Revisiting gender

September 28, 2016 § 2 Comments

This is a postscript on two articles that I previously wrote – gender issues are complex and my understanding of them is ever-evolving.

Where’s the gap?

In Where’s the gap?, I said this:

I think it’s unproductive to focus on the overall statistic that on average, women earn less than men, because that puts too much focus on the gender, and I don’t think gender is the real cause of the gap (though I stand to be corrected), the real cause are factors such as career choice, parental leave and so forth. These issues need to be solved by policies targeting the specific factors.

However, I’ve come to realise that gender can factor into our career choice – I would go so far as to say that in most cases, it does. When a person is exposed to gender norms/social cues over a long period of time, it can affect what job they choose. When society continuously suggests to a young girl that maths is very hard, she is probably less likely to study maths in the future.

This means that to tackle pay inequality we will probably have to:

  • encourage girls to join fields they are traditionally discouraged from joining
  • remove gender-based expectations on what boys and girls should study
  • make sure all industries are gender-inclusive

Unfortunately they basically come down to one thing – shifting our norms.

Why do we have gender?

Many females feel trapped by the female stereotype that their families and society has imposed on them. And there are other drawbacks to being female – you are more likely to be paid less men; you are more likely than men to experience sexual or domestic violence or abuse. This is why transgender people presented a challenge to Germain Greer’s feminism. A man claims they feel female. But what does it really mean to be female? How can they claim that they feel female when they would never have been exposed to the sort of social conditioning that females receive all the time?

I wrote this partly because, as a male, society gives you certain privileges that it doesn’t afford females (and vice versa – although because female voices feature more in the gender debate, we don’t hear as much on the privileges afforded to women that are not afforded to men). However, I recently watched an episode of ABC’s ‘You can’t ask that’ where they spoke to transexuals. Their responses both challenge and support my view:

  • A trans-female who had not received any hormone therapy or surgery said that as a male, she had never received any male privilege anyway. People picked on her because of the way she dressed and looked.
  • A trans-female who had undergone surgery said that as a female people take you a lot less seriously and sometimes you are immediately shut out from a conversation.
  • A trans-male who had undergone surgery and hormone therapy said that his facial expressions were no longer a commodity, ‘you can be as frowny and loud as you like’, others said that assertiveness was rewarded and you were generally given more room to speak.

Chisholm Polling Booths

July 25, 2016 § Leave a comment

A while ago, I saw this blog post about the Bell St divide (a.k.a. the ‘Wall of Gentrification’) in the seat of Batman in Victoria, where the Labor and Greens vote was very close.

I thought it’d be cool to have a look at my own seat, Chisholm, which at one stage had 66 votes between the two major party candidates, although I think it ultimately widened to 2000+ votes.

Anna Burke, the previous member, only just won the seat in the last election. Perhaps she kept her seat because the community knew her (she’s been around since the late 90s and signed my primary school graduation certificate!). However, with her retirement announced, it was hard to see how Labor would retain the seat amidst growing Liberal support.

Anyway, a friend of mine who’s a data analyst was keen to practice his visualisation skills, so if you want to see how voters voted by booth in the Chisholm electorate here it is. The size of the bubbles represent the % margin.

Who are the Brexit and Trump voters?

July 5, 2016 § 1 Comment

Brexit and Trump represent the increasing destabilisation of mainstream politics. What’s going on?

The underlying issue: no wage growth

In public discourse, the Leave and Remain side largely battled it out over immigration policy, but the real underlying issue of Brexit is the poor economy.

The leave vote expresses the frustration of low-income earners. Britain’s productivity has dropped relative to other developed countries, leading to stagnant wages and living standards. Income gains have accrued to the top one percent and unemployment is concentrated amongst the less skilled. These demographics appear to match those who voted for leave.

Solving these issues require costly, long-term investments in education, training and research. It is much easier to blame immigrants and EU policy, and politicians have capitalised on this accordingly to curry favour with voters.

In fact, immigrants tend to increase workers’ wages. The UK’s disillusioned blue-collar working class are actually losers of globalisation. Globalisation has meant that their job has been outsourced to other countries that can do it cheaper. Goods might be cheaper to consume as a result, but this can hardly make up for not having a job. Transition to new jobs has also been slow due to lack of training and education. Furthermore, unlike Australia, which has a strong union movement, labour markets in the UK are much more deregulated – a remnant of the Thatcher era.

Branko Milanovic’s work elegantly summarises this phenomenon. When we plot change in real income against global income distribution we get a clear view of which people in which countries are the most disenfranchised:


The vertical axis shows the percentage change in real income over the years 1988-2008. The 50th percentile of global income distribution represents the middle class in developing countries like China and India, they have experienced the greatest growth in real income. At around the 80th percentile is the working class in rich, developed nations like the US and UK. These people have not experienced any real wage growth at all.

