Feminism needs to oppose neoliberal economics to move forward

Mar 16, 2021
Credit - Unsplash

Women, particularly feminists, have spent the last four decades seeking equality with men, but have failed to change inequitable male-driven values. We started well in the 1970s and into the 1980s but as neoliberalism took over our progress stopped. We had gained laws for equality in some areas but without the necessary value and attitude changes, so outcomes were very limited.

Cuts to government social funding and the privatisation of much of the public and communal services undermined the ideals of social democracies. These were devised after the Second World War to help avoid the problematic conditions that had led up to it. The three decades following WWII saw the growth of welfare states and the establishment of international order via the UN, WHO, UNESCO, IMF plus to help maintain peace, prosperity, rights and equity internationally.

These also created the fertile ground from which the student and people’s movements of the 1960s grew e.g. nuclear bans, anti-racial discrimination and gender equity.  The Second Wave women’s movement grew rapidly in Australia and in western countries at the same time, aiming to break down gender-based legal and social barriers and stop the exclusion of women’s views from male dominions. The successes here of the 1970s and 80s were evident in relation to domestic violence, equal pay legislation, and the establishment of community childcare and fertility services.

However, more work was needed to change values and shift attitudes. This did not happen, as the anti-social macho values of neoliberalism took hold. Privatisation took over both public and community services funding and cut funding. This paradigm shift from the social to market competition changed the priority to one of individualised monetary measures and concurrently devalued most social needs. Feminist equity changes were replaced by macho self-interest criteria.

It took us a while to realise this, as many of us were lulled into the belief that the changes we had started would have the power to continue to meet needs. We were wrong. Another related set of serious problems was becoming clearer, too; the need to solve the dangerous damage to our environment. The Neoliberals’ greedy single-minded focus on growing GDP and financial wealth was, and still is, at the cost of many social and environmental needs.

Self-interested neolibs in the 1980s didn’t care then, and still won’t recognise that offloading power to business and reducing government scope and spending exacerbate societal and economic problems. They also fail to see that people need to trust governments to maintain a stable democracy.  The current power holders exemplify all these problems and should be replaced by those who care about fairness,  trust, people and communities, as well as the physical environment.

Anger from feminists and women more generally is because, despite equality claims, women still face gendered power relationships in too many institutions. The March 4 Justice turnout and level of interest indicate widespread disappointment at the obvious lack of change in power relationships in workplaces, homes and public spaces. The lack of recognition of unpaid feminised skills, roles and contributions add to the anger and also continue to add to the creation of poverty.

Backward slippage

The following data were collected from the burst of media and organisational interest in women each year around March 8, International Women’s Day (apparently the other 364 are still for men). They illustrate many of the continuing inequities that need to be addressed. Most come from organisations and journals that are relatively sympathetic.

Anna Patty smh

‘The “shadow pandemics” of mental illness, domestic violence and substance abuse have exposed a crisis in community services, a national group of academics from 17 universities has warned. In the Australian Work and Family Policy Roundtable research in a report released on Wednesday, the academics say: “The crisis in care is acute”. “Many formal care services for the aged, children, and for people with disability that were already strained, collapsed under the pressure of the pandemic,” the report says. The crisis in care and employment has had an immediate and negative impact on gender equality and wellbeing in Australia, raising widespread concern about the shadow pandemics of domestic violence, mental illness and substance abuse. The researchers say the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed an under-resourced, precarious and low-paid workforce.’

The ACTU listed the following :

  • 4% pay gap
  • Women still bear primary responsibility for caring. When the reduced number of hours women work due to caring responsibilities is included, the gender pay gap is much higher – over 30%.
  • Australia ranks 44th in the world on gender pay gap
  • One of the key reasons for the gender pay gap is that the Australian workforce is highly gender-segregated. Although the principle of equal pay for equal work was embedded in federal law over 50 years ago, it has not moved in the last 30 years

The Grattan report stated:

  • Data shows there were 40,000 fewer women with bachelor degrees employed in November 2020 than at the start of last year, while the trend for men went in the opposite direction. The researchers speculate that could reflect professional women exiting work to care for children during the lockdown.

Other odd bits of data I copied but didn’t source included

  • Male bias affects clinical studies. Historically,, medical research has often excluded women
  • No change at the top for university leaders as men outnumber women 3 to 1 ( NB more women attend universities than men now)
  • Australian university leaders are nearly three times more likely to be a man than a woman. Of 37 public university chancellors, just 10 are women (27%) and 27 (73%) are men. It’s exactly the same for vice-chancellors: 10 are women and 27 are men. Together, this means men hold 54 of the 74 top jobs in Australian higher education.
  • Men also dominate the upper levels of Australian academia. The latest available figures(from 2019) show: 86% more men than women at associate professor and professor levels D and E

Bernard King of Crikey for IWD:

  • Politicians are also maldistributed: In politics, that “ascension” remains, to be charitable, a work in progress. Less than 20% of Coalition House of Reps MPs are female, compared to 42% of Labor MPs. It’s better in the Senate: 42% for the Coalition and over 60% for Labor, including its two Senate leaders, and two-thirds for the Greens. Nationally, just one quarter of Liberal MPs in lower houses at all levels of government are female, and 17.5% of Nats, compared to 44% of Labor MPs. It’s one-third of Liberal upper house members, compared to 50% for Labor and 47% for the Nats.

Stock exchange data

  • We have made some gains: First the good news: there are now more women than men on some of the boards of Australia’s largest companies. In the 12 months to the end of February. Now for the not-so-good news: for the top 300 listed companies, there are 2057 directors, of whom only 31% are women. There are 1709 non-executive directors, of whom 36% are female.

In sum, the above maldistribution of power between dual gender definitions creates bad power and damage. We needed to contribute other fairer ideas that mend anger and distrust of those in power!


The above data offer serious examples of the ongoing gender inequities and some of its effects. Gender discrimination can be reduced by restoring and reframing the social contract between us, as citizens, and those we elect to govern. We need to restore trustworthiness to the system as a priority. We must establish new goals for social changes, restore community services and reduce our role as customers only to commercial areas where we can make voluntary choices about how we spend our money or timeAustralia’s democracy, despite some serious omissions, used to be based on the fair-go social contract between citizens and those we elected to represent.  Back then we believed those in power deserved to be there and deserved our trust.

The last ANU Australian Election Survey (AES) indicated the deepening distrust of democracy and those in power, signaling possible further damage to social cohesion and wellbeing. Although the more recent Edelman Trust study showed rising trust under Covid government controls, this is not really valued by this government so t’s likely to dissipate as market ‘normality’ returns. Trust is a basic indicator of legitimacy of democracy and high distrust creates the populisms, paranoia and divides that threaten order and good citizenship.

We can see how this has played out around the world, particularly in the US where it led to the election of Trump, who then went on to make it worse. The return to high discontent and pessimism here is likely if we return to the so-called economic normal, which is highly likely given how the current government is wedded to their mistakes of the last decades.

I remember a 1970’s badge that stated that ‘Women who want equality with men lack ambition’! Back then this was a warning that we needed to radically shift values and culture and not just fight for our share of male privilege in an inherently inequitable system. Money and markets should serve society, not run it. All of us need to  work to create fairness, hope and optimism. It’s time to re-engage and reframe feminism so we can lead and contribute to our better futures.

Too much? We can do it!

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