Economic equality key to ending sexism and gendered violence

April 14, 2021
Graphic: Isaac Nellist

It took the 100,000-strong March4Justice protests last month over systemic sexual assaults and discrimination at work for the federal government to finally respond to the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s Kate Jenkins’ report.

On April 8, the federal government said it would accept some of the Respect@Work recommendations. The landmark national inquiry into sexual harassment in workplaces by the Australian Human Rights Commission had been gathering dust for more than a year.

Jenkins found sexual harassment in workplaces to be “endemic” and estimated the cost to the economy at $3.5 billion a year. The report documented the long-term health and well-being implications for people — mainly women — who experience harassment. It made 55 recommendations.

The government has come back with a 25-page report, A Roadmap for Respect: Preventing and Addressing Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces, which fails to commit to fully implementing the recommendations.

Notably, it refused to agree to strengthen the Sex Discrimination Act with a clause mandating employers prevent this behaviour and to give oversight to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s fourth national workplace sexual harassment report Everyone’s Business: 2018 Sexual Harassment Survey found that one in three people experienced sexual harassment at work in the past five years.

Jenkins said that sexual harassment is “widespread and pervasive”. 

“The data paints a comprehensive picture of the nature of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. In the vast majority of cases, it is perpetrated by a man and in many cases; it is ongoing over an extended period,” she said.

She pointed out that reporting on workplace sexual harassment continues to be low. “Only 17% of people who experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years made a formal report or complaint about the harassment.”

Power imbalance

Women decide not to report sexual harassment in their workplace for many reasons, including that they don’t think they will be believed and fear that speaking out will cost them their job. As the federal Liberal Party powerbrokers showed recently, sexual harassment is ignored for many reasons, including because the perpetrators are seen to be high performers and therefore “valuable” to the organisation.

Sexual harassment at work does not just happen randomly, or because of uncontrolled desire. It is a direct result of the imbalance of power.

As more men are likely to be in positions of power in workplaces, and in female-dominated sectors they are more likely to be supervisors, principals and managers, sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination and violence against women can continue.

Capitalism manufactures acceptance of the sexist idea that women’s bodies exist for the pleasure of men, and this is reinforced by the ubiquitous sexualisation of female bodies in advertising and the corporate media.

Added to this is the capitalist expectation that women’s primary, or essential, role remains in the domestic sphere — in the private home — undertaking the major share of unpaid work such as raising the next generation and looking after the older one.

This unpaid work amounts to about 50% of gross domestic product — $660 billion in 2020 — and contributes to stereotyped notions of women’s abilities and rights in all spheres of life.

Women still work in jobs that underpay and undervalue their work — particularly unpaid work in the domestic setting. Women make up the vast majority of workers with few conditions and little job security. In 2015, two thirds of Australia’s 2.7 million unpaid informal carers were women according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Sexist notions of masculinity and femininity don’t just pervade our workplaces, they are also rife in relationships. This is because capitalism needs the family unit to privatise the functions that other societies see as social or community responsibilities. The family is a pillar of class society.

The private family unit is also where women experience the most domestic and sexual violence. But due to financial inequality, it is difficult for women to leave violent partners. The fear of poverty and homelessness mean women hold back from making their safety paramount. Women also face an unjust legal system which means they face the threat of losing custody of their children.

As governments cut back funding for family violence services and with homelessness on the rise, domestic violence is a growing problem. In Australia, one woman is killed each week and one in six women experience physical or sexual violence by a current or previous partner (since 15 years old).


Female-dominated professions — such as teaching, nursing and childcare — are undervalued under capitalism.  Capitalism needs inequality to thrive and the gender pay gap is also used to drive down all workers’ wages. Overwhelmingly women still undertake most of the work at home — raising children and caring for the elderly.

Furthermore, women are used as a reserve pool of labour; they are pushed out of the workplace or pulled in as capitalists deem it necessary for profit-making.

Right now, we are witnessing the “push out” as women make up the majority of the unemployed and the casual workforce.

The pandemic has revealed how much we rely on female-dominated professions like teaching, nurses, early-childhood educators, disability and aged care workers, yet these workers are the lowest paid in the country.

Rachael Jacobs, a lecturer in Creative Arts Education at Western Sydney University, believes there is a big difference between choice and empowerment. “Until we address the patriarchal influences on workplace culture, we are really not going to get anywhere with the gender pay gap.”

A March 25 study by the federal government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency and Associate Professor Rebecca Cassells from Curtin University found that it is likely to take another 26 years for the gender pay gap to close.

Gender Equity Insights 2021: Making it a Priority analysed gender reporting information collected from more than 4.3 million workers over seven years. It found that the total remuneration from the gender pay gap fell from 25% to 20% in the past seven years.

Importantly too, it found attitudes to women and their input at work impede closing the pay gap. 

It also found that those employment sectors where women are the most concentrated — education and training, health care and social assistance — showed the least improvement in closing the pay gap over the last five years. By contrast, the managerial level of the mining sector showed the most improvement.

