My starting point for this article is the following puzzle. We live in a world saturated with discussion about feminism across all media and many areas of focus – from gaming, to global conflict. But in our schools it is largely an absent presence.
This is in spite of the fact that, in the two decades following the publication of the landmark Australian Schools Commission Report, Girls, Schools and Society (1975), Australia was one of the world leaders in bringing together the best of feminist academic scholars, education policy makers and education practitioners to develop understandings about the nature of gender inequality, how school contributes to this inequality and the best ways to address gender issues in schools.
During this period, gender equity policies were in place nationally and in all states and there was a lively debate about gender equity priorities, drawing on practice and research, about how gender inequality is constructed and maintained, the implications for the education of boys and much more. Of course it was far from perfect and there were pockets of resistance, but it was never just ignored.
It is true that there are still some programs that are being implemented in Australian schools today that are informed by feminist understandings. Some good examples of this include the safe schools program – a national program addressing homophobia, some but not all anti-bullying programs and a Victorian state school program that has a focus on sex education and gender based violence.
However, these are not across all schools and there are no consistent broader gender equity programs in place. It appears to be entirely up to individual feminist educators to find suitable material and more importantly to find space in pressured teaching programs for any learning that prepares students to understand and respond to patriarchal cultural, economic and social practices and structures that they both already experience and will come across in adulthood.
There are also no longer official systemic policies they can rely on to legitimize this work and I have heard anecdotally that even strong feminist educators often decide not to raise issues relating to gendered practices in their school or to suggest the inclusion of feminist perspectives, where they may be relevant to a particular learning topic, because they fear the consequences.
Why this happened could be seen as less relevant than what to do about it. But what if the issues are connected? What if the ideas, assumptions, practices and or forces that contributed to the demise of gender equity policy and practice continue to impact today?
In my previous article, I noted that I had always assumed that the gender equity movement died because the ascendency of the men’s rights backlash coincided with increasing evidence that, in terms of school level academic outcomes, girls were actually faring better than boys, in crude terms, and that in 1996 the Howard Government was voted in and backed the men’s rights view of the world.
Looking back I can see that this might have been the main driver in the first instance but this does not explain why there was no rebound effect.
Why has gender equity stayed off the schooling agenda for 20 years when there has been such a significant resurgence almost everywhere else?
In this article I make the case for the following propositions:
- That neoliberal understandings have had a profound impact on the structures and cultures of schooling and this has reduced the opportunities for the kinds of intellectual work required to bring feminist considerations to mainstream learning.
- That neoliberal understandings have also impacted on the kinds of feminist understandings that are most accessible to educators by privileging individualistic perspectives and practices.
- That the impact of this has been significant and problematic for young people who leave school and enter adulthood poorly prepared for negotiating patriarchal structures, practices and assumptions that they encounter as adults particularly around work and family.
Neoliberalism and Schooling
The gender equity policies and practices that were taken up by school systems right across Australia, in the period between 1975 and 1995, took place in school settings that lacked the significant elements of neoliberal understandings of schooling.
There were no national standardised tests and even when they (the NAP, now NAPLAN) were first introduced in the mid 1990s, they did not become high stakes tests until the Labor Party, excited by Joel Klein’s vision decided to report the results a school level through the MySchool website in 2008.
The Howard and Kennett visions of improving schooling through markets and school choice had not yet begun. While many parents decided to send their child to a non-state school, and a small number of parents chose out of area public schools, the local community public school was still the default. Politicians were not yet sprouting the idea that schools across all systems would improve by competing with each other for teachers and students and that it was the responsibility of good parents to make an informed choice about their child’s schooling.
The National Curriculum Statement and Profiles, that had been completed by the early 90s, looked very different to the more proscribed syllabus outline we have today. They were firmly based on developmental understandings of children’s learning, they rejected A-E grading and the notion that children must be assessed against year level standards.
Australian participation in global testing, PISA and TIMMS, was in the early stages of negotiation. Indeed, we did not know how well our students were doing in a global context, as there were no global standards or comparative data.
