Gender equity: A policy context

Miriam Henry explores the pressures and possibilities we all face as we struggle to make gender equity policies work.

About the author
Miriam Henry lectures at the Queensland University of Technology. This paper was given as an address to the Gender Equity Officers’ Network in Brisbane.

Gender equity: A policy context

The outcry over the recent advertisement from the Queensland Tourism and Travel Corporation—“Yo! Way to go”—and the subsequent minor modification following intervention from the Women’s Policy Unit—bottom-pinching went, though the harnessing of sun, surf and nubile nudish female bodies remained—perhaps represents progress of a sort. It certainly highlights gender equity’s ambivalent status. I want to pursue this theme of ambiguity because it encapsulates the pressures and possibilities we all face as we struggle to make gender equity policies work. In order to do this I need to refer briefly to three contexts—global, national and local—which in various ways impact on gender equity policies.

Ted Wheelwright [1] suggests that the real struggle today lies between competing versions of international capitalism: laissez faire (in the US and Britain) and statist (Europe and Asia). The former version places a strong emphasis on the ‘level playing field’ of the international market whereas the latter, recognising the imperfection of the ‘level playing field’, sees the need for some intervention in the operation of the market. Wheelwright places Australia in the laissez faire basket, but I would suggest that in relation to social policy, Australian approaches are more complex, with clear distinctions between Labor and Liberal approaches. For example, there seems little doubt to me that, whatever the shortfalls of Labor policy, Labor governments since Whitlam have taken a much more actively interventionist stance than their Liberal counterparts in relation to gender equity.

Still at the global level is the international legislative context. Through agencies such as the United Nations and the International Labor Organisation, international covenants, treaties and laws have been established which have provided a valuable framework for much Australian legislation and policy development in equal employment opportunity, sex discrimination and affirmative action.

Now to the national context. With the election of the Hawke Government in 1983 and Keating’s deregulatory (laissez faire) financial policies, Australia has been drawn into the international economy with concomitant pressures for economic and labour-market restructuring. This has involved a shift from a Keynsian welfarist view of the state as serving as a substantial buffer against market excesses, to an emphasis on a minimal state role in a predominantly market-oriented society.

This shift has been underpinned by the driving philosophy or ideology of economic rationalism, a version of economics believing in the efficacy of market competition—market discipline—to achieve the most effective (ie. cost efficient) outcomes. In this view, markets, not governments, know best. Economic rationalism has been applied to a range of activities, for example, the deregulation of banking and finance, trade liberalisation, and the privatising or corporatising of public services. The underlying idea here is that everything has a dollar value: individuals make rational choices based on the worth of a particular commodity to them, eg. fees and education. In this way, education becomes transformed from a ‘public good’ into a market-place commodity subject to consumer choice.

Economic rationalism has been closely associated with a revolution in public administration, sometimes referred to as corporate managerialism. It is characterised by the attempt to graft the efficiency ethos of business onto public administration. Within this view, management is seen as a generalised technical skill (with a belief that there is little difference between a butter factory and an educational institution), being responsible for product quality, optimal efficiency, profit maximisation, corporate spirit and so forth.

The corporate management approach combines strong centralised control (‘head office’) via budget and policy formulation functions, with ‘devolved authority’ to relatively autonomous sub-units (eg. schools) whose job it is to administer policy and determine local budget priorities. Corporate management represents a modern technique for making complex organisations able to respond faster and more ‘efficiently’ (cheaply) to the multiple tasks they face—a process sometimes described as “doing more for less”.

Out of this symbiotic relationship, then, between economic rationalism and corporate managerialism comes the jargon of the modern public service or corporation: clients; service delivery; quality assurance; quality audits; environmental scans; performance indicators; and outplacement consultants.

