February 20, 2010
The Canberra Times & The National Times

Energised by entitlement

How often should a modern feminist shave under her arms? Do you think Germaine Greer ever shaves? Do you think the 16 percent pay gap will eventually close, so that men and women are paid the same? And if so – when?

They were tough questions, from a serious inquisitor. Twenty year old Jack – not his real name – had my ear for a moment, and he wanted to sort out all this “feminist stuff”. The occasion was a picnic on Thursday, hosted by the ANU’s Students’ Association and Women’s Department, as part of O-week festivities. I was guest speaker and chief feminist flag waver. But right then young Jack had me stumped. It was that hoary old chestnut about hairiness. What is it about feminism and body hair?

I told Jack that I know plenty of women who don’t shave often, and it’s got nothing to do with feminism. They’re too busy, too lazy, or they just don’t care. I doubt it was the answer the aspiring feminist was looking for, but he seemed satisfied. As for the issue about closing the pay gap, well, I couldn’t offer much wisdom there either. Who knows?

Interestingly, the young women in the crowd weren’t as focused on when the pay gap might end. Rather, they wanted to know why it existed at all. Some of them looked at me in disbelief when I explained that women have always earned less than men, even when they have equal qualifications and are doing exactly the same job. And – what’s more – that this blatant discrimination used to be enshrined in law. Disbelief gave way to wide-eyed incredulity when I told them women used to get sacked the moment they told their boss they were pregnant. And that if they themselves aspire to positions of business leadership they have an almighty battle ahead, that women – feminists or otherwise – have so far failed to win, because only 2 percent of Australia’s top ASX companies are chaired by women; 3 percent have female CEOs; and 8 percent female directors. The representation of women in politics, at all levels, has failed to budge past one in three, and is currently in decline. And despite Australia churning out more degree qualified females than males, women still do the lion’s share of housework; have substantially less superannuation; less savings and own less assets.

The girls’ shocked faces said it all. It wasn’t a case of too many numbers and too much data being thrown at them. It was a case of “but didn’t we inherit the earth?”

On the bigger picture I reminded them of those often quoted United Nations figures that tell us women perform 66 percent of the world’s work; produce 50 percent of the world’s food; earn 10 percent of the world’s income; and own only one percent of property. So then – who is it that is inheriting the earth?

For young women wandering Australian university campuses this week for the first time, there is every reason to think the world is theirs. And right now it is. Rich with opportunity and ripe with invitation, it would seem nothing stands in their way. They have been born into a post-feminist world where the battles fought by their mothers and grandmothers have so fundamentally changed the social and civil landscape that “feminism” – as both a movement and ideology – seems well and truly over. Unnecessary. Dead.

Well, that’s how it may look now when you’re in your late teens and twenties. But as any older woman knows, the reality crash is yet to come. It will come hurtling down the moment they get wind of the “breeding creed” – that pressure, or desire to have children – and somehow fit it in with their career and income ambitions. The crash will also come when they settle into partnerships and find that just like generations of women before them, housework and childcare are deemed to be their prime responsibility. And then there’s that almost fatal crash that comes with the realization that no amount of academic brilliance and hard work will win them a directorship, a seat at the board table, or even corporate respect. In fact, in the end, just like their mothers, most of them will drift away from even aspiring to the top jobs and a corner office.

If feminism had succeeded in truly liberating women, female attributes would be equally valid, admired and respected at the pointy, powerful end of society. Women would not feel the need to behave like blokes in skirts. Or sluts in power. Women would be free to be just women, with all the dignity and prestige that entails. But as any woman knows – that’s a long way off.

And yet, surprisingly, I feel much less gloomy about the task ahead. I saw in the faces of the ANU students a vigor and confidence that I never saw in my own battle weary generation. These young women have grown up with a strong sense of gender entitlement. I have a hunch they’re about to use it.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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