Something pernicious is afoot. It’s not a conspiracy; except that it is.

As many of you will know, I research for a living. I spend many of my waking hours talking to people and then thinking about what they said, what it tells me about their views of themselves and the world, and what that might mean for my clients.

In my early “career,” I worked as a policy adviser in the Office of the Status of Women (another Whitlam legacy, already dismantled). So the term “structural discrimination” is not unknown to me.

So why has it taken me months, possibly years, to remember those two words and apply them to some of the equity issues I see arising in the social research I do?

Naturally my ageing brain should take most of the blame: those two words have probably been thoroughly buried under mounds of appointments I have missed and kindy costume days I have failed to remember (luckily, my daughter dresses as if every day is a dress up day).

But you know, for fun, I like to read about the history of neoliberalism (I don’t get out a great deal). I enjoy big words. I like abstractions. Give me a pithy phrase to explain why it is so hard for minorities or women to take advantage of opportunities, and I will use it ten times in the next ten minutes.

So why did it take me so long to remember that unintentional barriers to government services, employment, and justice are not just oversights by well-meaning people; they are actual, real instances of “structural discrimination”?

Here is my theory.

I could not remember those two words, “structural discrimination,” because we don’t talk about discrimination at all any more. On the rare occasion that one of the Human Rights Commissioners is on the evening news, just seeing the word “Discrimination” in their job title makes me sub-consciously cringe.

Implying that one social group could dominate another, is to contradict the fundamental rhetoric of neoliberalism: that everyone can make it on their own merits, and if they don’t it is their own fault. Structural discrimination does not happen; people simply fail to sort themselves out.

The word discrimination, like feminism, has fallen out of common usage as the neoliberal agenda has gained ground. (An interesting aside about neoliberalism: despite the rhetoric that greater labour market flexibility will lead to greater prosperity, in no single country has this been found to be true for the common man or woman. By contrast, corporate wealth has most definitely increased. See? I did read the first few chapters of Piketty).

People don’t want to feel like victims, which is fair enough. But it denies a simple truth: sometimes, we are.

Of course, you can turn yourself from a victim into a fighter pretty bloody fast. But that does not change the fact that bad shit happens to good people. Sometimes it is unavoidable: a car crash, a cyclone. When it is the result of discrimination, it is totally avoidable: a government service offered only in English; a continuously renewed contract which runs out just before you (publicly) announce you are pregnant.

But you can’t avoid it if you don’t name it.

“It” is discrimination. “It” is accepting that you cannot always win on your own merits. Sometimes the cards are stacked against you, and you need someone to change the deck ukviagras.com.

It helps to name things for what they are. That way organisations, politicians, and well-meaning people who may simply not have thought about it before, are confronted with the consequences of their in/actions.

So come on, friends. Let’s do some naming.

1. The Gang of Breastfeeding Nazis Calling Themselves Community Health Workers

I find it interesting that the last 15 years have seen the decision not to breastfeed equated practically with child abuse. There are some (actually fairly minor) health benefits proven to be associated with breastfeeding (See “Is Breast Best?” for a great summary). But what about the economic, psychological and societal benefits of having women back in the workforce if that is where they want/need to be? Something is going on here. When government-supported services for new mothers push you towards a choice, on slim evidence that it is actually worth stopping your career for, then I think you have to question what is happening. I blame no one. I have not done the research. But I question it. I certainly question it.

2. Career Opportunities Which Require You to be Single and Childless

Never overtly, and often not even intentionally. But if an opportunity has no flexibility about working near or from home, when the work would lend itself to it; if an opportunity means you lose your childcare, or you cannot do the childcare pick up or take care of your ageing relatives for extended periods because you have to be away; then the providers of the opportunity may be structurally discriminating against you. Even if they don’t mean to do it. Even if they would be horrified to hear those words applied to them.

3. A Tertiary Education System With Uncapped Fees

Since Whitlam’s passing, we have all been keenly mourning Australian society as we knew it. Good-bye, meritocracy; hello uncapped fees. This will structurally discriminate against poor people and retain power in the hands of a few.

4. A Petrol Excise That Disproportionately Discriminates Against Poor People

That was a classic, wasn’t it? Joe Hockey trying to explain that rich people would be more affected by a petrol tax, because they had more cars; as if he had never heard the concept of proportion. The Treasurer of the country.

5. Negative Gearing

Housing prices and rental prices will always be too high for many because of a tax system structured to discriminate in favour of the middle class and against those trying to get in.

I could go on. But over to you. Name it.

Something I care a lot about

I just read this article on the SMH.  It’s not often that I get excited about an article on SMH (except maybe to cuss out their tabloidal focus, or their lack of research except for surfing the blogs and the wires).

But this article about the under-representation of women in movies got my interest.  

Geena Davis (Oscar-winning actress, brainiac, mother and Olympian) started to get interested in this issue when she had kids.  She crunched some numbers and found that:

“Typically there are three male characters for every one female character. If it’s a crowd scene, that ratio goes out to four or five males for every female. And 87 per cent of narrators are male.”

She started up an Institute to encourage movie makers to redress this shocking imbalance.  

In my much smaller way, I am writing a teens’ book with a female lead for the same reason.  I started writing it with a male lead – it was instinctive to do so, even though I am not a boy myself.  It was because almost all the heroes in all the books I had read growing up were blokes.  Frodo (bloke hobbit), Harry (bloke wizard), the annoying kid in the Stormbreaker series, and the list goes on.   So when I sat down to write my own fantsay/sci-fi/philosophical fiction for kids, it was like I didn’t even have a choice – a boy appeared on the page, fully-formed.

After one year and one draft, I decided that wasn’t OK with me.  I started again, writing with a girl in the lead.  The boy is still in it – he may even get a lead role, may even be equal protagonist.  But the girl is going to totally kick some ass.

For some time, I questioned if it were OK to make a decision like that – to purposely interrupt the “creative flow” to impose my own beliefs.  But darn it, if I didn’t do it with my own little book, when would I make such a conscious choice again?  Because that’s what it is – that’s what it has to be by story-tellers and film-makers everywhere if the balance is going to change – a conscious effort, a real choice.  

It’s not been easy coming up with a voice for this character. That’s probably just me and my own issues and writerly bothers.  But maybe that’s not all.  The boy character, like I said, practically fell on to the page, and I reckon that’s largely because I had ingested so many version of him over the years that he was just hanging out in my subconscious, waiting for me to put him together.  

So maybe, at least one of the reasons people don’t write more female leads is that there are so few, fictional role models for writers.  There are a lot more books out there now with girl-power in the mix.  But they are a small minority and some of them sound and act like a boy who is a girl in name only anyway.  Ellie, the girl in “Tomorrow when the war began” series is downright boy-ish.  Does a girl-hero in a classic, adventure hero’s journey have to be boy-ish to be a hero?

I hope not.  I hope she also doesn’t have to be uber girlish.  She can just be a girl, with a combination of traditionally male and female qualities (like most of us anyway), in a bad situation that she has to change.  Girls and boys can be equally brave.  Let’s hope the same can be said for writers.


If this topic interests you, you might find this article interesting (it has some handy academic references in it): Gender issues in children’s literature.