Teachers were still accused of being not good enough and there were vicious debates about how to teach reading, and the merits of progressive education vis-à-vis other methods. However, progressive education as understood in the broad traditions of John Dewey and Jerome Bruner dominated, and the idea of education for full democratic participation was not hotly contested within the profession.
Schooling was seen as being about much more than test scores and preparation for work. Issues that had importance beyond the world of work, like gender justice, could be prioritised in such an era. Teachers were not pressured to teach to the test and had the time to introduce broader learning themes.
I am not suggesting for a minute that things were perfect or even necessarily better. I know from my own experience during this period that our understanding of education disadvantage was not well examined and that deficit understandings of poor, Indigenous and disabled students may well have led to lowered expectations and complacency about poor outcomes. The ideas about teacher professional standards, school improvement, teacher collaboration and continued professional development existed in the research but had not yet been comprehensively implemented across all systems. But there was an absence of the kind of pressures that have become associated with the global education reform initiatives of marketisation and high stakes testing that have been documented by a many researchers in Australia and internationally.
I will draw on just two such studies, both Australian.
The first was undertaken by The Whitlam Institute, in response to public concerns about the effects of high stakes testing. They conducted a survey of teachers and principles to ascertain their perceptions of how high stakes testing has impacted on students and classroom practice.
In relation to classroom practice, survey respondents noted the following impacts:
- NAPLAN preparation is adding to an already crowded curriculum – over 85%;
- NAPLAN is affecting the range of teaching strategies they use – 59%.
- NAPLAN is impacting on the way in which school communities view curriculum areas, with subjects that are not tested reduced in importance – 75%
- The focus of NAPLAN on literacy and numeracy has led to a timetable reduction for other subjects in their schools – over 66%.
This suggests that the pressure to prepare students for the NAPLAN test is reducing the space for the kinds of enquiry that used to occur in the days when there was a gender equity policy and readily available relevant curriculum materials.
But it goes beyond this. The NAPLAN performance pressure does not just impact on individual teachers in individual schools. Schools are now in competition with one another for the most desirable school enrolments and desirable parents. NAPLAN results are published on the MySchool website so that parents can make ‘informed choices’. On the website, schools are compared with ‘ like schools’ – that is those who have similar student demographics and parents can also compare their NAPLAN scores with schools in the nearby vicinity.
The Whitlam survey also noted the following respondent views:
- The publication of ‘weaker than expected’ results would negatively affect parental perception of the school. – 95%
- Poor NAPLAN results would negatively affect media reports about the school – 95%
- Weak results would damage the school’s reputation in the community – 96%
- Lower than expected results on NAPLAN would mean that a school would have trouble attracting and retaining students – over 90%
- There would be a negative impact on staff morale – 90%
- Weaker than expected’ results would lead to a negative student perception of the school – 75%.
This is consistent with the observations made by Susan Groundwater-Smith and Nicole Mockler in their book, Teacher professional learning in an age of compliance. These researchers undertook extensive school based research in schools across NSW in 2009 and this book is based on this experience.
They observe that the impact of the global education reform agenda has resulted in a retreat into a standardised, audited, and backward-looking schooling culture, the rolling back of a more progressive educational philosophy, an increased acceptance of ‘common sense solutions; a reduced tolerance for ambiguity; and an increase in fear and distrust. They also make the following important observation:
Almost a century after the publication of Democracy and Education, [John Dewey 1916] we find ourselves in uncertain, ambiguous times. …On a policy level we appear to be once again retreating, from a once-within-our-grasp vision of progressive education into safer, more measurable, more quantifiable territory. More worryingly we see the very notion of democracy at the heart of Dewey’s thinking under threat…at the hands of religious, economic and educational fundamentalists and a pervasive neoliberal agenda.
They concluded that ‘the press for compliance leaves little room for a more critical position to be adopted”.