So, using these terms in relation to education, we can say that education has become a tool and a site of micro-economic reform as part of the process of making Australia internationally competitive. That is, education is seen as the tool to forge the clever country by adding value to human resource investment, a ‘human capital’ view of education. And education is seen as a public service to be ‘reformed’ in order to effect the more efficient delivery of educational services.

Increasingly, as part of this agenda, education is seen as a national concern, with the increasing involvement of the Commonwealth in education. We saw this first in the restructuring of higher education, then in schooling and now in TAFE. In other words, education has become part of a nationally articulated grid connecting the various education sectors (schooling, TAFE, higher education) which, in turn, link with other sectors, especially with industry and through youth policies and welfare policies. This has made education increasingly the target of interest groups with different agendas and a very complex industry.

At the local level, the States are increasingly being drawn into national agendas while trying to retain a States rights position. For example, Queensland has withheld agreement on the Mayer competencies. Such tensions are endemic to the federal structure but have been exacerbated by increasing pressures towards national policy-making in face of the international pressures described above.

The saga over the control of TAFE is a case in point. While States are likely to reflect dominant national tendencies (eg. economic rationalist, corporate managerial approaches including administrative devolution), these are embedded in very different State histories. So, for example, devolution has taken rather different forms in different States at different times, as a comparison between Victoria and Queensland or Western Australia would show. In Victoria (until the Kennett election), due to its particular political history, devolution had taken a relatively participatory route while in Western Australia and Queensland more ‘top down’ approaches to devolution have been adopted.

A colleague tells the story of a school rugby coach who, when asked in a promotions interview about his equity performance, said: “Well, many of the lads come from one parent families. I act as a father figure.”

The place of equity
So, where does equity fit in all of this? These contexts have impacted upon equity policy development in various ways, positively and negatively. I’ll come to that shortly. First it needs to be stressed that equity policy owes its existence to the women’s movement which also operates at the international, national and local levels and has been influenced by the broad trends just outlined.

Out of this movement has come the legislative framework which exists in Australia at Commonwealth and State levels on equal employment opportunity, affirmative action and sex discrimination. This framework has resulted, directly and indirectly, in the establishment of policies and procedures on gender equity within the bureaucracies and in most institutions. In turn, this has impacted on such areas as education policy, educational administration and school curriculum, including research on gender and education issues. The National Policy for the Education of Girls and the outcomes from this are a case in point. Research on developments in gender equity policy suggest that State frameworks are more important than national ones. That is, there has been a rather uneven development of effective policy-making across the States, with most progress in those States with a long history of involvement in schooling reform, South Australia and Victoria. However, with changing political circumstances at State levels, this could well change.

The contextual factors mentioned above have contributed to shifting versions of gender equity in Australia. Initially (in the early 1970s), concern with equality of opportunity for girls (ie. not equity) was part of a broader ‘equality of outcomes’ approach to education embodied in the original Karmel Report. Such a concern grew out of a recognition of, and attempt to rectify, the social and cultural disadvantages experienced by particular groups in our society. In other words, the concern for equality was at that time embedded in a social agenda emphasising collectivity and participation. Today, equity is embedded in a technocratic and economic agenda. The shift is illustrated by the following list of Commonwealth education policy key words [2].

1973-75 1988-89
diversity efficiency
cultural pluralism effectiveness
decentralisation accountability
community involvement productivity
democratisation performance indicators
innovation education markets
child-centred teaching corporate management
equality of opportunity schooling for work
equality of provision national curriculum
disadvantaged schools equity of outcomes
needs social justice

What is also shown here—and this picks up the point made earlier—is how the Australian Labor approach has retained some of the old social democratic agenda, albeit weakly, in a changing market orientation. Labor has attempted to harness equity to the market, rather than seeing equity as antithetical to the market. So, within the broader, now dominant, economic agenda, equity—as we all know—retains a tenuous foothold. One could say that there exists an uneasy alliance between gender equity and economic rationalism. This is important compared with countries such as Britain where a prominent politician could say, “Egalitarianism is an outdated concept.”

