Gender equality is stymied by the persistent myth of merit

Julia Gillard’s speech to Tony Abbott put the issue of entrenched gender inequality squarely on the agenda. AAP

When Tony Abbott discussed the fallout from Peter Slipper’s resignation on ABC 24, he argued that he would rather that women were judged on what their actions are, rather than on the basis of their gender.

This notion is aligned to another commonly held observation — that women should be judged on ability rather than on gender. The “ability card” perspective is especially familiar in relation to arguments justifying why women lag behind men in levels of recruitment, promotion and pay. When a woman applying for the same job as a man is shown to have less ability according to the standards of merit deemed for a position, this largely determines that the man is the right person for the job. No one can say that the “gender card” was used to discriminate, because clearly the woman’s “ability card” did not meet the standards.

It is when such rational economic decision-making is challenged by realism that one realises that the “ability card” has implicit tones of bias. It has no room for appreciating the woman’s level of achievement against the demands she juggles in addition to work: having and raising children, caring for her family and taking care of the home. That this unpaid work makes it difficult for work assignments involving travel, attending evening/weekend work meetings, weekend report writing, doing another degree and networking is irrelevant.

The “ability card” does not investigate whether the woman was steered towards roles and responsibilities deemed suitable for a woman during her career; whether she was offered challenging work to develop her potential or how she progressed given these very constraints; whether her leadership was valued for what it is, rather than what it ought to be; whether taking flexible work options led to her being treated unequally; or whether she was simply ridiculed for her successes and failures because she is a woman in a position of leadership.

The impact of all of these gender factors are not part of the ability scenario. Ideal models of promoting and recognising the person who has and who can dedicate 50+ hours a week to their career, and has an unbroken career trajectory simply exclude more women than men.

The view that a woman should only be appointed “on merit” is too often raised: men are rarely subjected to the “on merit” test. Its use is confined to women when they are seeking a senior role to which a man ordinarily would be appointed.

If there is any doubt as to the importance of gender on the world stage and a calling for it to be reckoned with, then consider that ‘Gender card’ principles are propelling global measures to curb the snail pace advance of equality in workplaces, the gender gap in economic empowerment; access to education (third millennium goal of the UN); violence against women and girls Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women; and recognition that women bear the brunt of modern conflicts, including where rape is a weapon of war. The United Nations states that while gender equality is the third goal, it is integral to achieving all eight Millenium Development Goals as human development and human rights issues have gender dimensions.

It is widely accepted that one’s ability to perform to one’s highest potential requires an environment based on respect and valuing of who you are. Who you are is crucially linked to your gender and is part of the broader socio-cultural context. How any action impacts on men and women in any area is important so that women’s and men’s concerns and experiences become integral to their valuing and benefiting equally. Mainstreaming gender perspectives in the Australian discourse is important, but only if it is done to confront gender bias, inequalities and inequities arising from it.