Rise of the new Right

No major political party represents these people. The conventional Right (i.e. the Conservatives in the UK and the GOP in the US) represent the socially conservative and economically elite. The major left parties are increasingly differentiating themselves by being socially progressive. Protectionist policies, from either side of the spectrum, are no longer politically feasible given the amount of wealth that globalisation has generated, and the tendency for such policies (such as the Brexit leave campaign, and Trump’s ‘make America great again’ campaign) to align with racist and anti-immigration agendas.

The established Right is now juggling between rich people who want liberal markets and small government and working class people who want to feel middle class again. Trump, who represents a ‘new Right’ speaks to the latter, while his Republican colleagues speak to the former.

Similarly, the Left is also juggling between the blue-collar working class (now abandoning leftist parties for the new Right), and urban-dwelling, socially progressive university graduates with well-paid jobs. Jeremy Corbyn represents the interests of the latter, who have flocked to join the Labour party, but fails to gain traction with those struggling to survive in rural towns and villages – Labour’s traditional voter base, and the very people the party was set up to support. It’s telling that Jeremy Corbyn advocated to remain in the EU, yet a third of Labour voters voted to leave – perhaps enough disaffected voters to strip Labour of its major party status come the next UK election.

There is a lot of focus on the supposed stupidity of Leave voters and their support of new extreme right-wing parties, but the real question we should be asking is why are these people voting this way, and how can we make sure they aren’t left behind by globalisation?

An act of economic self-harm

David Cameron called the Brexit result an act of economic self-harm before promptly abandoning the sinking ship. The irony is that by voting to leave the EU, struggling working-class people have only made their lives harder. The fault lies with politicians who have ignored their needs, failed to explain their policies, and yet still capitalise on their struggles to gain political popularity. An unsympathetic and angry Remain constituency can only lead to further ugliness and division, while the real issues at heart remain unsolved.

Economic liberalisation is not to blame. Globalisation and neoliberal economics has led to greater wealth, a bigger pie, if you will. We shouldn’t be shrinking the pie, we just need to divide it more evenly.

Shows I’d rather watch than Q&A

May 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

These days I don’t watch Q&A because it often descends into pointless bickering. Questions are followed by very unhelpful answers. Sometimes politicians (particularly Labor politicians) issue rallying cries of social justice that only serve to win over the audience. Sometimes the hysteria that follows Q&A (e.g. the Duncan Storrar saga) really encourages me to avoid the show.

Q&A does sometimes have guests who manage to make a sensible point. Germain Greer for example, in response to a debate about raising the corporate tax rate, said that raising the tax rate doesn’t matter if Australia doesn’t have a way of collecting the tax. But most of the time it is politicians stating their position without engaging in the question or discussion. There is no thinking. This is why I don’t like Q&A.

What do I watch instead? I like shows where people actually engage with what other people say rather than just staking out a position. For this reason, I like Kitchen Cabinet. The light-hearted feel of the show might make it come across as shallow, but I think it’s one of the rare avenues where politicians can actually explain their view rather than just stake a position. And it gives a much more reasonable and rational account for why their public stance is the way it is. I particularly enjoyed the episode with Jacqui Lambie.

Another show I really enjoy is Insight (on SBS). One of favourites is the one on guns. Robert Brown, a member of the Shooters and Fishers Party who disagrees with current gun laws, is confronted with a Port Arthur massacre survivor, Carol. He is clearly upset and empathetic, but does not change his views. Even though I disagree with him, I still respect his stance and persistence. This is the kind of respect that I feel is lacking in Australian political discourse. People sometimes get confused between disagreeing with a point of view and disrespecting a point of view. All thought has integrity and this should be recognised.

Public Records Office Victoria

May 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

I visited Public Records Office Victoria today (more affectionately known as ‘prov’). It is more beautiful and modern than what I thought an archive site would look like, and it’s got a wonderfully lit reading room (with free access to on all its computers).

PROV has over 17 million records and to date has only digitised 1% of its collection. Digitising is a lengthy process and is commonly undertaken by volunteers. It is also getting records at a faster rate than it can digitise them.

Their records include things like:

  • Wills
  • Prison records
  • Health records
  • Rate records
  • Government documents
  • Building plans

Finding things can be a bit tricky. I found an old plan for the Melbourne Town Hall (dated 1849), which is in a collection titled ‘Sydney’. Confusing huh? Turns out the records in this collection are all plans that were once sent to Sydney for approval.

Melbourne Town Hall

Why do we have gender?

