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A central component of the debate on gender equality is valuing women in society as equal, participating citizens. According the Australian Human Rights Commission, Australian women continue to experience inequality and/or discrimination in their daily lives, which limits their life opportunities. For example, despite composing approximately 46 per cent of the Australian workforce, women are paid almost 20% less than men each week for equivalent full-time work. Australia’s ranking on a global index measuring gender equality, has also slipped considerably within the last decade. Not only are Australian women over-represented as part-time workers in low-paid or insecure work but they are also underrepresented in leadership roles in both the private and public sector with less than 20% representation.
Pervading issues such as sexual harassment (affecting 25% of women), discrimination (affecting almost 50% of women) and increased chances of poverty also affect women’s equal participation in society. Unfortunately, family violence is the leading preventable cause of death, disability and illness in women aged 15 to 44 years affecting 33% of women which also leads to many women being forced to rely on one income to get by.
Gender equality in Australia can be summarized in the diagram above.
Given the many unjust experiences that Australian women are likely to face during their lifetime, what can we do from an educational perspective to help empower young women, other than try to ensure that they have the same educational choices as men and an increased participation rate in traditionally male-oriented educational fields?
Considering that all of the above challenges women face are due to undervaluing the female gender, it makes sense to improve the perceived value that women can provide to society. It is here where we need to consider how the following experiences women are also likely to face in their lives affects their self-esteem:
1) Increasing divorce rate
2) Higher chances of ageing and living alone compared to men
3) Disempowering capitalist exploitation of women’s insecurities
4) Society undervaluing aging women in contrast to aging men
Let’s take a closer look at the last two points, their links with each other and how they work together to create the ‘inferior’ sex status women often carry as a burden.
It is clear that the sexualization of women’s bodies is used to sell everything from motor oil to sports events. In capitalist societies where over consumption is common, women are constantly made to feel unworthy even before their first wrinkle or cellulite patch appears. Not only are women expected to spend the limited money they earn in an unequal workplace on endless beauty services and products with unguaranteed results and unsubstantiated claims, but the mere fact women age is communicated to women as being some kind of crude public offence. Consider the over marketing of beauty creams to the female target market as an example. Ironically, the fallacy of the miracle cream that seems to target everything from reducing cellulite and wrinkles to increasing a woman’s pouty lips and breasts has many women preoccupied with an endless effort of trial and error to find the ‘right’ cream, despite the fact most creams are filled with cheap fillers rather than active ingredients. The modality of ‘may help’ not only ensures that unwary and trusting female consumers will purchase endless creams but that big businesses will continue to fill their pockets at women’s expense.
It is somewhere along these lines that we as educators need to stop and educate students, especially our female students about the need to VALUE themselves as they age- and even LOOK FORWARD to aging. In society, aging is presented as some kind of calamity for women with advertising buzz words such as ‘wrinkles’, ‘weight gain,’ ‘white hair’ and even ‘fertility’ constantly used to keep women anxious. Women are taught to value themselves less as they age leading to depression, low self-esteem and poor self-confidence in their later years, in contrast to men whose self-confidence actually gains due to society placing a greater premium on their knowledge, experience and skills which increase over time.
Consider female role models most young women have whether they be teachers, stars or within their own family. The young female learns from a very young age either implicitly or explicitly that a woman’s actual age should be hidden with shame and that the ageing process is disastrous for women and thus must be stopped at all costs. She is not taught to look forward to her 30’s, 40’s or even 50’s, despite the fact that with each decade she will master new wisdom, skills and reach new intellectual milestones that she may have never imagined was possible. Imagine what would happen if young women were taught in schools, for once to actually look forward to ageing and embrace each decade that comes as they will be reaching new amazing intellectual peaks? While students are taught to accept themselves as they are and love their adolescent bodies at school, they need to be taught to love and look forward to their future ageing selves too- especially girls. Through undermining the knowledge and confidence that women have as they age, we ensure that they will never value themselves enough to contribute to essential discourse on the national and global political level. Furthermore, through teaching young women to actually look forward to getting older, we as educators help counteract the effects of them being over targeted as consumers as they mature in life. Indeed, preoccupying women with their trivial cosmetic flaws only ensures that they will be too insecure and busy to contribute to humanitarian causes such as access to education, resisting oppression and challenging counterproductive, inhumane wars. Limiting women’s equal participation in the public sphere also ensures that the male status quo remains unchallenged and that women remain mere bystanders in patriarchal societies globally.
Similar to how oppressive politics use the divide and conquer strategy to separate different groups from forming effective coalitions, women are also kept divided using ethno-religious markers and east vs west rhetoric. By being convinced that women in another part of the world are worse off, women are implicitly told to be thankful and content with their inferior position in society and thus are less likely to request their equal rights or challenge the status quo. One example is women in the west believing that the use of the Islamic garment or hijab is used to oppress women in the east. While the hijab like all aspects of religion can be perceived as a tool that can be manipulated to enforce both justice and injustice in society, many women in the west fail to consider and appreciate that such choices are often made by women in the east voluntarily after weighing up the pros and cons of wearing the garment. The way the garment is worn also generally significantly differs between women within the same communities. Often isolated stories of women’s oppressive treatment and exaggerated statistics are used to demean the majority of women within regions such as the Middle-East, helping to ignite costly wars against sovereign nations. The ultimate effect of women in the east and west constantly belittling each other’s choices is to disunite women against challenging their global struggle against oppression. Through mocking each other’s choices, women remain disunited and politically ineffective, having less time and energy to focus on broader issues making the female voice irrelevant in politics, religion and other global affairs. The disunity of women living in the west and east is also used to mobilize women in the western world to participate and support counterproductive, inhumane wars globally using the guise of western rhetoric of ‘liberating’ women abroad from oppression by essentially bombing away their families and lives. This is done through naturalizing and imposing western cultural imperialism on eastern societies so that one particular set of values (which is also imperfect in practice) is politically portrayed as the only acceptable set of global values for all women and societies. This blurs and undermines all genuine feminist objectives globally. If we consider the female voice to be one of compassion, reason and justice, this also means the absence of such outcomes in global and local affairs.
Educating women to unite and view their struggles against oppression from a more global perspective and to embrace the increasing wisdom that comes with their ageing, not only conserves their energy so that they can use it more productively and confidently in society but allows them to transcend- at least from a mental and emotional perspective, society’s demeaning reduction of their role to being nothing more than passive consumers, spectators and bystanders in an inherently unjust, patriarchal and capitalist world.
Please share the presentation below with your friends to help empower women
Australian Human Rights Commission (2015) Face the facts: Gender Equality, accessed 4thof January 2016: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/face-facts-gender-equality
Furthermore, through teaching young women to actually look forward to getting older, we as educators help counteract the effects of them being over targeted as consumers as they mature in life. Indeed, preoccupying women with their trivial cosmetic flaws only ensures that they will be too insecure and busy to contribute to humanitarian causes such as access to education, resisting oppression and challenging counterproductive, inhumane wars.
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