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John Howard Isn't Wrong, And That Is The Worst Bit

Ignoring the reality of the situation won't fix it.

12/09/2016 10:26 AM AEST | Updated 12/09/2016 10:26 AM AEST
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Former prime minister John Howard made headlines last week for his comments on gender equality in cabinet.

John Howard was at the helm of Australia for a very long time, especially compared to today's PMs who can barely last an underwear change.

Regardless of your politics, under Howard Australia enjoyed a stable economy and stable leadership. As a stalwart of Australian politics, Howard is often still sought after for his opinion on many current affairs. Last week, he made headlines after an address at the Press Club attracted quite a bit of attention.

When asked about the numbers of female MPs in cabinet, Howard said: "I don't think you will ever sort of have a 50/50 thing because it is a fact of society that the caring role, whatever people may say about it and whatever the causes are, women play a significantly greater part of fulfilling the caring role in our communities which inevitably places some limits on their capacity."

At the utterance of this opinion, feminists everywhere lost their collective minds. Howard then went on to say: "Now, some people may say, 'What a terrible thing to say'. It is not a terrible thing to say, it just happens to be the truth, and occasionally you've just got to recognise that and say it. The mainstream should not be too timid to say things occasionally."

My first response to this was to feel a little shocked. How could an educated man say that equality was unattainable in the lucky country? We have some of the brightest women in the world with the determination that we've come to expect of a good Aussie sheila. But when I re-read what he had said, I picked up a different, more shocking message.

When I re-read it, I didn't see our former PM saying women can't achieve at all. He said women are too constrained by their gender roles to do so. And while I may have to hand in a woman card for saying this, I think he is actually right. And that should worry anyone who believes in equity and equality more than what most of us originally thought.

The reason Howard is correct is that we still live in a society that was designed for men, by men and, therefore, advantages men.

I don't necessarily think that there is a group of men sitting around a board room table working out how how best to keep women folk down. However, keep in mind our gender roles at work and at home were created centuries ago when educating a woman was seen as a waste as she was put on earth primarily to give birth to and raise children. This structure and this expectation still persists.

The workplace is full of behaviours and systems that disadvantage women. Gender-incongruent behaviour is penalised -- when a woman is assertive she is bossy, when a man is assertive he is a leader. Parental leave is consciously or unconsciously seen as a hinderance to career commitment or progression. September 8 marked Equal Pay Day, the day into the following year women have to work to earn as much as men due to a plethora of factors.

So John Howard actually has a point. We are not going to reach 50/50 in anywhere anytime soon -- not without some drastic change in attitudes, behaviours and policy. The World Economic Forum stated in the Global Gender Gap Report 2015, it will take approximately 118 years to achieve global gender parity. Personally, I am not willing to wait that long.

Women really do fulfill the role of carers, whether for children, family members and the elderly, even if, like her partner, she has a career. They continue to do the bulk of the household management and housework, even if they work full time. For a lot of women, something eventually has to give in these circumstances and very often it is the career goals. How will we achieve parity if the women have to drop out to raise the kids.

The second reason Howard is right is that we must have these uncomfortable discussions. Granted, this notion may have been better received had it come from a notable woman as opposed to a notable white man, but the fact remains that tiptoeing around vital issues absolutely prevents them from being exposed and subsequently addressed. We women are told that we can be anything and achieve everything, but while we are working in a system, in a society that is not set up to benefit our needs and desires, anything and everything can be very out of reach.

Ultimately, Howard is right. Because what he is really saying is that in our current status quo, we have about as much chance of keeping the same PM for the next four years as we do have of reaching parity in the workforce, especially those where men make up the bulk of workers. You don't have to like Howard or agree with what he says or ignore his privilege to delve a little deeper to understand that what he is saying is not necessarily giving up. It is a warning that if we fumble along as is, it will be a long time before we can even approach 50/50.

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