“Unearned advantage, the advantage of being male, is a difficult prize for men to voluntarily abandon.”
“Men in power simply fail to undo the unthinkable: disadvantage themselves by eliminating unmerited advantage.”
Unearned advantage allows men to dominate
Women are running neck and neck with their male counterparts in Australia’s universities. And they are dominating important professional categories. But the bad news is that in the high-salary stakes, any semblance of equity appears a long way off.
Roy Morgan Research reports that over the past decade the number of Australians with a university degree jumped from 18 per cent to 26.5 per cent. That increase was dominated by women completing tertiary education – up from 17 per cent in 2002 to 26 per cent a decade later. For men the increase was solid but less spectacular – 20 per cent to 27 per cent.
While the proportion of men and women in the workforce has barely changed over the past decade, women are also advancing on the professional roles historically dominated by men.
The number of Australian men in the workforce in 2002 was 66 per cent, compared to 67 per cent 10 years later. For women it was 51 per cent in 2002 and 53 per cent a decade later. There was virtually no change over the decade.
According to a review of the 2011 census by demographer Bernard Salt, there are more than 10 million Australians in the workforce with some interesting gender splits in occupational categories.
For example, 99 per cent of Australia’s 14,105 midwives are women. And half (49 per cent) of the 1170 gynaecologists and obstetricians are women (up from 39 per cent in the 2006 census).
More than half (55 per cent) of all veterinarians are women (up from 45 per cent in 2006), 58 per cent of pathologists are women (up from 48 per cent), and 53 per cent of paediatricians are women (up from 45 per cent).
The bar is still dominated by men, despite an increase from 22 per cent to 29 per cent of women barristers. The good news stops there. Women are dramatically under-represented in higher income levels.
According to Roy Morgan Research, of all Australians who earn in excess of $80,000 a year, three-quarters (74 per cent) are men and only a quarter (26 per cent) are women. While that represents an improvement for women over the past decade (up from only 15 per cent in 2002), it remains deeply iniquitous.
The gains made by women in the past decade are remarkable. But why is inequity so entrenched in the workplace?
According to the ABS, the proportion of women CEOs in Australia’s top 200 ASX companies has remained below 5 per cent for the past decade. Boards and company directors appoint CEOs and 85 per cent of ASX 200 board directors are men. It’s not a glass ceiling; it’s a masculine fault line.
Unearned advantage, the advantage of being male, is a difficult prize for men to voluntarily abandon. Regardless of how sensitive to social injustice men are, they do little to change the system of dominance, to redress the widespread disadvantage women experience throughout their lives.
It is easier to understand why some women would want to get ahead in the male system even at the cost of leaving other women behind, than it is to understand why some men would want to jettison the privileges of male supremacy. This inability or unwillingness to disadvantage themselves by dismantling systemic advantage quarantines men from needing to confront the truth that they enjoy vast privilege that is unearned.
Most countries, asserts lawyer and academic Catharine MacKinnon, proclaim a commitment to equality and yet few, if any, deliver it substantively to women. ”You don’t have countries saying, ‘Yes, we have sex discrimination here and want it. We’re entitled to it and enjoy it.’ You don’t have them saying that; you have them doing it.”
Men in power simply fail to undo the unthinkable: disadvantage themselves by eliminating unmerited advantage.
MacKinnon believes society so comprehensively fails to recognise the hierarchies that have subordinated women for so long they have become perceived as natural. The dominance of men over women has been, she says, accomplished socially as well as economically prior to the operation of law, as everyday life.
Is it any wonder then that despite the gains being hard-won by women themselves, the system resists their advances and refuses to advance them.
Ross Honeywill is an internationally published author and doctoral scholar. He is national convener of the Centre for Gender Equity.