For close to two months now Australia has been pushed to acknowledge and confront the problem of violence against women, as well as the broader hindrances that women face in Australian society. With this vital cultural moment instigated by the report of a sexual assault in Parliament House, there has been a strong push for the government to demonstrate serious leadership on these issues. Unfortunately, strong leadership has been lacking. While this is not surprising, it does remain incredibly odd given the significant social and economic costs that these problems create for the state.
If we understand the state as a self-interested entity, then it is puzzling that it would not seek to neutralize issues that adversely affect half its population. Whatever natural resources a state may have, or advantageous geography, a country’s most important capability will always be its people. This should give the state a keen desire to facilitate and harness the human flourishing of its entire population. Yet by failing to adequately address the violence and inequities that women face in Australian society the state is instead significantly undermining its own capabilities.
As a country that has developed a reasonably generous — and skills-based — immigration policy over the past few decades, Australia does clearly understand the idea of enhancing its human capital as a vital component of its overall national strategy. Yet it is obviously failing to apply the same lens to the social and economic conditions that its female population faces.
By maintaining social and domestic environments where women and girls are physically insecure, preserving a justice system that does not take this insecurity seriously — and often compounds that insecurity — and retaining economic structures and cultures that hinder female advancement, the state is obviously working against its own interests. There is a mental blockage when it comes to women that the state and civil society cannot bring itself to recognize and rectify.
This lack of clarity also extends to the specific roles the women play in Australian society. Broadly, women do the bulk of the essential unpaid labor that keeps humanity afloat. Women carry this weight despite the hostile conditions that their societies have created for them. There’s a strength of character here that women demonstrate to take responsibility for their societies where men and governments often fail to do so, and where men and governments also often actively work against them.
A clear understanding of the contributions that women make to social well-being — and, obviously, the creation of future citizens — should make a state hyper-vigilant toward any actions or ideas that threaten women. The state should comprehend that conditions that impede female advancement, whether through persistent violence or structural inequalities, are inhibiting members of society who already over-contribute with little acknowledgement or reward, but who also have the potential to significantly increase their contributions should more favorable conditions allow it.
The stark reality of these unfavorable conditions was highlighted by last week’s publication of the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Gender Gap Index. Included in it was a pair of statistics that when taken together provide an extraordinary indication of how the Australian state is failing to capitalize on the attributes of its women. According to the index Australia women were ranked equal first in educational attainment, but fell to 70th in economic participation and opportunity.
Here there are two elements of Australian society that are failing to consistently align with each other to create advantageous outcomes for women and for the country. Australia’s female educational attainment is positive — although this should be considered a basic human right, not something the country should pat itself on the back for — yet the cultural framework to allow women to fully utilize their skills is evidently lacking.
However, while there are many Australian women who have been able to make advances in their careers despite these cultural hurdles, recent research has indicated that when women earn more than their male partners their risk of becoming victims of domestic violence significantly increases. This is a stark indication of the systematic burdens that women face in Australia; a no-win infrastructure where advances in one area can lead to a brutal backlash in another.
Finding ways to dismantle these absurd conditions should be considered a national priority. The first country to truly place the well-being and advancement of women and girls at the center of its national strategy will find itself at a considerable comparative advantage. There currently are no states that can truly claim this as part of their overarching political designs, despite some forays into important paradigm shifts like feminist foreign policy. Even the country that the World Economic Forum deems to have the smallest gender gap — Iceland — still has an appalling record on safety and justice for women. There’s an opportunity for Canberra if it is prepared to think big.
In order to help itself in this manner the Australian government will need to find a way to directly confront the basic assumption that drives these inequalities. That is the belief — subconscious or otherwise — that male violence and power lust are natural phenomenons that cannot be altered. This assumption persistently lowers behavioral expectations for men, and allows for the consistent ignoring or excusing of violent and discriminatory actions against women.
If the Australian government cannot bring itself to address the violence and inequalities women face as ethical concerns, then it should at the very least be able to develop a clear understanding of how these issues directly affect its own blunt self-interest. As a middle power, in a region with an emerging, revisionist superpower that is not shy about using coercive tactics, Australia simply cannot afford to continue to hamper the well-being and potential of its own citizens as it currently does.