Action and Inaction on Policy that Benefits Women

When a gender lens is applied to government policy, it becomes clear that women experience the consequences of policy differently to men.  In this post, Policy Whisperer Susan Maury introduces the Women’s Policy Action Tank and why there is a need for highlighting women’s needs in the policy arena.

By now we ought to all know that in Australia women are paid less for comparable work than men, and this amount is considerable – averaging 24% on average for total remuneration package of full-time workers, but ballooning up to a whopping 141% for barristers; an irony on the injustice of the pay gap. Despite higher levels of education, they lag behind men in workforce participation and accumulate less in Superannuation.  This makes women more vulnerable to various forms of partner abuse, poverty and homelessness.  These disparities are underpinned by cultural norms of masculinity and femininity, home and carer duties.  The accrual of disadvantage across the lifespan for women has been unpacked in greater detail here

These entrenched disadvantages effect slightly over half of the Australian population.  Therefore, it is particularly surprising – and worrying – that Australian public policy has not been able to fully address these issues before now. 

Government policy is often viewed as responding to public opinion.  Yet we know that “the public” is not homogenous, and many voices are absent from the policy debate.  We are also acutely aware that women are not the only people who are not adequately served by government policy.  I recently wrote about how policy that is targeted specifically at asylum seekers as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders appears, in many instances, to be specifically designed to impede positive outcomes.  The history of disability policy provides another case study of how the concept of “public opinion” is not an adequate litmus test for effective policy. It is widely acknowledged that historically this policy “imposed… barriers that subject persons with disabilities to lives of unjust dependency, segregation, isolation, and exclusion. Attitudinal barriers are characterized by beliefs and sentiments held by nondisabled persons about persons with disabilities.” (Silverstein 1999, p. 1695)  While we may see this as outdated thinking, there are still questions about whether the NDIS will enhance human rights for people with a disability

Carol Bacchi gets to the heart of the matter with her 2009 book, Analysing Policy: What’s the problem represented to be? She correctly identifies that even where public opinion is supportive of people who are silenced in the policy debate, the manner in which the issue is framed is critical.  Framing the issue, or representing the problem, leads directly to the policy solution.  A prime example of the power of framing is in the government’s Stop the Boats campaign, in which the aggressive turning back of refugees coming by sea is framed as “the most compassionate thing you can do.”  The Northern Territory Emergency Response (the Intervention) was framed as “protecting Aboriginal children” while imposing unprecedented regulations on individuals and communities. 

In addition to First Nations people, refugees and asylum seekers, and people with a disability, there are many others who are excluded or silenced during the framing of public policy.  Some examples include members of the LGBTI community, people who have interacted with the justice system, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and people who are poor.  

Here the idea of intersectionality is important.  When women are represented in more than one category their representation in policy is even further diminished.  For example, it has recently been reported that the complex needs of poor Aboriginal women who have been in the criminal justice system are far from being met.  CALD women who are held in indefinite detention are subject to abuse of all kinds with apparently no legal protection.

At Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, our practice is focused on increasing the safety and resilience, financial security, and improved educational pathways of women and girls.  The organization also understands that women are embedded within social networks, which also need to provide positive, healthy relationships.  These social networks are underpinned by systems and structures, which either support individual and social thriving or hinder it; this is where the Women’s Research, Advocacy and Policy (WRAP) Centre does its work.  We are interested in shifting policy in order to provide enabling, supportive systems for women and girls – and indeed, everyone.  This is not a competition; good policy for everyone is good for everyone. 

The Women’s Policy Action Tank is a new joint initiative by the WRAP Centre and the Power to Persuade, and is designed to illuminate the needs of women in the policy sphere.  In addition to an upcoming Women’s Policy Forum, we are publishing policy analysis pieces – the Scorecard on Women and Policy.  These pieces, provided by policy experts, highlight how a range of policies differentially impacts on women compared to men.  Some of these policies are what might be expected, such as childcare or responses to family violence.  We are also interested in policies that are considered to be “gender neutral.”  For example, how do Australia’s environmental or transport policies stack up when a gender lens is provided?

Thankfully we are not working alone.  Some similar initiatives include the National Foundation for Australian Women  and the Equality Rights Alliance which have published comprehensive gendered responses to the Federal budget; Election Watch which provides policy critique including through the use of a gender lens;  the Council of Single Mothers and their Children which has requested a statement from each major party on their policies as they impact on single mothers; the Good Society Policy Network which sources best practice policy for civil society; and the Work + Family Policy Roundtable, which has produced a comprehensive document of election benchmarks.  From the perspective of intersectionality, there are other groups also providing policy analysis, such as Asylum Insight or the Election 2016 statement published by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations.  We are very pleased to be working in concert with such an esteemed group of colleagues. 

If you are doing similar work, or if you would like to provide a Scorecard on any topic, please get in touch:  You can also follow us on Twitter to keep up with the analyses:  @PolicyforWomen