Examining femininities and masculinities in Australia

New research from the College of Science, Health and Engineering suggests our contribution as parents and workers is central to how we are perceived and valued in Australian society

New research suggests our contribution as parents and workers is central to how we are perceived and valued in Australian society. But when gender, class, race, religion, age, ability and other identities are added into the mix, that perceived contribution varies.

In a paper published in the Journal of Research and Gender Studies, Beth Turnbull, a PhD candidate in Public Health, and colleagues examined research on policies, political debates, entertainment and news media, demographics, attitudes, aspirations and experiences to explore nuances of parenting and work in the Australian context.

They discovered the value attached to parenting and work varies for women and men, and within these categories, due to characteristics including ethnicity and sexual orientation. “This, in turn, influences how people experience their lives and identities within their families, workplaces and communities,” explains Turnbull.

“Australian society has historically placed a premium on the breadwinning father supporting a wife and children,” says Turnbull. “This has more recently evolved towards idealising the breadwinning ‘involved’ father. Similarly, the value placed on full-time mothering has shifted to idealising the part-time working ‘intensive’ mother for her double shift in the workplace and at home.”

The researchers believe these dominant ideals suppress other expressions of femininities and masculinities, which are judged as inadequately upholding, or challenging, these power relations.

“The portrayal of ‘selfish career mothers’ and ‘childless/childfree women workers’ as irresponsible, selfish, immature and career-focused, is an example,” says Turnbull. “In contrast, career-focused men are idealised as dedicated and self-sufficient regardless of their fathering or non-fathering practices.”

“If a person is LGBTQI+, working-class, non-white, non-English speaking, too young, too old, or disabled, their parenting and working qualities are automatically excluded from being valued and idealised.”

Turnbull contends these ideologies shape individual lives and opportunities along with Australia’s employment, welfare and parental policies. “Australia promotes middle-class part-time mothering and working through policies like paid parental leave, the entitlement to request flexible working arrangements, and childcare subsidies, for example.”

“In contrast, unaffordable childcare means working class women and single mothers make the ‘wrong’ choice of full-time working or mothering. Furthermore, Australian jurisdictions have only recently removed most, but not all, legal barriers to single people, lesbians and gay men having children.”

Turnbull suggests we need to be mindful of idealising particular femininities and masculinities, and how that plays out in individual and institutional contexts.

“Political and media rhetoric and policies should be more inclusively framed,” she adds. “We need to stop placing one ideal above all others. Instead, we need to promote a range of parenting and non-parenting, working and non-working examples that are regarded as equally valuable, empowering individuals to live and contribute to society according to their diverse preferences and strengths.”

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