Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra

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Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Gender equality: The ‘drastically missing piece’

Jun 6, 2024 | Cultural politics, Coercive control, Economics, Commentary, Equality, Domestic abuse, Gender, Misogyny, Money and Finance, Feature

Written by Leonora Risse

Women’s rising educational achievements, greater workforce participation, stronger economic independence, and growing voices in leadership are all positive steps forward for society. Right?

Well, maybe not in everyone’s view.

Optimists among us have reason to believe that steps forward in women’s economic empowerment go hand in hand with greater support for gender equality and more egalitarian attitudes.

But the reality is starkly growing that encouraging women to be “fearless”, and step into roles that are traditionally the domain of men, is not just a challenging path for many women – it could be a dangerous one.

There are signs emerging that efforts to support women’s empowerment, and narrow gender gaps in economic outcomes, could be triggering resistance, retaliation and harm.

According to the Gender Compass Survey conducted in 2023, one in four Australians believe that “when it comes to making things fairer for women, things have gone too far”.

 And one in six Australians believe that women outearning men is a problem for relationships. In other words, gender equality is far from an aspiration. Instead, it has become a threat.

These impacts of these attitudes are borne out in women’s experiences.

A recent economic study of Australian couples discovered when a woman begins to earn more than her male partner, her risk of partner violence and emotional abuse increases.

The rate at which men are killing women, despite a declining long-term trend, accelerated in the past year. In 2021-22, we learnt of the chilling statistic that one woman in Australia had been killed by her current or former male partner every 14 days. In 2022-23, this statistic tragically worsened to one woman every 11 days. This year’s numbers are on a trajectory to worsen further.

Having a voice in a public space – such as in the media, politics, and online forums – is igniting greater hostility, harassment and bullying against women. Research by the Australian e-Safety Commissioner affirmed “many women face online abuse simply because they have an active online presence as part of their working life”. The result is a silencing of women’s voices and a reversal of empowerment:

“Many of these women took a backward step professionally, avoided leadership positions, … retreated from online spaces and lowered their public profiles because of online abuse.”

Australian schoolgirls are sitting in classrooms now knowing their male peers are rating them in a sexually objectifying and violating way, and circulating this sickening information for all to see on social media. Instances recently surfaced at Yarra Valley Private School in Victoria and Foxwell State Secondary School in Queensland. These boys’ behaviours are in the same vein as the aggressively intimidating “chant” about the treatment of women that schoolboys from St Kevins College proudly belted out onboard a public tram in Melbourne.

These are dynamics experienced by women and girls globally.

In countries where the links between women’s empowerment and violence have been closely researched (including India, Pacific Island nations, Rwanda and Cameroon) efforts to boost women’s financial independence – such as microfinancing for women to start their own businesses and initiatives to encourage more women into education and paid work – have been found to trigger a higher rates of intimate partner violence and assault against women in the wider community.

It’s even happening countries considered to be global front-runners in gender equality.

Coined the “Nordic Paradox”, Norway’s world-leading outcomes on women’s economic advancement are at odds with its high rates of intimate partner violence relative to other European nations. In Sweden, improvements in women’s workforce participation and earnings have been linked to higher rates of assaults against women and destructive behaviour by men.

These retaliatory backlash effects are pushing us in the opposite direction to the liberating outcomes that women’s economic progress is meant to bring.

Businessman walking on arrow walking in the opposite direction to group businessmen.

Picture: Adobe Stock 

What explains these attitudes?

Research suggests that a big part of it is men feeling left out while women’s opportunities expand. According to the Gender Compass survey, over one in three Australians believe that “men have been forgotten in the struggle for gender equality”.

Men’s responses to gender equality initiatives reveals the sense of injustice and unfairness that some men report experiencing. For example, when asked about equality, this male participant in this US survey expressed: “I am worried that diversity efforts going too far become discrimination by another name.”

We need to treat these feelings and responses from men seriously if we are to make any progress on gender equality.

Psychological research suggests that men’s resistance to equality initiatives can stem from feeling that their own opportunities to achieve their pursuits and fulfil their purpose, are being stripped away.

These responses can help us to understand how gender equality initiatives – by breaking down the gender norms that prescribe distinct roles and traits for men and women – can leave some men unsure of their role and identity, or searching for other ways to assert it.

