Glass ceiling remains intact in Australia

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When Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female Prime Minister this week, feminists couldn’t contain their joy. But while Gillard’s appointment is a milestone in Australian history, the glass ceiling is far from being shattered, writes Sophie Trevitt.

As of 24 June 2010, there is a woman running Australia, as former Deputy Prime MinisterJulia Gillard became Prime Minister in the ALP’s spill that saw former PM Kevin Rudd ousted.

Moreover, there is a de-facto, childless woman running this nation.

It’s a damning reflection of how conservative we remain as a society that Gillard’s breasts and uterus, and the fact that she feels no need for state validation to legitimise her relationship, make her accession to Prime Minister something of a shock to our fragile, Australian sensibilities.

The question is, apart from the scandal and the novelty of a pair of tits in power, what does it mean for other Australian women?

Does it mean that the ultimate feminist dream has been realised? Has Gillard smashed through the glass ceiling and from the top down, overnight, reformed the status of women nationwide?

Does it mean that we’re not there yet, but a significant step has been taken towards establishing an equal playing field? Is it merely worth its symbolic weight in bras and laundry detergent as Gillard is hit back and forth like a ping pong ball between factional heavyweights?

I want to believe that Australia shuffled forward this week. I want to believe that by welcoming Gillard into office (albeit in an unconventional and unprecedented way) we have inched a little further towards being a progressive and equitable country.

I want to believe this, but it seems the fanfare heralding Gillard as the feminist’s dream and projecting the image of a female Governor General shaking hands with the first female PM, is a little premature. Nobody wants the teaser to outshine the movie.

The fact is, Australia has stuck out like a regressive sore thumb for some time now amidst the other democracies in our region that have not been inflicted with the milky cataracts that have prevented us from seeing women as people rather than a sum of our reproductive capacities, clearly unable to lead a country.

Gillard has done some remarkable things to promote gender equality. She has been instrumental in reviving paid parental leave, she pushed for pay increases in the community sector and she has committed to increasing women’s participation in the workforce.

All of this at a time when the wage gap between men and women is widening, having reached the highest level of disparity in 15 years. And it seems as though we’re for the first time talking openly about why this disparity exists.

Men hold the vast majority of high-paid positions in high-paid industries, while women tend to fill minimum-wage positions in the service sector. The difference is not one of qualification or training, rather it simply comes down to the fact that we value the work of men in male-dominated industries and we don’t value the work of women, in female-dominated industries.

Gillard has leapt into an arena that is very much cock-heavy, yet she certainly doesn’t want to be the feminist symbol so many Australian women have been waiting for.

In her opening address to the nation she asserts resolutely that she “did not set out to crash [her] head against any glass ceiling.” By acknowledging the glass ceiling and then stating that she did not intend to tear it down, Gillard has proved that the glass ceiling is just as thick, and just as deceptively transparent as it ever was.

For decades, women have bashed their bleeding heads against that ceiling in desperate pursuit of equality – for themselves and for all other women. For decades, women have striven for what has always seemed unattainable in a society whose power remains very much in the hands of a few men.

And in that historic moment when a woman manages to grasp that power, political cowardice and fear of being misconstrued means that she cannot even join with other women in celebrating the significance of a woman in her position.

I don’t know if that makes me more disappointed in Gillard, or in the public she is so afraid will misinterpret her.

We have a woman running the country, and even she cannot reflect upon the magnitude of this moment and the potential it holds to show Australians that there is another way.

We should see Gillard’s climb to power as a demonstration of what is possible, but we should not be deluded into thinking that the fight is now over.

Far from being smashed, the glass ceiling is most definitely still a thick, transparent weight that hangs precariously above our heads.

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