Neoliberalism and Feminism
Neoliberalism has also influenced, profoundly, the dominant ideas of feminism. Eva Cox made this same point recently:
During the past few years, I have been seriously rethinking feminism. This intensified at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival when I attended a session by Michael Sandel on money, followed by a panel on feminism. Sandel analysed the damage done by more than two decades of neoliberal market models; the feminist panel ignored this and just complained about continued inequities, but not why this is so (my emphasis).
Cox is suggesting that those feminists who have the most exposure in popular discourse are not interested in how the neoliberal economic, social policies, practices and ideas have impacted on women – and on particularly on differently positioned women.
She goes on to say that the tamed-down version of feminism of today misses many of the important issues for women because the scope of its focus is far too narrow. Violence might be a fundamental women’s issue but many issues of mainstream economic, political, environmental importance also demand a feminist lens.
The shift to market models meant many women’s groups focused on raising the status of women via access to power in current macho terms. More women in male-defined areas of power – in politics or on boards – was erroneously claimed to be the route to feminist change. But we failed to see they were promoted because they posed no threat to the system that allowed them into the tent to share some of the power that men controlled. There are active women’s groups with current demands for remedies to violence and exclusion, access to childcare, improvements to bad media images and solutions to female poverty and lack of representation. But these are not radical demands and are defined as “women’s issues”, not general problems for society.
I want to see more action in devising solutions rather than just protest campaigns. Feminists need to lead so that we can counter the bipartisan bad policies of the major political parties: low welfare payments, bad indigenous programs, overlong working hours, too many market-based not community-based services.
There is an urgent need to solve many “wicked” policy problems – boat people, inequality, environmental damage. These issues need much better connectivity and social cohesion, so it is irrational that women are not there to contribute perspectives broader than the limited experiences of current leadership incumbents. We need wider views than macho neoliberal economics can offer to cope with the problems caused by an ageing population, mobile workers, single-person households, social inequities and growing personal care needs.
Nancy Frazer goes further and argues that feminism today actually promotes and legitimizes neoliberalism:
In a cruel twist of fate, I fear that the movement for women’s liberation has become entangled in a dangerous liaison with neoliberal efforts to build a free-market society. That would explain how it came to pass that feminist ideas that once formed part of a radical worldview are increasingly expressed in individualist terms. Where feminists once criticised a society that promoted careerism, they now advise women to “lean in”. A movement that once prioritised social solidarity now celebrates female entrepreneurs. A perspective that once valorised “care” and interdependence now encourages individual advancement and meritocracy.
Sarah Jaffe, a blogger for Dissent magazine explains how feminist campaigns for equal pay and for equal access to male dominated areas of work dominated feminist activism at the expense of a focus on valuing of women’s traditional work, including unpaid caring and community work and union organizing. This was a feminism that was highly compatible with the neoliberal focus on undermining unions, seeing all activity in market terms, ignoring community and pushing down wages.
[T]he so-called “second wave” of feminism fought for women to gain access to work outside of the home and outside of the “pink-collar” fields. Yet in doing so, some feminists wound up abandoning the fight for better conditions in what had always been considered women’s work—whether that be as teachers and nurses, or the work done in the home for little or no pay.
. ..The devaluation of work that involves care, work for which women were assumed to be innately suited, continued apace when feminism turned its back. As other jobs have disappeared, the low wages that were acceptable when women were presumed not to need a “family wage,” because they ought to be married to a man who’d do the breadwinning, became the wages that everyone has to take or leave.
Equal pay for equal work means little when the wages for all are on the way down….[ F]or a hotel housekeeper, a nurse, a janitor, the best way to improve your job isn’t to get promoted through the ranks, but to organise with your fellow workers.
What do we want young women (and men) to learn about feminism?
I am retired from the paid workforce now but I spent many years working in the public service on social policy, some of it on women’s desks. I constantly came across strong, smart, interesting women who stood up against sexism and homophobia in the workplace but whose paid intellectual work appeared to be gender, class and race blind. They did not see it as their role, in developing policy, to consider how particular design elements would impact on differently positioned individuals and families. We need scientists, economists, education and health policy workers to do better than this.
