others. Women (not men apparently) make the decision to have children so it’s only fair they should have to pay for the consequences, I’ve been told.
This view is often the result of some core beliefs: that mothers really belong at home with their children, and anyway, after giving birth they just don’t have the drive; and Australia’s continuing strong adherence to the male breadwinner model.
If men are seen as the right and natural occupants of this role then any efforts to keep mothers in paid work must seem unnecessary, expensive and of course unfair because they are may be taking jobs from more deserving men.
The sceptics also seem to equate maternity leave with a holiday and women’s income as discretionary – ignoring the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and the increasing number of women with kids who simply need to have a job.
The same kind of ideas about who is naturally suited to and deserves jobs also bubble just under the surface in discussions about including more women in the ADF. Why are any changes needed when it seems perfectly clear to some ADF members that women don’t want the jobs, are not suited to them, go off and have babies, and could let the team down?
It’s an extra challenge to have this discussion in an organisation with a strong emphasis on physical strength and a warrior culture and to establish it’s not about reducing capability but building it, particularly as demand for recruits remains high and many jobs are transformed.
And it doesn’t matter that most of these assumptions are simply that – and have been disproved by the small but increasing number of women already successfully working in many jobs across the ADF.
After talking to a group of uniformed ADF employees this week, one of my colleagues turned to me and said “what are they afraid of?”
It was a good question. The group we were talking to were doing jobs most of us would never have the physical courage to do and yet the objections to involving women did seem to stem from a real fear of losing something fundamental about their ability to perform, their status and impact.
Underlying the unfairness lament is the same deep unease that drives pregnancy discrimination – those traditional beliefs about who really has the right to these roles, adherence to traditional family and social norms, and fear of more competition not just for jobs but for power.
When you are afraid you are certainly not in the right frame of mind to listen, analyse and carefully process change. In fact, you are more likely to cling tenaciously to the familiar, and justify the status quo.
No wonder many efforts to address bias and the uneven playing field get howled down and the backlash is so potent. Fairness for those who have not thrived in current male-dominated workplaces can quite quickly seem like a big, scary dose of looming unfairness to others.