As for many other nations, gender equality in Australia has increased significantly over the last century. By 1923, all women in Australia had the right to vote and stand for parliament. In 1966, women earned the right to continue employment in the public sector after marriage through the removal of the marriage bar (a ruling that barred women from working in many careers after marriage). Female workers in Australia were granted the right to equal pay in 1969, and the 1996 Workplace Relations Act required men and women to receive equal pay for equal work.
Whilst inequalities do persist, (e.g., the average Australian woman is earning 85c for every dollar earned by men) there is considerable support for gender equality in the public sphere. However, there is less support for gender equality in private life. An Australian attitudes survey found that 16% of Australians believe men should take control in relationships and be the head of the household, 25% of Australians believe that women prefer men to be in charge of the relationship, and 34% believe it’s natural for a man to want to appear to be in control of his partner in front of his male friends.
This issue of gender inequality in the public versus the private sphere has come to the forefront of public discussion recently. The debate around the equal distribution of household chores and caregiving responsibilities is occurring both here and abroad. Heterosexual Australian women average seven hours more housework per week than their male partners. This inequality often starts in childhood, with female children often expected to take on more chores than their male siblings. In adult relationships, habits started in the early stages of the relationship can further increase unequal responsibilities. In this stage, women are more likely to be at home looking after children and cleaning up the house. This dynamic continues even after the female partner returns to work.
Early exposure to unequal gender roles and failure to establish equitable dynamics in the early stages of the relationship, can lead to unequal expectations of men and women in romantic relationships. There is light being shed on the double standard regarding expectations of men and women. For example, men are praised for completing chores and looking after their children, when women are simply expected to do these things. As one father noted, the disproportionate praise heaped on men for simply interacting with or looking after their children is not only unfair for women, but condescending to men.
Not only do these disparities reinforce unequal gender roles, limiting both men and women, but they may play a role in domestic abuse. When the onus of responsibility for domestic tasks is put onto women, this expectation may be used to justify abusive responses to a failure to maintain standards. For example, if a house is untidy, or a child gets sick or injured, instead of simply acknowledging it as something that happens, it can be viewed as the female partner’s fault, and the female partner’s failure to fulfil their role. Obviously, this is not the case for most relationships, but inequality in the home may be seen by some as legitimising abuse.
Unequal home dynamics may also alter the perceptions of work. For example, even if both partners in a heterosexual relationship engage in paid work, emphasis on the female partner’s domestic responsibilities reinforces the idea that the man should be the primary income earner. This also highlights that his career is more important than hers. If the woman’s income or career success exceeds her partner’s, this may result in her partner reinforcing greater inequality in the home in an attempt to retain a feeling of power and control.
The recent public discussion of gender equitable distribution of domestic responsibilities raises the question: Why did it take so much longer for equality in the home to become a priority in a nation that prides itself on progressive attitudes regarding gender equality? Perhaps the persistence of gender inequality in the home reflects residual hidden sexism in a culture where the beliefs may not have held pace with changing public norms.
- Kiara Minto
I’ve written before about different types of domestic abuse. New research shows that when people subscribe to traditional social norms about gender and romance, they may be more vulnerable to such abuse.
How traditional gender norms can promote domestic abuse
Gender norms highlight the expected or typical behaviour of a person based on their gender.
Traditional gender norms hold men as strong, dominant protectors and women as kind, nurturing caregivers. Gender norms don’t consider gender diversity or fluidity. Although such norms seem positive—emphasising chivalry towards women, for example—these ideals are restrictive of both men and women. Women’s perceived competence may be lowered, and men may be less able to express their emotions and vulnerability.
Many people who hold traditional views of gender have loving, equal relationships.
For others, gender norms can promote a power imbalance that may manifest as abuse within relationships.
Research has shown that women who endorse traditional gender norms are more likely to experience intimate partner violence in their romantic relationships. The same is true for people who believe in traditional romantic beliefs and norms.
Why subscribing to romantic norms makes some women vulnerable to abuse
Traditional romantic norms emphasise the importance of being in a relationship and promote the ideals of love at first sight, one true love, and love conquers all.
These ideals are ever present in Western cultures. Even in early childhood, Disney movies and fairy tales promote love at first sight and the power of love to triumph over all obstacles to an unrealistic degree. Similar messages persist through teen and adult romance novels and films.
Contrary to intuition, women who accept such romantic norms are actually more likely to experience abuse within their romantic relationships.
When internalised, romantic norms may encourage women, in particular, to view their romantic relationship’s success or failure as a reflection of their own self-worth. That’s when such norms can become dangerous.
Accepting romantic norms may motivate people to ignore or romanticise the warning signs of an abusive relationship.
Possessiveness and jealousy can be easily reframed as romantic rather than controlling.
Popular media Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, for example, both strongly romanticise controlling behaviours as a sign of passion and commitment. Characters in both series express the desire to restrict the behaviour of their love interest for reasons motivated by jealousy and possessiveness.
But acting on jealousy in this way by controlling who your partner spends time with and when, is a form of abuse.
Where do we go from here?
Differences and complementarity can lead to mutual respect and care. Vulnerability can be a part of intimacy. In contrast, abuse in romantic relationships is typically about control. Traditional gender norms, and idealised romantic norms provide a framework that can be used to justify or romanticise control and power imbalances. As we move forward we need to challenge our understanding of romance and gender. We need to focus on trust and equality as the foundations of healthy romantic relationships.
- Kiara Minto
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.