Why gender studies should be saved

April 12, 2013
There needs to be a critical space in which to grapple with the ongoing oppression of women.

University of Queensland (UQ) Executive Dean of Arts Fred D’Agostino said last month the gender studies major would be cut from the Bachelor of Arts program.

No student commencing next year would have the option of majoring in this area.

Gender studies has a 41-year history at the university. The program was won in the early 1970s by the powerful feminist movement of the time.

It was the first of its kind in Australia and one of the first in the world.

If the discontinuation of the major goes ahead, students who are interested in pursuing this field will have to look outside Queensland, because it is the only remaining major for the discipline in the state.

Initially, only the major was being axed, with the possibility that students could pursue gender studies as a minor, but according to gender studies lecturer Professor Carole Ferrier this is no longer open for consideration by university administration.

“They want to wipe out gender studies and send us right back to square one,” she said at a staff and student teach-in on UQ St Lucia campus on April 11.

Equality for women a long way off

The common rebuke when the rallying cry of “save gender studies” is raised is, “But isn’t it irrelevant? Haven’t women achieved equality?”

D’Agostino reportedly said that the cutting of the gender studies major represented a “triumph” for the discipline because now it has reached such mainstream ubiquity that it no longer requires a specific area.

The reality is very much at odds with this assertion.

Women have not yet achieved equality in Australian society, and this inequality is little recognised and understood.

Workplaces still discriminate based on gender. On average, full-time working women’s weekly earnings is only 82.8% of men’s.

Moreover, women take up a disproportionate amount of insecure work — jobs that are casualised, with poor conditions, little security, and under-unionised.

The university is no exception. At the Save Gender Studies teach-in, National Tertiary Education Union UQ branch president Andrew Bonnell gave some alarming figures.

The percentage of women employed at A-level lecturer positions in Australian tertiary institutions is 60%. At the professor level, that drops to a mere 20%. And trends are not positive. New continuing positions are less often being given to women, who now dominate the more insecure forms of work.

Beyond the workplace, women are still expected to perform most of the unpaid labour in the home. This includes all the vital but unrecognised work of cooking, cleaning, caring and child rearing.

On top of this, negative sexualisation and objectification of women in modern capitalist society — propagated largely by the media and entertainment industries — is so deeply entrenched that many often don’t notice it.

But its effects are real — such as the development of a culture in which rape is legitimised or at least tolerated. About one-third of women in Australia will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.

It also leads to damaging mental health problems among young women, who obsess over whether their body meets the criteria of “beauty” fabricated by cosmetics, entertainment and fitness industries.

Sixty-eight percent of 15-year-old females are dieting and approximately one in 100 adolescent girls develop anorexia.

The fact is that the capitalist economic system makes impossibly contradictory demands on women: be an object of male sexual desire, but if you actually do this it’s your fault if you get raped; be sexually promiscuous, but access to abortion is made difficult or illegal; go get a “career” that shuns your need for time-off to raise a family, but be a stay-at-home mum who is expected to do all the household labour and is responsible for the majority of child rearing.

These contradictions are real and growing sharper overtime. This is the reason a course such as gender studies exists. There needs to be a critical space in which to grapple with these issues and finding ways society can overcome them.

Neoliberal attacks on education

Trying to discredit the course's obvious relevance is not the only argument being peddled. The other argument for the cuts from university management is the “viability” of the program.

But what does “viability” mean in a university context?

Gender studies as a major has actually thrived at UQ and won international respect while operating with no dedicated staff employed specifically for the major.

Lecturers who run the various courses that make up the major are employed in various other areas, and through their own dedication make the course work. It is not a financial burden on a highly profitable university.

And it is not only gender studies on the chopping block. A number of other programs were shortlisted in the latest round of cuts.

Significantly, “Asian Studies, Literature and Languages” might be next to go.

Over the past few decades, the arts faculty at UQ has gone through multiple “restructures” for “viability” that have seen jobs shed, courses and majors dropped, staff and student input undermined, and two thirds of the budget slashed.

This is part of a global trend of neoliberal rethinking of the role of the university. Around the world, universities have taken up more of a business model that is about making profit rather than quality education.

The university has become a tool to provide industry with the next generation of white-collar workers, instead of equipping people with critical thinking skills and an in-depth understanding of their field.

Importantly, the university’s priorities have shifted to “alignment with stakeholders”.

Bonnell said at the teach-in that this means throwing money into capital-intensive courses based on the corporate interests of the pharmaceutical, biotech and mining industries.

“Viability” in this context means aligning with these twisted priorities.

Fight for a different type of university

The fight to save the gender studies major must affirm a different idea of the university. An idea that says the university’s priorities should be in-depth learning, production of new knowledge and new ideas, and critically reflecting on society.

It must affirm an idea of the university that is profoundly democratic, where the staff and students — those with a direct interest in teaching and learning at a high level — are in control of what is taught and researched, rather than bureaucrats and businesses.

The university must have autonomy from the profit-driven logic of the market.

So far there has been a significant campaign of protest letters from other academics from around the country and internationally — almost 100 letters hit D’Agostino’s desk in only a month.

But further pressure needs to be put on D’Agostino and the university administration. This pressure has to come from a united and persistent campaign of student and staff mobilisation. We have to demand that gender studies be reinstated with real support from the university. We must make the case about the intellectual and societal importance of the major and make it clear that the profit motive and corporate interests must not be placed above these.

[Students and staff will rally to defend gender studies on April 18, at 4pm outside the UQ Senate Meeting (meet in the Great Court near Merlo Cafe). Jeannette Hourn from Director of Gender Studies, Melbourne University, will give a public lecture on campus about the campaign earlier in the day at 1pm (room 207 Richardson building).]

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