I want a schooling system that insists that students ask questions about what they learn and that equips them to apply a feminist and/or class and/or culture lens to all issues of importance. If we are committed to a fairer more just society we need nothing less.
Feminist questions and perspectives belong in the technology, music, art, English literature, science, legal studies, history, civics and citizenship, environmental studies and health classrooms, not just in wellbeing, sex education, school dress code and bullying policies.
We also need to better prepare students for what Leslie Cannold once described as ‘the equal opportunity train wreck that is motherhood”. Liberal Feminism won’t help with negotiating the structural inequality issues enmeshed in the work relationship conundrums that arise when a baby comes on the scene, even in a supposedly equal relationship.
Stephanie Coontz, Professor of family history at Evergreen state college (USA) observes that:
…men and women .. are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to arranging their work and family lives. For more than two decades the demands and hours of work have been intensifying. Yet progress in adopting family-friendly work practices and social policies has proceeded at a glacial pace.
While the US has even worse family friendly policies than Australia, those same tensions exist for young parents here.
While research suggests that most young men and women have similar expectations of work, family and careers on leaving school and remain committed to the ideal of an equal relationship and with shared care of children and equal opportunities to progress in their respective jobs/careers, the reality is that this is extremely difficult to manage and most fail. And when this idea fails, the fall-back compromises are depressingly predictable.
When family and work obligations collide, mothers remain much more likely than fathers to cut back or drop out of work. But unlike the situation in the 1960s, this is not because most people believe this is the preferable order of things. Rather, it is often a reasonable response to the fact that our political and economic institutions lag way behind our personal ideals.
Women are still paid less than men at every educational level and in every job category. They are less likely than men to hold jobs that offer flexibility or family-friendly benefits. When they become mothers, they face more scrutiny and prejudice on the job than fathers do.
So, especially when women are married to men who work long hours, it often seems to both partners that they have no choice. Female professionals are twice as likely to quit work as other married mothers when their husbands work 50 hours or more a week and more than three times more likely to quit when their husbands work 60 hours or more.
So what happens when young women – including young feminists, with high hopes for their careers – find themselves doing most of the care work and, because they are home more, most of the housework, and find themselves earning less or even being, for a period, economically dependent?
When people are forced to behave in ways that contradict their ideals, they often undergo what sociologists call a “values stretch” — watering down their original expectations and goals to accommodate the things they have to do to get by. This behaviour is especially likely if holding on to the original values would exacerbate tensions in the relationships they depend on.
When a couple backslide into more traditional roles than they originally desired. The woman resents that she is not getting the shared child-care she expected and envies her husband’s social networks outside the home. The husband feels hurt that his wife isn’t more grateful for the sacrifices he is making by working more hours so she can stay home. When you can’t change what’s bothering you, one typical response is to convince yourself that it doesn’t actually bother you. So couples often create a family myth about why they made these choices, why it has turned out for the best, and why they are still equal in their hearts even if they are not sharing the kind of life they first envisioned.
And when this happens, the frameworks and ideas most readily available to make sense of what has happened do not help, because what is a structural problem – the failure of work organisation to cater for the role of caring and the undervaluing of this role – gets framed as a personal choice.
What I have outlined above only covers the dilemmas experienced by young people who end up in hetero-normative coupledom. Others who traverse these pathways as teen mums, queer parents, divorced and single parents have an even more difficult time.
In my view, young people need exposure to the best analytical frameworks that feminism can provide, not a gender blind education that leaves them to work it out and not a feminism that binds them to the key assumptions and beliefs underpinning neoliberalism, but one that is able to look at issues from a structural perspective and from the point of view and experience of people living in very different contexts.
Schools can and should prepare our young people, men and women, for the challenge of negotiating work life balance in an unequal world. We can’t just paint a nirvana of a gender blind world where work and family options are equally open to all with no detriment.