The traditional “male-breadwinner/female-caregiver” norm of society has long prescribed a role for men in leadership, decision-making, control and authority. And an expectation to hold back their emotions and fears.

These cultural norms still strongly shape people’s ideas about the behaviours and roles men are expected to take in their relationships, household, workplace and community. Popular culture, sports and entertainment media all still convey a clear image of what it is “to be a man”.

Gender equality initiatives can, for some men, destabilise their opportunity to fulfil this role and demonstrate their sense of masculinity. Their acts of violence, intimidation and dominance over women can be interpreted as their attempt to reclaim a sense of masculine identity and assert control.

Gender equality means fearlessness among all

This all points to a drastically missing piece in our approach to gender equality: If we are going to economically empower women, we need to nurture a society that is not afraid of women being empowered.

If we’re going to tell women to be “fearless”, we need for men to not fear women being their equal.

We need for men to admit to their fears. And learn not to fear the changes that would make our world a more gender equitable place.

Gender equality policy, understandably, has focused intensively on women, especially to support women in crisis circumstances. This year’s Budget brought together an extensive set of measures to address women’s safety, the centrepiece of which was $925.2 million for the Leaving Violence Program.

These are vitally important initiatives that form part of the Australian Government’s National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children. This sits alongside the government’s new national strategy for gender equality, titled Working for Women.

But the next chapters of gender equality will need policy, and our mindset, to do more.

Firstly, policy has not focused enough on how men fit into the gender equality picture.

This is where we need to expand opportunities for men and boys to step into non-traditional roles. To be more involved in caregiving. To find fulfilment and purpose beyond the narrow script of authority and power.

This is why the expansion of paid parental leave policy to fathers – as a lever to dismantle traditional norms and legitimises caregiving among men – is crucial.

There is a vital need to invest more in initiatives to support men and boys to develop healthy, holistic ideals of masculinity and support men in care.  Excellent programs exist, such as The Man Box, The Fathering Project and Equimundo, and Australia has expert researchers informing these issues such as the work of Professor Michael Flood. But these healthy masculinities initiatives are mostly small-scale in Australia and reliant on philanthropic or community funding. The opportunity, and desperate need, is there for governments to uplift and upscale.

By awakening men and boys to many other wider ways to achieve purpose and fulfilment, beyond the narrow traditional template of masculinity, women’s economic empowerment becomes less of competitive threat.

These initiatives are also vital investment in men’s health and wellbeing. Research published by Our Watch has found that men who ascribe to traditional ideals of masculinity have worse rates of depression, suicide, risk-taking behaviours and poor mental health.

The announcement by the Victorian Government to create a Parliamentary position dedicated to supporting men’s and boys’ behavioural change exemplifies a government that is brave enough to embrace this approach.

The other big limitation on progress is the funding amount. Many people in the women’s safety sector attest that the dollars – a total spend of $3.4 billion on women’s safety since the Albanese Government came into office – fall short of the magnitude of the crisis.

Contrast this, for instance, to the additional $50.3 billion allocated to defence over the next decade. This will see defence spending reach an annual $100 billion by 2033-34.

This is where a gender lens matters

Conventional policy thinking considers “defence” a matter of safeguarding our national borders against foreign threats.

Statistically for a woman in Australia, it is not an enemy on the national border who poses the greatest threat to her wellbeing, freedom and life. It’s more likely to be the stalkers, trolls, abusers, former or current partners, the men looking to intimidate and claim control, who have intruded into her neighbourhood, her streets, her phone, her bedroom, her own home, her own private space.

Defence does not come in the form of long-range missiles. It comes from extinguishing the threats that loom on home ground.

Like the Defence Budget, eliminating men’s violence against women needs be elevated to non-negotiable priority. Metrics on women’s safety – and, for that matter, men’s suicide rates – need to sit firmly alongside other benchmark measures of national prosperity such as economic growth.

Australians are now counting on our governments, community leaders, and men themelves, to be fearless in this next step.

  • This is an extended version of the article that was first published by Financy in its Finance Women’s Index March 2024 Edition “Fearless For All”. Read the original here.

Please note: picture at top is a stock image

Dr Leonora Risse

Dr Leonora Risse is an economist who specialises in gender equality. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Canberra and a Research Fellow with the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia. Dr Risse engages regularly with governments and organisations on evidence-based strategies to close gender gaps and how to apply a “gender lens” to economic analysis and policy design.

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