The hyper-masculinised culture of the Australian economy

With eminent justification, feminists have long criticised the patriarchal structuring of the Australian economy. Yet women continue to hold only a tiny fraction of CEO positions, board memberships and senior management appointments across the country.

The grim facts of the structuring of gender inequality within the Australian economy are well known. They point to an economy that is deeply unjust and which defies logic. But no one seems to care enough to address this terrible situation with intelligent reform policies. The dismal science of economics rules; it is definitely not ok.

Women’s average pay remains stubbornly below that of men’s. Childcare policies have failed to advance women in their careers while raising a family. Meanwhile, absolutely vital sectors of the economy remain “feminised”, meaning that they are under-resourced, under-paid and, worst of all, under-valued.

The central problem is that the gender gap is mostly viewed through a blinkered economics lens, where an economy’s empirical aspects (which constitute a mere tip of the economy iceberg) are observable and seemingly measurable (mostly, in fact, they’re not measurable, but the pretence that they are persists, regardless).

This obsession with the empirical misses the point that the economy is a complex, deeply entrenched historico-cultural phenomenon. One of the many weaknesses of the contemporary discipline of economics is its total disarticulation from its historical and cultural roots, which are beyond the positivist methodological tools of the dogmatic empiricism characterising orthodox economics today. Because of its restrictive empirical focus, economics operates much like a fundamentalist religion; it is hardly a science.

Cultural influences shape every facet of our daily lives: our politics, the way we educate young people in schools and beyond, the ways we relate to each other, the ways in which our society rewards and punishes people, the ways we articulate our consciousness through language, customs and rituals, the ways we relate to “outsiders”, and the ways we produce and exchange goods and services. But the all-pervasive nature of these cultural influences means that we take them for granted. Their complex and embedded subtlety makes them invisible, especially it seems to most economists today.

Australia is particularly noteworthy for its hard culture. A hard culture is inflexible, resistant to change, rigidly defines roles and identities (especially in relation to gender), and is morally backward. It is especially cruel to those within its ranks who dare criticise it.

The historical development of Australia’s hard culture has been moulded by four signal elements: racism, secularism, populism and masculinism. The marginalisation of First Australians is the most glaring evidence of the toxic thread of racism binding it all together. A cynical intolerance of religious belief points to a deep-seated ontological insecurity at its heart. Its cultural obsession with sports celebrities, for example (cricketers, footballers, golfers, swimmers, tennis players), is symptomatic of its much more complicated and deranged populism. Its narrowly defined masculinism is painfully evident in the gendered structuring of the Australian economy.

The hyper-masculinised culture of the economy is the greatest single factor constraining Australia’s productivity and creativity, while contributing more than anything else to the destructive levels of inequality spreading like a virulent cancer down into the ranks of middle and working-class Australians.

The culture of hyper-masculinity is especially evident at the commanding heights of the economy (for example, CEOs of big corporations, senior legal and financial services bosses) which are mainly populated by white males in suits, mostly in their 60s or beyond. These men have an overweening sense of entitlement to their vast salaries, perks and bonuses, and lucrative share deals. Insightful observers such as Donald Horne and Hugh Stretton long ago warned about how the leaders in charge of the Australian economy were mostly dull provincials, educationally limited and “second rate”, rewarded more by “luck” rather than cleverness.

This largely accounts for Australia’s under-performing economy, which is principally reliant on digging things out of the ground, or harvesting crops, nearly all for export. This makes it a Third World economy, replete with back-scratching cronies at the top looking out for each other at the expense of everybody else.

Lest we forget: the report of the banking royal commission revealed just how meretricious and venal the executives and senior managers of our financial services really are! And they are only one part of the hyper-masculinised economy. Don’t forget other parts where executives such as Alan Joyce are paid annual salaries of tens of millions of dollars: why?

The hyper-masculinised culture also accounts for the shocking negligence with which critical sectors of the economy are ignored and degraded in this country. This is despite the fact that these sectors nurture the very foundations of a stable, orderly, happy, civilised and productive society. But the boys at the top relegate them to a subaltern status when it comes to respecting, resourcing and rewarding them. Ironically and perversely, this culture of masculinised arrogance is now seriously white-anting the very foundations of the contemporary Australian economy.

Consider, first, the failure to properly acknowledge, value and resource the critical labour carried out every day in the domestic sphere. This unpaid work is conducted overwhelmingly by women: caring for children and families (including spouses/ breadwinners, elderly relatives), volunteering in schools and community organisations, budgeting and provisioning their households, cleaning, washing clothes, socialising children – the work is demanding, endless and utterly essential for maintaining a healthy and productive economy. Without these marvellous women (and a very few admirable men) the economy would collapse overnight.

Consider, secondly, the gross under-valuing of the work done by teachers in our schools, especially pre-schools and primary schools, where once again the workforce is overwhelmingly female. This work – which is every bit as vital for the economy as the work done in the domestic sphere – is loftily disregarded by the corporate heavies and their political accomplices: the “power elite”.

Until teachers are given the respect they richly deserve and are paid at levels equating to legal and medical practitioners’ salaries, the economy will not – cannot – progress. And teachers need to be recruited from our top performing students and provided with training programmes second to none in the world – a far cry from the current situation, with negative consequences for the economy.

Thirdly, consider the nursing profession, another highly feminised profession (albeit with a healthy and growing representation of men). Nurses are the very backbone of the country’s health system. (Who is on the front-line of the fight against the Covid-19 virus?) Arguably, nurses do more than doctors in healing the sick and keeping us well. Yet once again the self-congratulating males at the top are psychologically and culturally incapable of respecting, resourcing and properly rewarding them.

Fourthly, as the royal commission into aged care has already demonstrated, the mainly female aged-care sector is being grossly mismanaged, mainly by male corporate heavies with eyes fixed on profits, not on care for their vulnerable “clients” or their exploited staff.

There are numerous other parts of the hyper-masculinised Australian economy that rely on the dedicated expertise of under-recognised, under-paid mainly women and a few good men. This injustice is endangering the health of the economy more than anything else at this time, more even than the recession brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Australia’s economy urgently needs de-masculinising! We need many more women at the commanding heights of the economy to bring the knowledge and experience of those “who hold up half the sky” into business and economic policy making. And until “female” work (that is work requiring sensitivity, the wisdom of nurturing, compassion, empathy, respect and understanding) is understood to be as vital to the economy as its “male” counterpart, Australia will remain a morally backward society and will continue to languish economically.

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Dr Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in Political Science at the University of Melbourne.

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