I’ve just returned from a short holiday in Queensland with my family. But while I was away, I kept up on the news and, as some may have noticed, got more than a little bit Twitter peeved when Scott Morrison announced the “Mid-Career Checkpoint Initiative” on Monday.
As I said on Twitter, I don’t think Scott Morrison or the Coalition government would recognise a good, effective policy to increase women’s workforce participation rates — even if Tina Arena sang a number one song about it. (An aside, I do dearly hope Ms. Arena takes up my invitation to apply her considerable creative talents to the topic, as I recently promised a policy wonk friend that I would do my bit to make this vital issue less beige.)
This “Checkpoint” initiative reinforces the prejudice that it is women returning to work after children who need to be “fixed” because they lack “skills”. Computer skills, curiously enough, seem to be something particularly vulnerable to the effects of baby brain, if you believe the Coalition.
What about the 1 in 2 women who experience pregnancy discrimination? Or the OECD report that found Australia’s lack of affordable childcare and flexibility are key barriers for women who want to work or work more hours?
Drawing on my personal experience, I feel quite strongly that the recruitment consultant I met with six years ago when I first moved to Australia – the one who spent an hour asking me about the ages of my children and childcare arrangements before declining to short list me for a role he conceded I had all the right skills and qualifications for because I “was a mum” and “my heart wouldn’t be in it” — could do with “interview tips”, not me.
The Coalition’s Mid-Career Checkpoint Initiative is the paternalistic, patronising policy equivalent of patting a woman on the head, telling her she is a “good girl” and just needs to “try harder”. (Oh wait, that did actually happen. Remember when Liberal MP Jane Hume went on Q&A a year ago and said women should “work harder” to get into Parliament?)
But the more I thought about it, I concluded that it’s far worse than that. It isn’t just this particular initiative that has a bee in my lady bonnet. This initiative is just another example of Scott Morrison and the Coalition government’s long track record of gaslighting the women of Australia into thinking that the inequalities they experience are, in fact, their own fault.
To test this hypothesis, I went back and re-read the Coalition’s Women’s Economic Security Statement closely, which was released in November of last year to much fanfare by Kelly O’Dwyer, the Coalition’s current Minister for Women. No, this is not what I had envisioned reading poolside while on holiday – but needs must.
O’Dwyer boldly claimed that she initiated the statement to “shine a floodlight on the barriers that limit women building their financial security and focus on practical measures to help change that”.
But the language in the statement belies that intention.
Big on words like “choice” (which appears 13 times throughout the 51 page document, which, spoiler alert, is also entitled, “Greater Choice for Australian Women”), the statement has little time for any of the barriers Australian and international experts have long concluded underpin women’s inequality and result in their economic insecurity. The latter is a symptom of the former.
The word “discrimination”, for example, appears only three times in the document, one time in relation to age discrimination and two times as part of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkin’s job title. Try to find any mention of the wonky sounding, but vitally important, term systemic barriers or inequalities and you’ll come up blank, except in reference to the extra fees women with low pensions balances are more likely to accumulate. Ditto for the concept of sexism.
What’s more, re-reading the document again, I was struck by it’s almost complete lack of intersectionality. The word disability, for example, only appears two times, once in reference to total permanent disability insurance policies and one time in reference to board scholarships for women working in the disability sector.
The problem is that Morrison, O’Dwyer and the Coalition government consistently view the gender gap almost entirely through the so-called “deficit” or “DIY” empowerment model but seem blind (either deliberately or unconsciously) to discrimination and structural inequality.
You cannot credibly seek to address women’s economic (in)security without acknowledging the systemic barriers and discrimination that underpin it, or the particularly intersected forms of discrimination that are more likely to affect some women.
Women need “tools” and “support” to make the “best decisions” the Coalition consistently tells us, the implication being — in the Economic Security Statement and peppered throughout all the statements and policies from Morrison, O’Dwyer and the Coalition in relation to this policy area– that women’s poor decisions or bad “choices” and nothing else account for the inequality they experience.
In short, women are the problem and women need to be “fixed”. And this, in my view, is where the gaslighting comes in.
To gaslight is to psychologically manipulate a person to the point where they question their own reality. The term originates from a 1938 play, Bella Manningham, in which a man named Jack terrorises his wife into questioning her reality by blaming her for misplacing household items that he has actually been systematically hiding.
In my view, Morrison, O’Dwyer and the Coalition have been systemically hiding discrimination and systemic inequalities from view in favour of a disingenuous emphasis on women’s “choices”, which surely has led many women to question their own sanity when coming up against those barriers on an almost daily basis.
Are they actually to blame? The short answer is, no! It’s not just a philosophical difference. It’s the difference between evidence based, effective policies and utter nonsense.
In this election, where the women’s vote is proving decisive as never before, no less than four separate expert organisations have provided scorecards assessing the major political parties’ track record and proposals on so called “women’s issues”, including the Women’s Electoral Lobby, WomenVote, Fair Agenda and the Work and Family Policy Roundtable.
In all of the scorecards, the Coalition has come out behind other major parties precisely for this reason.
Sadly, the response from the Coalition has been to cry bias, with Kelly O’Dwyer claiming the Women’s Electoral Lobby, which has a well-respected forty plus year history of independent advocacy on behalf of women, is a “partisan lobby for the Labor Party”. Barnaby Joyce spotted the WomenVote scorecard on the ABC program The Drum and comically mistook it for an ABC Vote Compass product and attacked the national broadcaster for bias.
Both responses are deeply disappointing.
Instead of shouting bias, perhaps the Coalition should explore their own bias (conscious or not) against acknowledging the very real bias that holds women back. But that’s their choice.
Kristine Ziwica is a Melbourne based writer. She tweets @KZiwica