Gender pay gap

In Australia, the principle of “equal pay for equal work” was introduced in 1969 and discrimination on the basis of sex was outlawed in 1984. This did not stop Australia from becoming one of two developed countries where the gender pay gap rose over the past two decades of neoliberalism, going from 14.9% in 2004 to 18.9% in 2015. As at February, it was 13.4%. 

The gender pay gap contributes to a culture of sexism.

Women working full-time expect to earn around 10% less than men, on average. Cassells said employers “need to be more attuned to how they are recruiting and rewarding women and men for their work” and that more broadly, society needs to reassess “the value of these roles” and “whether the pay reflects this value”.

New research by the Centre for Future Work has also shown that Australia’s recovery from the pandemic recession has widened the gender pay gap, as jobs for women have only returned on a more part-time and casualised basis.

There is also a difference in how the pandemic and recession have affected people’s mental health. Women lost their jobs at a faster rate than men. Women experienced higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress than men. Women had to bear the brunt of most of the household and care responsibilities, which also took its toll, the report noted.

A woman would need to undertake 59 days of extra work to earn the same as her male counterpart. When she finishes university, she can expect to earn $3000 less a year than her male counterpart.

There is a long way to go.

While research from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency suggests it may take another quarter of a century to close the gender pay gap, calculated as the difference between women’s and men’s average weekly full-time equivalent earnings and expressed as a percentage of men’s earnings, it is actually worse.

The gender pay gap figure does not take into account those who fall outside of the corporate sector and the fact that women are overrepresented in precarious, part-time and casual work. There is also a lack of data on specific oppressed sectors, including First Nations women, migrants and refugees.

Divya Garg, a student and tutor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, told Green Left that women of colour face extra biases in higher education. “A higher number of men occupy positions of power which is a result of structural biases against women, especially women of colour.”

Refugee activist Chris Garwood told Green Left that the gender pay gap is most visible among white women but that women of colour experience it as well. “The experience of women from refugee or migrant backgrounds working in low-paid jobs is under-reported and less often analysed. The financial gap those women experience, combined with their mistreatment — exploitation of their situation — is shameful.

“The federal government needs to be doing more for women of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.”

Jacobs said the gender pay gap is exacerbated by poverty, colonisation and the oppression that stems from being part of a minority group whose rights are not respected. A woman of colour, Jacobs has worked in education for more than 20 years and has never held a permanent management position.

“I’ve worked in private schools, high schools, early learning centres, in three universities and I have never been led by a woman of colour. I’ve been led by a man of colour once, for 6 months.”

Creating change

Women are still, by and large, judged through their relationships to and with men as partners, mothers and housekeepers.

Combating structural sexism requires both immediate and long-term measures.

Changing attitudes is not simply a matter of better education around consent and workplace safety and discrimination — although that must happen. It necessitates material changes to women’s lives so that they have the economic ability to make life changing decisions, including leaving an abusive relationship.

Ultimately, for women to have real equality, we will need to construct a new system where the private family unit does not define women’s productive role in society.

In the meantime, however, the struggle for immediate reforms to change women’s lives is necessary. This includes boosting funding for and de-privatisating women’s refuges; eliminating the gender pay gap; increasing wages in those under-valued industries where women are congregated; and converting casual jobs into permanent ones. This would have an immediate benefit to women, as well as working-class men.

Enforcing gender equality in all workplaces requires a lot more than the federal government’s voluntary reporting by bosses.

In addition, governments need to allocate funds to communities who face multiple oppressions including First Nations women, many of whom are fearful of reporting sexual assault because of the prospect of losing their children. Sexual assault advisory groups must include First Nations women, some of whom want a council on violence and an inquiry into murdered and missing First Nations women.

Similarly, extra funding is needed for refugee and migrant women experiencing harassment and violence. Women in prisons who have experienced sexual assault also require specialist help.

A hefty injection of funding into public housing, legal services, family violence services, counselling, homeless shelters and women’s refuges would go a long way to help mitigate endemic sexism and misogyny.

Programs that have demonstrated success in reducing domestic violence include the High Point Community Against Violence in North Carolina and the Maranguka Program in New South Wales. In some Latin American countries, such as Peru, Ecuador and Nicaragua, women’s-only police stations have helped.

Current Australian of the Year Grace Tame has called for a permanent taskforce to tackle sexual abuse and challenged leaders to demonstrate zero tolerance for sexual harassment and assault, reject victim blaming and to listen to survivors. She has set the bar, and women in their tens of thousands agree.

“If the March4Justice rallies have shown us anything,” socialist councillor Sue Bolton said, “it is that women and their allies are prepared for the fight to eradicate sexism from workplaces and homes.” She said that extra-parliamentary mobilisations “are a powerful tool because it is inclusive” and shows that opinion across society on this issue is very strong. “We need to build on the momentum of the March protest, where so many said ‘Enough is enough’, until we achieve justice and gender equality in the workplace.”

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