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Changing the gender paradigm: itís womenís work

By Jennifer Wilson - posted Friday, 24 June 2011

We're expecting a new childin our family shortly. While I was in the US recently, I looked for baby clothes. To my irritation, everything from newborn and up was sex specific, and so extreme that to dress an infant in clothes designed for the sex that it was not, would have to be an act of irony or willful resistance.

I approached the assistant. I don't know whether the baby is a boy or a girl, I said, don't you have something neutral? Not much, she told me. Practically everyone finds out what they're having.

This is an unnerving example of how advances in technology contribute to the construction of gender. Now that parents can discover their baby's sex before birth, gendering begins in utero. The foetus carries the burden of gender expectations before it has even started nudging its mother.


In the social process of gendering newborns, the imperative remains to make clear role differentiation between boys and girls. Research shows that little girls are far more likely to be praised for how they look, for example, while little boys are praised for what they accomplish. The way they both are dressed reflects this. Girls are also seen as more fragile and vulnerable than boys, and more in need of protection.

No one has yet come up with a satisfactory explanation of why in our culture sexual difference is synonymous with gender inequality. While the position that men and women are different is intuitive, why is it acceptable to use that difference to devalue women in the workplace or anywhere else?

To be different is not to be lesser than. It's still the norm in much of the working world for women to be perceived as being of less value than men, for no reason other than the gender values imposed on us because of our sex. This attitude is similar to the social construction of race that allows prejudice to be framed as "natural" superiority.

In the workplace, the reification of the myth of devaluation based on gender roles has created a situation in which so-called "feminized" skills are poorly paid and under-valued.

Workers in the social and community sector, for example, are paid little more than minimum wage, in spite of many of them holding tertiary qualifications. There is no inherent reason to value so-called women's work less than men's. Yet, work to do with caring for vulnerable others, that is largely carried out by women, does not attract equal rates of pay.

The reason for unequal pay in this sector, according to Fair Work Australia, is that the jobs are overwhelmingly held by women. This is a chicken and egg question: which comes first, the fact that the jobs are done by women, or the fact that the jobs involve physical and emotional engagement with the old, the ill, and the vulnerable, and as a society we do not value the old, the ill and the vulnerable and by extension, those who care for them?


Perhaps one of the problems is that we don't value caring, whether it's done by women or men?

However, women also continue to be under-represented in boardrooms, and in the exalted realms of CEO's. According to US research company Catalyst, women they interviewed believe that male stereotyping and preconceptions account for some 52% of this under-representation, while some 49% point the finger at inhospitable corporate cultures and the exclusion of women from formal networks as reasons for the dearth of talented women in top jobs. That there are talented women is indisputable, and there is evidence in this report that companies with women at the helm are at times staggeringly successful.

So what is going wrong and what can be done about it?

French thinker and philosopher Michel Foucault suggested that we conduct our lives under the largely unacknowledged control of what he identified as "truth regimes." A truth regime is a construct of political and economic forces that command majority power in society, with which we are obliged to conform to varying degrees, if we want to be accepted.

Among other things, truth regimes circulate statements that are prescriptions for the "natural" order of things. An example is the dominant concept of "natural" and "normal" expressions of masculinity and femininity. These are actually constructed through the gendering process, they are not "natural," and they are "normalized" by the truth regime. They are observably fluid, yet capitalist culture promotes essentialist beliefs about what is inherently male or female, and how those qualities are to be enacted and presented.

We live in the grip of a dominant truth regime that even before birth dictates the roles we'll play and our value, based on our genitals. Feminists have railed against this regime for decades, and while some advances have been made, one only has to walk into a baby shop to see how far we still have to go. The casting of newborns into value-laden gender roles can't help but influence an infant's future, and the values society will attach to her or him.

What we need is a paradigm shift, and they are notoriously difficult to achieve, particularly when profits are involved. The market makes big money from the exploitation of sexual difference, as human beings are commodified from pre birth until we no longer actively engage in gendered consumption.

While girls learn from the beginning of their lives that their appearance is as or more important than anything they achieve, and while boys learn that what they can accomplish is what really matters, we will continue to live in a world of inequality in the workplace.

The dominant truth regime works to first define girls as objects of the gaze, and then to nurture them as such. It is politically and economically expedient to do this. Any girl and woman who wishes to be valued primarily for something other than her appearance and femininity has first to overcome the powerful conditioning from which she has learned that her primary role is to be looked at.

Anyone who doesn't believe this is still the case needs only to glance at popular cultural representations of women in magazines and television, especially representations of young women in the workplace.

This conditioning negatively affects boys, who learn early on to see girls primarily as objects of their gaze, and thus have a great deal of difficulty in accepting women in the workplace as equals, and women's work as of equal importance.

As Foucault also observes, power always creates resistance. Challenging truth regimes is a subversive and at times revolutionary act, an attempt to claim enough majority power to create a contesting truth.

Resistance to a powerful gender paradigm that cripples both women and men has sporadically flourished now for decades, driven by feminism. From time to time there are signs that this resistance is very much alive, as evidenced recently by the Fair Work Australia decision to address the devaluing of some of the work done by women. This is a watershed decision, and indicates that we are still very much engaged in the difficult process of paradigm change.

Ironically, it's probably women who hold the key to the radical changes we need. Mothers are usually the primary influence in the infant's life, and carry the main responsibility for initially imposing gendered roles the infant will come to learn are "natural."

It's difficult to see how there can be the tectonic shifts of perception we need to attain gender equality, without women taking a long hard look at how we collude with our own oppression, by embracing a truth regime that fundamentally portrays gender inequality as a "natural" consequence of our sex.

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About the Author

Dr Jennifer Wilson worked with adult survivors of child abuse for 20 years. On leaving clinical practice she returned to academia, where she taught critical theory and creative writing, and pursued her interest in human rights, popular cultural representations of death and dying, and forgiveness. Dr Wilson has presented papers on human rights and other issues at Oxford, Barcelona, and East London Universities, as well as at several international human rights conferences. Her academic work has been published in national and international journals. Her fiction has also appeared in several anthologies. She is currently working on a secular exploration of forgiveness, and a collection of essays. She blogs at

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