Australian education is dominated by a masculinised economic model of private interest and competition, Professor Raewynn Connell of the University of Sydney told the Reclaiming Feminism: Engendering Change Conference.
Professor Connell outlined the impact of neoliberalism on the economy and education from the perspective of countries like Australia, with the change from an industrialised economy based on manufacturing to mining. She said mining economies do not need a strong public education system and see education as a commodity rather than a public good. This creates focus on competition, the creation of education markets, privatisation and disinvestment in higher education and TAFE. Thus education becomes a site for new forms of exclusion associated with both individual wealth and hierarchies of funding. She urged us to challenge the education policies that seek to reinforce the existing power structures and inequality in society and see feminism, gender and gender equality as a core feature of a good education and a good society.
The neoliberal policies of successive governments over the past 30 years have not only undermined progress on gender equity but created more inequality in society. The emphasis in these policies on competition, privatisation, individualism, creating winners and losers supports inequality. Professor Bronwyn Davies discussed how a focus on beauty and body image promote and exaggerate sexual difference and particular versions of masculinity and femininity that serve markets create huge profits for many businesses dealing in beauty products, fitness, diet and so on.
In her after-dinner speech and in a recent article in dailylife.com.au freelance writer, broadcaster and public speaker Clementine Ford described how “avoiding real social and structural change in the name of what is right, be it for women or people of colour or LGBTQI people or disabled people, has lately been made easier by ways in which projection of fault has been tolerated”. The latest narrative holds women responsible for the failure to achieve equality,” she said.
This attempt to blame those in our society who are disadvantaged for their disadvantage, is reflected in the Abbott Government’s focus on our society being made up of “lifters and leaners” and their claim that tax payers can no longer afford to pay for the range of social services. The Federal Budget has hit hardest the people who are unemployed, disabled, from low socio-economic backgrounds, and youth. Statistics show there are many women who fit in more than one of these groups and the overall impact is greater on women.
Despite the challenging and stark analysis by many speakers of the impact of neoliberal policies there was agreement that change is possible. The response to the Federal Budget has demonstrated that many Australians want to challenge the policies that exacerbate poverty and disadvantage.
Feminist scholar, teacher, writer and consultant Dale Spender described the suffragette movement and how their protest and combined action won women’s right to vote. She described it as a celebratory movement which focused on deeds, not words.
Participants were reminded of then US First Lady Hilary Clinton’s speech to the United Nation’s Conference on Women in 1995: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this Conference let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely — and the right to be heard.”
The conference, organised by the Association of Women Educators, was challenging and inspiring. Many of the speakers played a leading role in the development of gender equity policies and strategies in the early 1990s.
For more information about the Association of Women Educators visit www.awe.asn.au.