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November 30, 2015

Why equality is elusive

Ahead of tomorrow night's panel on equality, The Women's Project's Josh Basford considers why the concept of equality has become such a fraught issue in modern Australia.

  • Words: Joshua Basford

I grew up in the era of the John Howard “Aussie battler”.


Josh Basford, the author, works with The Women’s Project.

See the issue of equality discussed further by panellists Genevieve Theseira, Amanda Blair, Kris Lloyd and Khadija Gbla tomorrow night. Full event details and registration for the free event here.

The event is being held at The Bradley Forum Auditorium, Level 5 of the Hawke Building, UniSA City West Campus, 50-55 North Terrace on December 1 from 6pm – 7.30PM.

My parents worked hard, asked for little, and held fiercely to the notion that Australia was a free and equal society. The concept of “battling” was celebrated, and Mum and Dad held short shrift with anyone who suggested otherwise.

As an adult, I often find myself reflecting with wonder that the mirage of equality was so successfully sold to my parents. For me it seems obvious that when social and economic capital is used as a commodity, then whatever the goal, “equality” will never truly be the outcome.

And this is really at the heart of the question. What is equality? Who is it for? And do we really need to be talking about it in a “free and equal” society like Australia? My parents would still say no. But I say yes.

The beauty and the challenge of talking about equality is that it is a broad concept and there is sometimes furious disagreement about how far we have come as a nation. For instance gender equality, an issue we are particularly interested in at The Women’s Project, is not something all Australians think is an issue at all. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, the statistics don’t lie.

Quoting one (among many) government reports on the issue of gender equality leaves little room for doubt something is amiss in Australia.

A study by NATSEMiv estimates “that 60 per cent of the wage gap is due to either direct discrimination or other factors to do with being a woman”.

Another study that examined the gender pay gap among full-time managers in Australia found that between 70-90 per cent of the gap could not be explained by personal and workforce factors such as employment experience, industry sector or family situation. Rather, it suggests that as much as 70 per cent of the gap is “simply due to … being female”.

But of course gender equality is only one facet of the broader equality project. We could talk about equality from a LGTBIQ perspective, where a report by reveals that, “a large number of LGBTI people hide their sexuality or gender identity when accessing services (34 per cent), at social and community events (42 per cent) and at work (39 per cent).”

What does this say about equality in Australia? Does literature like this point to a serious issue, and if so, is that issue an equality issue?

In light of recent terror attacks we are also being asked to consider whether there are certain situations in which Australian citizens should be stripped of citizenship without access to a court of law. How does this fit in with our sense of all Australians being equal before the law?

In South Australia, our Young South Australian of the Year, Khadija Gbla, tells us that women in our very own backyard are being subjected to forced genital mutilation. Why does culture and local tradition trump equality in this circumstance, and why are we not more aware of the issues at play?

Of course all of these unanswered questions just serve to highlight the fact that there is a lot to talk about when it comes to equality in Australia. The Women’s Project cannot hope to answer them all, but we are hosting a free Q&A panel event on December 1 with some leading South Australian women who might be able to help illuminate us more than I have been able to in this short article.

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