What does the 2020 Women’s Economic Security Statement have in common with the iconic 1980’s film Working Girl?

What does the 2020 Women’s Economic Security Statement have in common with the iconic 1980’s film Working Girl?

The same outdated, discredited advice that women need to "make it happen".
working girl

In a famous scene from the iconic 1980’s film Working Girl, Sigourney Weaver’s scheming Katharine Parker advises her protégé, the striving Tess McGill (played by Melanie Griffith), that, “You don’t get anywhere in this world by waiting for what you want to come to you. You make it happen.”

Later in the film, when Katharine informs a disappointed Tess that she has missed out on a place in the executive training program, Katharine asks Tess to repeat the mantra.

“Who makes it happen,” she asks Tess. “I make it happen,” Tess dutifully replies, having drunk the “Lean In” Kool-Aid Katherine so liberally, and disingenuously, pours.

On Tuesday night, the disappointed women of Australia — women who have shouldered the lion’s share of the pandemic burden in terms of their “essential” work on the front-line, their disproportionate share of the unpaid domestic care work and their higher share of lost jobs and lost hours — were effectively told the same thing.

They might have hoped that there would be a little something for them in the 2020 Budget and the corresponding 2020 Women’s Economic Security Statement, which was released on the same night by Minister for Women Senator Marise Payne. But instead of a solid plan to tackle the highly gendered impacts of the pandemic (matched with dollars and cents to implement it), women were effectively told that “they need to make it happen”.

Let me explain.

By now we are all familiar with the shocking headlines in regards to the extent to which the budget and the corresponding economic security statement did (or did not) deliver for women.

Out of the roughly $500 billion budget, a woeful, inadequate and truly shameful $240 million has been allocated specifically to help shore up women’s economic security, as outlined by the “targeted” measures contained in the economic security statement.

As many economists quickly calculated, that amounts to one third of one percent of the entire budget, or 0.038% …..for 51 percent of the population.

Put differently, that translates into $40 per female worker, or $8 a year, until 2025.

Just let that sink in. And then consider this.

While some have suggested that the budget was wilfully designed to send women back to the 1950’s, effectively keeping them barefoot and pregnant to boost the birth rate, the decline of which is another budget headache, I actually believe that it was designed to send women back to the 1980’s driven by a largely outdated, and discredited, approach to tackling gender inequality.

That approach is all about women’s individual effort and their so-called “choices” — and not at all about the structural inequalities that stand in their way.

So, in the immortal words of Katharine Parker, who is going to have to make it happen? The short answer is, “you”, women of Australia.

And in that regard, the economic security statement has a lot in common with the mantra from Working Girl, and I believe it was offered up in the same glib, disingenuous manner of Katharine Parker.

The measures outlined in the economic security statement are essentially the same “Lean In” clap trap that this government has long relied on, focused on “fixing women” and getting them to “lean in” to male dominated industries.

Hence, the existing Women’s Leadership and Development Program has been rebranded Women@Work, with an investment of $50 million to focus on turning some, and I emphasise some, women into master builders, “enterprising girls” (whatever that means), STEM gurus, and founders. Basically, to make some women more like men.

Structural issues, like the fact that women shoulder a disproportionate amount of unpaid domestic care and that inhibits their ability to do paid work, hardly gets a look in.

Childcare? Nada. Nothing new.

The economic security statement simply restates that the current level of funding for childcare is at a “record high” of $9 billion for the 2020-21 financial year. But it fails to mention some crucial context: Australian families spend more on childcare than the OECD average, and public funding for childcare is lower than the OECD average.

So maybe it’s a “record” for Australia, but that’s starting from a relatively low bar.

As is my habit, as soon as I got my mitts on the economic security statement, I quickly checked how many times the word “choice” appears vs. the word “discrimination”. “Choice” appears 19 time vs. “discrimination”, which appears 12 times. But 7 of the “discrimination” mentions are in the footnotes, so it really only appears 5 times.

When I say, “as is my habit”, that’s because I’ve been combing through this government’s set piece women’s policy documents for a few years now in order to highlight its pre-occupation with women’s “choices” — and almost complete lack of regard for structural inequality.

I do this because I think this government’s emphasis on “choice” reveals their belief that gender inequality is almost exclusively down to women’s “choices, and their belief that it can only be remedied by women individually.  

That comes through loud and clear in the economic security statement, which is focused almost exclusively on measures to “fix women”.

Be more like men in construction, STEM… become entrepreneurs!

Make better “choices”!

In response to such tired mantras, might I humbly suggest that the women of Australia take a page out of Tess’s Working Girl playbook. Near the end of movie, she says to Katharine, “Look, maybe you can fool these guys …but DO NOT EVER speak to me again like we don’t know what really happened!”

Ladies, let’s make it perfectly clear that we will not be spoken to as if we don’t know what’s “really” happening.

Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica

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