What does this all mean? There are many pressures and possibilities. A colleague tells the story of a school rugby coach who, when asked in a promotions interview about his equity performance, said: “Well, many of the lads come from one parent families. I act as a father figure.” This says something about the language of policy, how the term “equity” has become something of a linguistic umbrella, sheltering a number of disparate meanings. This problem is endemic to policy-making, which tends by its nature to be built on compromise.

Pressures: Corporate managerialism
Within a technocratic framework, equity management can become yet another administrative game to be played, along with behavioural objectives and performance indicators. In this way, the machinery of equity, for example the accountability mechanisms, may become a substitute for, rather than a facilitator of, more equitable outcomes. In the story above, ‘equity’ appears to feature as a promotion hurdle, leading to cynicism and games-playing. Anna Yeatman suggests that “equal opportunity in this context comes to be reframed in terms of what it can do to improve management, not in terms of what it can do to develop the conditions of social justice and democratic citizenship” [3]. In this process, women become policy targets, objects of policy rather than empowered by policy.

Pressures: Economic rationalism
Economic rationalism has created a climate in which status means economic status. In this context, equity policy either tends to lose out in the competing policy stakes, or equity becomes incorporated at the margins into the economic agenda. There is some evidence for example to suggest that The National Policy for the Education of Girls has been taken up in a rather narrow way with an emphasis on “preparing girls for the sorts of vocations that the government believes will enhance the economy” [4]. While this is important, it is by no means the full agenda set out in the National Policy. Such marginalisation is also evident in the new post-compulsory education and training policies, where gender equity remains in commas—ie. “tacked onto” the main agenda, but unable to reconstruct it. Marian Sawer’s caustic comment seems appropriate here: “Giving responsibility for equity programs to those whose faith is in the market has been compared to putting mice in charge of the cheese shop.” [5]

Pressures: Devolution
Devolution has many threads, one of which relates to the more-for-less—efficiency—syndrome: with fewer resources ‘devolved units’ still have to show results. One effect of this is that institutions tend to opt for short-term showy products (performance indicators!) with concomitant pressures on those involved rather than long-term gains. Devolution can also be seen as relating to autonomy and market forces. In other words, devolved units have the freedom (autonomy) to operate as they wish, to ‘capture the market’. However, in the educational supermarket, gender equity, unlike discipline or standards, is not an easily marketable commodity.

Pressures: Backlash politics
We are probably all familiar with the phenomenon of backlash politics, generated out of resentment and/or suspicion of ‘the female mafia’. Merit-based promotion has, for instance, generated more than its fair share of moans and groans about token women. In the face of the personal resentment often surrounding this challenge to male power it is not easy to institutionalise gender equity policy, ie. to create new practices that are taken for granted.

Possibilities: Policy frameworks
There is well-developed policy framework and machinery for gender equity, both national and State-based, to the point where even unsympathetic governments are unable to totally dismantle the gender equity infrastructure once it has been established. This was evident in New South Wales when the Greiner Liberal Government’s attempts to dismantle gender equity units and initiatives were only able to be partially implemented. It will be interesting to see whether this holds in Victoria as well, now. Built on a great deal of research, knowledge and experience, policy frameworks provide legitimacy and a useful tool for getting things done. Even the weak 1981 policy of providing equal opportunities for girls and boys in education which existed in the Bjelke-Petersen era enabled activist teachers to develop programs in some areas.

Possibilities: Liberal feminism
Liberal feminism has been able to use the language and machinery of the bureaucracy and the technocrats to achieve gains in gender equity (hence the term ‘femocrat’). So, for example, both liberal feminists and economic rationalists point to the inefficiency of wasting talent as a rationale for gender equity. And liberal feminists have been particularly adept at using the accountability and quality control mechanisms of corporate management (eg. through strategic planning, performance indicators) to achieve equity goals and assist the mainstreaming of the equity agenda in order to promote the equitable delivery of educational services.

