4 March 2014

Public and private work: Work, family and social institutions

While women who pursue a career in industries which, until the late 20th century, were largely dominated by men, have been struggling against ‘glass ceilings’ and ‘sticky floors’, many men have also had to defend their ability to perform in domains that are traditionally dominated by women. A shift in cultural norms, a changing workforce and the rise and powerful performance of women beyond their ‘traditional’ domains, have left many men having to defend their identity as good fathers, family men and capable professionals. Although men still rank higher in terms of pay and job status in fields such as science, business and politics, times are changing.
Last year there were more women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies than ever before, and in 2011, women were more likely to finish Year 11 and 12 in high school than men and also made up 55.5 percent of all enrolments at university level (Baird 2013). And while such statistics are promising in regards to the prospect of closing the pertinent issue of the gender-wage gap in Australia, it also leads us to question at what stage over the past few decades did the success of the women’s movement translate into a stage for "reverse gender discrimination"? Why is it OK to publicly joke about the highly exaggerated poor capabilities of men in some areas, and yet if those comments were made towards women, a plethora of colourful words and a lawsuit would eventuate?

This form of gender discrimination is deeply rooted in many areas of our contemporary society, and if popular culture is any indicator, the idea of modern manhood is a joke. It is so heavily pervaded within our society, that all you have to do is turn on the television and look at the representation of men in shows such as Two and A Half Men, The Simpsons or Family Guy. Better yet, turn on any show and wait for the ad break where men are commonly represented as the forgetful father who makes breakfast for dinner, can’t clean up after himself let alone his children, or the simpleton who looks at women as if they are a piece of meat. Are all men like that? No, of course not, and similarly women don’t enjoy being portrayed as fantastic cleaners who are incapable of jobs that traditionally typically belonged only to men. But times have changed, and so should our attitudes to the opposite gender.

Men who work in traditionally female-dominated industries such as aged care are all too familiar with this, as the Aged Care Workforce 2012 Final Report indicated that men working in residential facilities experienced discrimination from colleagues, supervisors and care recipients. According to the report, “Some workers indicated frustration with continually having to prove their competence”. A feeling that would be familiar to many women working in industries traditionally dominated by men. So why then, do women who, as the women’s movement tells us, have been stigmatized and undermined due to their gender, inflict the same treatment to men who work in traditionally female-dominated industries? This seemingly unconventional inequality goes further than professional domains; for example, in a majority of cases mothers are favored over fathers in parental disputes (Mosel 11/03/13). Despite this evidence, Australia is currently lacking in human rights initiatives targeting men, as Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick recently noted that the Australian Human Rights Commission has no initiatives targeting men (Mosel 11/03/13).

What I am seeking to argue here is not by any means attempting to undermine the hardships that women have historically endured in regards to gender inequality. But that the endurance of such hardships does not mean that men should also be ridiculed or undermined by social groups in domestic environments, workplaces or government institutions for their capabilities across traditionally female domains. 

Rose Gell
Current student at the University of Sydney Business School.

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