So how do we prepare them? Well the reality is that we can’t – not explicitly. You try telling even the most highly educated person that having a baby will change their life and not all in a good way. But we can equip them with the tools of feminist analysis that go beyond a liberal feminism of personal choice. We can study issues that will be relevant to their futures as workers and possibly parents.
In the 2014 budget, Hockey announced many unpopular proposals but it is important to note that they were not only about savings. The reforms to higher education and the co-payments for GP visits were also driven by a belief, held by this Government, that all services should have market signals. If implemented, these understandings take us even further into an extreme neoliberal future where education and health are not investments for the common good, but a private good that must be purchased in a competitive market.
To respond to the problems created by neoliberal policies, people need to be able to name and understand the assumptions and beliefs that underpin such practices, and to understand their impacts.
Neoliberalism dominates our understandings today but until recently it was hegemonic – so taken for granted that it was invisible like the air we breathe. The term neoliberalism was rarely used outside of leftist circles and was viewed by many as extreme left jargon. But this is changing as its tensions, contradictions and problems are becoming more and more apparent.
We now have increasing levels of exposure to information that shows how powerful business groups, drawing on neoliberal buzz words about market forces and small government, have had an unequal impact on our democratic processes as large corporations effectively ‘buy Governments’ and used the system to amass huge wealth at the expense of most of the planet. This historic concentration of wealth to a fraction of the population while hollowing out the middle class and increasing poverty is in the popular press and even the Pope speaks out about it.
Best sellers like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything make popular the notion that climate change is intrinsically connected to neoliberalism and this is starting to change the conversation. She makes it clear that we cannot solve the urgent issues facing this planet on which we all depend just by lobbying for better climate policies. We have to change our thinking entirely:
..[W]e will not win the battle for a stable climate by trying to beat the bean counters at their own game – arguing for instance, that it is more cost –effective to invest in emission reductions now than disaster response later. We will win by asserting that such conversations are morally monstrous, since they imply that there is an acceptable price for allowing entire countries to disappear, for leaving untold millions to die on arched land, for depriving today’s children of their right to live in a world teeming with wonders and beauties of creation”
Now I am not saying that we should indoctrinate our young people about the evils of neo-liberalism and create revolutionary activists. But we can and must expose young people to the important ideas and perspectives of our time and the significant associated debates. Tomorrow’s adults deserve nothing less.
 Girls, Schools and Society: Report by a study group to the Schools Commission Nov 1975. Jean Blackburn was the most high profile person who was part of the group and the foreward states that she did the final editing of the publication. This had a significant influence on education policies and practices across all schooling systems in Australia and set in train a series of gender equity policy documents spanning the next two decades.
Neoliberalism, sometimes referred to as unconstrained capitalism,, is, basically, the belief that states ought to abstain from intervening in the economy, and instead leave as much as possible up to individuals participating in free and self-regulating markets. This means that as much as possible, all services should be run as user pays businesses. Individuals are also seen as being solely responsible for the consequences of the choices and decisions they freely make: instances of inequality and glaring social injustice are acceptable, because they are, in the main, the result of freely made decisions.
. to read more about schools and the influence of neoliberalism go to https://educatorvoices.wordpress.com/2013/05/22/what-have-schools-got-to-do-with-neo-liberalism/
 Susan Groundwater-Smith and Nicole Mockler: Teacher Professional Learning in an age of Compliance: Mind the Gap, Springer 2009
 Stephanie Coontz, Why Gender Equality stalled New York Times, Opinion Feb 2013
Hernan Guevo and Johanna Wynn, Rethinking Youth transitions in Australia, Youth Research Centre, University of Melbourne, March 2011. This is a detailed longitudinal study of young men and women from school leaving and up to their late 30s. This report makes t clear that man and women had similar attitudes to careers , jobs and families but that when children arrive the gendered patters of work and care continue to operate along traditional lines not because couples believe this is how things aught to be, but because of the complex choices and challenges under structurally constrained circumstances. http://web.education.unimelb.edu.au/yrc/linked_documents/RR33.pdf
 Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate, Penguin Group 2014