Possibilities: A fading orthodoxy?
Economic rationalism is starting to smell bad. There has been a stream of critical books and articles in Australia on economic rationalism, and Keating’s defeat of Hewson must be attributed in part to Labor’s softer line on economic rationalism. In America, US President Clinton is showing some signs of backing away from rationalist policy-making, while in Britain there is widespread criticism of the effects of Thatcherite economic policies. A return to a social agenda can only strengthen the weaker side of the alliance between gender equity and economic rationalism.

Probably, we’re experiencing the three-steps-up-two-down syndrome—that is, making progress, but slowly and unevenly. For example, girls’ retention rates are no longer a problem, but their successful participation in areas beyond the female ghettoes remains problematic. We can now pay constructive attention to aspects of boys’ education though there is still a long way to go in terms of rewriting the gender landscape. However, the range of issues now taken up under the gender equity umbrella, seen for example through the pages of The Gen, is impressive.

The first problem is, how do we manage the tensions between top-down and bottom-up policy processes? Gender equity is a top-down policy and in the current context, with the marginalisation of all things non-economic and the power challenge involved, has to remain as a centrally driven and monitored priority. But we know that top-down policies are likely to be ineffective, resisted by both the bureaucrats and the recipients. How then do we get equity ‘owned’ where it counts? Perhaps there are lessons here from Disadvantaged Schools Program. In an excellent study of the DSP, Bob Connell, Ken Johnston and Viv White showed that the successful programs were those developed at the grass-roots level with strong collaboration between teachers and the community in a whole-school or school cluster approach [6].

The second problem is, how do we make equity a marketable commodity? The education of girls (and boys) in a changing labour market and in an era of changing family responsibilities has now become a community concern. Certainly it has been taken up by private girls’ schools. Schools could trade on—ie. sell—gender equity policies, though clearly some thought would need to be given to marketing strategies!

Third, how do we manage policy overload and burnout? Gender equity is but one aspect of the policy bombardment now hitting schools and teachers. There is a need to establish priorities, but on what basis? Again, there are lessons from the DSP. According to the study just mentioned, the biggest problem facing DSP teachers was lack of co-ordination. This resulted in unnecessary wheel reinvention, isolation and fragmentation of effort, including of research. In other words, there is a need to collect and build, through networks, clearing houses, newsletters, whole-school or cluster approaches. Traditionally the women’s movement has been good at this, but teachers in schools are currently so overwhelmed that there is a danger of losing sight of this collectivist strategy.

Fourth, do we seek to go beyond technocracy? Discernible results and social reform are not synonymous. Outputs-oriented administration does not necessarily deal successfully with the powerful vested interests challenged by gender equity reform. We have to work out how, then, to steer a line between the pragmatic and the idealistic. Anne Summers once talked about the mandarin (bureaucratic) and the missionary (women’s liberation) approach to gender equity reform. In Australia, we have, perhaps, had a bit of both, though it seems to me that in recent times the mandarins have become dominant because they are able to adapt so well to corporate management and economic rationalism. Perhaps it’s time for the missionaries once again?


  1. T. Wheelwright, "Global Capitalism Now: Depression in the 1990s", Arena 98, 1992, pp. 63-75.
  2. Adapted from J. Kenway, Gender and education policy. A call for new directions, Geelong, Deakin University Press, 1990, p.63.
  3. A. Yeatman, Bureaucrats, Technocrats, Femocrats, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1990, p.16.
  4. J. Kenway, op.cit., p.73.
  5. M. Sawer, “Efficiency, effectiveness and equity?” in G. Davis, et al. (Eds.), Corporate management in Australia, Melbourne, MacMillan, 1989, p.190.
  6. R. Connell, K. Johnston and V. White, Running Twice As Hard: The Disadvantaged Schools Program in Australia, Geelong, Deakin University Press, 1991.