May 4, 2016 § 1 Comment

I have several drafts not ready to go. Among the topics I want to write and really think about are: negative gearing, an emerging ‘superficial’ social conscience (much more on that later) and of course something else to do with feminism (and while I’m on the topic, if the word ‘feminist’ troubles you, just remove it and call everyone not in favour of gender equality, sexist – that might help, it might not, also more on that later).

But this has been bugging me for a while. Why gender? I don’t mean the strictly biological kind where a female has two x-chromosomes and can carry a baby. Being a member of a particular sex in our society comes with all the trappings of socially imposed gender stereotypes.

And this is where I encounter problems with being transgender. It has been growing on me ever since I read this article by Lionel Shriver. That I should have any issue with being transgender is troubling enough. Aren’t I liberal? I’ve always supported full autonomy, including that people can choose their gender.

But in an ideal world, people shouldn’t feel the need to pick a gender. In an ideal world, your gender should say nothing about you except whether or not you’re XX or XY.

This is my current philosophical predicament. Some people might identify with being female purely on a biological level – I have no comment on that. But others might feel like they are female because they identify more with society’s construct of the female. For example, that the female is graceful; she is patient, kind and nursing. She is beautiful, she has long hair and wears dresses. Third wave feminism is about transcending gender norms. But the idea of choosing to be female because you are drawn to the female stereotype undermines this movement.

And there’s a whiff of the gender-equivalent of cultural appropriation. Many females feel trapped by the female stereotype that their families and society has imposed on them. And there are other drawbacks to being female – you are more likely to be paid less men; you are more likely than men to experience sexual or domestic violence or abuse. This is why transgender people presented a challenge to Germain Greer’s feminism. A man claims they feel female. But what does it really mean to be female? How can they claim that they feel female when they would never have been exposed to the sort of social conditioning that females receive all the time? Underpinning all this, of course, is that gender is a social construct. When you pick a gender identity, you are not so much picking a gender, as a set of social norms and behaviours that you identity with (and that many women may in fact not).

This is why Lionel Shriver argued that this social construct of what it means to be a particular gender is useless. It should go. Gender doesn’t tell you anything about a person’s personality or attitudes. Arbitrarily placing everyone on a gender spectrum is unhelpful and sometimes hurtful. If we didn’t prescribe certain expectations of behaviour to certain genders then no one would feel the need to pick one over the other.

Of course, on the other hand, being transgender is subverting a gender norm. So now my theory is all in a heap again. Help me get my act together.

Where’s the Gap? Follow-up post

April 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

A friend read my previous post and made some comments to me, and I thought it might be a good idea to address them in a follow up post.

Why the bit about HECs debt and super?

The HECs debt is rising, and there is little chance of government recovering all of this debt. A recent Grattan report suggested lowering the repayment thresholds in order to increase the number of people repaying their HECs debt by nearly 50%. Future policies in this space will probably focus on how to get this debt repaid.

More than half of tertiary graduates are females, we can make a crude but reasonable extrapolation that more females than males will shoulder HECs debts. Because of the gender pay gap, females are more likely to take longer to pay off their debts, or indeed, fail to pay all of it. This means the cost will fall to taxpayers.

The situation with super is similar. Australia has an ageing population, and there are more females than males in higher age groups (e.g. over 60 yrs), this means that over time, we will get more and more elderly females living off their super.

Because of the gender pay gap, these women have probably accumulated less super then men, and will therefore rely on welfare benefits to meet the gap between their living needs and their super payout. The cost of providing welfare will also fall to taxpayers.

The impetus for providing these arguments is to say that in addition to equal pay being a good thing in principle, there are also economic incentives to eliminate this pay gap. Making sure there is equal pay benefits us all. My primary argument is still that equal pay is something that we should strive for on principle, but for those skeptics out there who think the pay gap is just the result of women making poor life decisions (and therefore why should we help?) these arguments show that the gender pay gap can affect everyone, and that more equal pay benefits us all.

Should we be aiming at gender-neutral policies?

My friend mentioned that parental leave policies should aim to be gender neutral, and that in fact this whole debate about the gender pay gap should be discussed on gender neutral terms. It’s about empowering both sexes to do things outside of their traditional gender roles, which will help address the differences between male and female working hours, and therefore level their pay.

However, I believe that the time has passed for entirely gender-neutral policies, at least for parental leave schemes anyway. We are at a point where the norm is still stacked against the female. The norm is that the mum stays home to look after the kids while the dad works. To proactively combat that norm, we need policies in place that still allow mothers to take time off work to look after children, but also does more to encourage fathers to take leave. For example, a period of parental leave that can be taken by either parent, and an additional, say, 2 month period that is reserved for the father on a take it or lose it basis.