Academic journal article Hecate

Institutions and Activism around Women and Work at a Time of Change

Academic journal article Hecate

Institutions and Activism around Women and Work at a Time of Change

Article excerpt


Recent and substantial 'reforms' have significantly amended the 1996 Workplace Relations Act (Cth) and 'Welfare-to-Work' regimes. These reforms have renewed the focus on gender at work, in the community at large, and among academics. However, the solid scholarship that exists on gender and work done in Australia has been in two separate disciplinary areas - feminist public policy scholarship, and feminist industrial relations scholarship - with little integration to date of the joint insights of this work. The purpose of this article is therefore to ask 'can industrial relations scholars gain new insights into industrial relations by examining the work of feminist public policy scholars'? If so, what are those insights?

The first part of the article examines the role of political and social institutions and groups as they impact on gender and work, using the feminist public policy literature. In doing so, we consider women's policy machinery inside government as well as the machinery for gender activism outside government: particularly in the community sector and unions.1 This section also canvasses the discursive shifts of the Howard years, in particular the emphasis opposing 'special interests' and on 'governing for the mainstream', which has acted to marginalise women's interests. The second part discusses the issues, arguing first that, despite the difficulties facing the progression of 'women and work' issues, gender has been kept on the agenda in various ways. This section further argues that the public policy literature needs to be cross-fertilised with the work of industrial relations scholars in order to more fully understand the challenges that beset the future of gender activism in Australia, as well as to more fully assess and appreciate the gains of current and past activism.

The article assumes that the 'women and work problem' is still a significant social and economic issue where much remains to be done and past gains are in danger of being lost. Articles by Anna Chapman, David Peetz, Anthony Gray and Pauline Collins and others in this journal issue highlight a range of concerns about the effects of WorkChoices and 'Welfare-to-Work' legislation on women, so we do not canvass those issues here.

Policies on Women and Work: The Role of Political and Social Institutions

The public policy literature on gender and work traces the steady reduction of mechanisms for influencing the issue of women and work over the past 20 years, but particularly in the last 10 years since the ascension of the Howard government. Throughout the bureaucracy, within Parliament, and in the public sphere, there has been progressive defunding, disestablishment of groups, and discursive shifts that marginalise the position of women.

Women's Policy Machinery Inside Government

The institutional context for promoting gender equity in Australia - in work and in other areas of life - has significantly changed over the past 30 years. It has gone full circle: from the fledgling but highly significant efforts in the 1970s, to a pervasive set of policies and units throughout government in the late 1980s, to a situation from 1996 (and indeed prior to that), where the machinery to implement effective gender policy has been substantially restricted, and agendas have narrowed.

The history of this machinery has been well documented by Marian Sawer and others.2 In 1973, Elizabeth Reid, the first Australian Women's Adviser (to the Prime Minister) was appointed.3 Simultaneously, a 'hub and spokes' model was developed to promote women's policy, with the 'hub' being the forerunner of what later became the Office of the Status of Women (OSW), located in Office of the Department of the Prime Minister, and the 'spokes' of the wheel in line departments.4 The OSW did not act on its own, but rather used a range of mechanisms that promoted use of its location and its access to influence, with other activities such as reaching out to traditional women's organisations in the community via the National Women's Advisory Council and its successor, the National Women's Consultative Council (NWCC). …

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