The recent appointment of Susan Crennan to the High Court - only the second woman to ever hold the post and the only one on the current bench - prompted a familiar rash of terrifyingly illogical arguments from the government about the irrelevance of Crennan’s gender to her selection. Attorney-General Philip Ruddock insisted that Crennan was appointed on “merit alone”.
The truth is that the merit claim is an insult to every woman’s intelligence. This is because when the fact of women’s continued under-representation in key positions is combined with the claim that merit is the only basis for such appointments, the only logical conclusion is that women are only rarely as meritorious as the blokes who regularly get the job. For a government to imply this suggests either that gender-based stereotypes about women’s intellectual and moral inferiority are alive and well, or that most women really do - when matched against men on a level playing field - come up short.
Of course, those flying the merit flag would contest both of these conclusions. It’s not that appointment processes or outcomes are discriminatory, they would sooth, or that as a gender women don’t hold a candle to men. Rather, it is that - and here I paraphrase Justice Crennan herself - that the “biological imperative” and the work-family crunch have reduced the number of qualified women available for such high-level appointments.
But such a rebuttal seems to me to constitute further evidence of the discriminatory nature of the system and those who run it.
To suggest that female biology is destiny is to depict women as slaves to their hormones rather than rational beings capable of autonomously choosing if and when they’ll reproduce. And if women’s disproportionate shouldering of the second shift and the consequent difficulties they - but not their male partners - face in combining parenthood with a successful career does not constitute evidence of institutional discrimination against women, I don’t know what does.
What frightens me is how rarely the public gets to hear these sort of rebuttals to the regular insistence of power-brokers that the best man - er, person - always wins. With the notable exception of Shadow Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, the Attorney-General’s assertions about merit ruling the day where Crennan was concerned were either ignored or poorly contested by a range of experts, including the convenor of the Women Barristers Association of Victoria.
Those who teach girls should find this state of affairs acutely worrying. The use of logic to make solid argument, and to expose woolly thinking, is a critical skill. Why aren’t more women using their education to rout myths about their sex that aren’t just insulting, but actively fortify the iron ceiling barring them from achievements they both expect and deserve?
According to some teachers, the problem doesn’t lie with their students’ logic, but their politics. They say the problem is that young female students are increasingly socially conservative and consequently more willing to accept - rather than contest - discriminatory suggestions about women. This claim, however, has little in the way of evidence to support it. According to the most recent Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, for instance, young women hold the most liberal views in the community on a range of issues, including the right of women to choose abortion and to access IVF even if unmarried.
But there is evidence to suggest that young women are less ambitious than their mothers when it comes to work and family. Having grown up with mothers who tried to “have it all” by being superwomen in a business-as-usual world as far as men and the workplace were concerned, such young women seek to avoid a similarly harried and guilt-charged life by pursuing their life goals of marriage, children and career in a serial, rather than parallel, fashion. Said one young woman who spoke to social researcher Hugh Mackay, “It’s better to handle these things separately - work for a while, take time off for kids, then go back to work. My mother is exhausted every day, and I am determined that I won’t live like that.”
Behind the words of this young woman and those like her is the unspoken - and perhaps unquestioned - assumption that men and the workplace aren’t going to change. That the only “choice” available for a young women wanting an equally rich but less exhausting life than their mums is to downshift their ambitions and earnings for a time. A decision that, while understandable, has significant and far-reaching consequences for their careers and earnings.
But while it is not the job of educators to persuade women of the rightness of any point of view, it is their role to ensure young women are aware of the unspoken assumptions behind, and implications of, the arguments powerful others make about them, and they make themselves. If young women agree with the implications of the merit-based argument for female promotion, or are clear about the acceptance of do-nothing attitude of men and society implied by their future plans to stay home when their kids are young, then so be it.
Let’s just make sure they’ve thought the arguments through.
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