Monday, July 16, 2012


I made a significant mistake in this column. I accidentally suggest, three-quarters of way down, that the really important things in existence are "living the good life, having children, and being a real contributor".

Of course you don't need to have children to live a good life, and I apologise for the implied linkage . . .


When Anne-Marie Slaughter – formerly at the US State Department and Hillary Clinton’s top policy advisor– chronicles the obstacles that still stand in the way of a woman who wants to work in a serious policy job, it’s difficult not to become angry. Very angry.

It turns out Slaughter found that she couldn’t have it all. That’s why she’s been forced to return to academe. She bared her reasons in a brutally honest piece for The Atlantic. Instead of meetings at the White House and cocktail parties at the UN in Manhattan, after two years at the top Slaughter found her work/life balance was so out-of-whack she decided to return to lecturing at Princeton. That’s slumming it?

What you see depends on where you look. Wearing her feminist shades, Slaughter envisages only too clearly the obstacles standing in the way of a woman seeking both a happy and contented family life and satisfying professional career. Quite naturally she ‘gendered’ the issue. Her analysis begins – and ends – with social structures based around the sex of participants.

It’s a biting critique. And a very real one. Nothing in this column should be taken as dismissing her concerns. But there are other ways of analysing this situation that speak far more deeply to me. Using these perspectives it’s difficult not to think Slaughter’s conclusions rather shallow. Perhaps her chauffer, waiting in the limousine for her to finish sipping champagne and chatting to high-ranking diplomats so she could be whisked to a high-speed train back to her family in Boston, might possess different insights into balancing work and life. Maybe the young middle-class black girl who studies hard and does well at school but knows she’ll never, ever, be able to enter the privileged Ivy League college that Slaughter teaches at might have other ideas about discrimination too.

Slaughter’s analysis is accurate and understandable. It results from the way she perceives the world. But gender (or ethnicity, or social background) aren’t the only ways to deconstruct the workings of society. Slaughter’s world embraces power relations and the material trappings flowing from them as a natural part of human society. These aren’t issues to her. Instead, she’s worried about institutional factors that prevent her (an obviously deserving candidate) from “having it all”. She decides, in a confused sort of way, that feminism hasn’t lived up to its promise.

Perhaps she’s looking at the world from the wrong perspective. Self-evidently, only one person can become the ‘number three’ at State. That’s what hierarchies are all about. Bosses and minions. Getting to be number one. Slaughter’s fundamental mistake is to believe this has any correlation with fulfilment or satisfaction. Work is actually nothing more than a job. It’s just an occupation.

If you’ve got a good job then working’s fun. If you’re earning heaps of money, that’s probably fun too. I wouldn’t know. But work, alone, is not the reason for existence. It’s difficult to plot the precise moment we began equating the meaning of life with wealth. Having money’s always been important and having more (and more) has been a driving passion for most people at some time or another. But this desire is like a child wanting more toys who discovers nothing will ever replace their ‘special’ first teddy. The cost of a bauble is no guarantee it will be appreciated. Nevertheless, slowly we’re weaned off such toys until we desire the faster car; the bigger house. Eventually, we become full participants in consumer culture.

Which is all very well. After possessing a ‘media room’ it’s not too long before you can’t do without one. But materialism can be a bit like power. The number three hopes to be number two, and it’s never long before someone with a 42” screen wants, no needs, to swap to a 102” display. That’s great if you can afford it – but is sitting alone in luxury really more satisfying than dinner and a movie with friends? The great thing is to independently work out what your priorities are, and achieve them.

So. The first point is to recognise that money (or power, or position) isn’t everything. Being a woman didn’t stop Slaughter from achieving the really important things in existence: living the good life, having children, and being a real contributor. The far more important point is, however, that not everyone gets that chance. Increasingly Australia, like America, is marked by disparities of wealth and (perhaps more importantly) opportunity.

Andrew Leigh, Labor member for Fraser (North Canberra) and former ANU academic, still specialises in these issues. He says there’s no doubt that, year after year; the top ten percent of income earners have taken home an increasing amount of the national pay-packet. This disparity appears to have acted as a stimulus to overall growth – which is good. It’s a trend that’s stretched across the English-speaking world, like the share of national wealth taken home by the top one percent. This has been on an uncontested and dramatic upward trend in the US, Canada and UK, as well as here; in fact, everywhere apart from New Zealand (which any growth-focussed obsessive would dismiss as a ‘basket-case’ economy anyway, although one with good ski-slopes).

The real issue is: how difficult is it to change your circumstances? Leigh makes the point that where you’re born shouldn’t determine your life chances, yet increasingly this appears to be the case. “If we’re all born climbing the ladder of opportunity”, he says, “it’s much harder to get up if the rungs are further apart”. Data on social inequality has suggested (in the past) that immigrants can do well. Frank Lowy would probably agree. But Leigh points out there are long lags in the statistics and very different levels of mobility across dissimilar migrant groups. The opportunities experienced by Jewish refugees in the 1940’s or by some Vietnamese families in the ‘80’s might not be experienced by Lebanese in the ‘90’s or Afghans today.

Between 1975 and 1999, social mobility changed in Australia. For the worse. The situation hasn’t altered since then: if anything, it would appear to have become much worse. The government’s copping a lot of anger and pain at the moment, more, I suspect, than can be explained by Julia Gillard’s personal style alone. If, as Wayne Swan keeps telling us, we’re the “envy of the world” it’s remarkable this isn’t reflected in the polls. No government in the past has ever faced the sort of electoral oblivion likely to encompass Labor when the economy’s been as robust as it is today.

Which makes one suspect that the figures the Treasurer keeps waving in our faces are irrelevant. It’s opportunity that people want, and they increasingly feel this is being denied.


  1. Are you a feminist or metro-sexual by chance ?

  2. I'm afraid I don't even know what metro-sexual means and there are, I suspect, a rather large number of my acquaintances that would be somewhat surprised at the idea I'd ever been mistaken for a feminist . . .

  3. lol post modernist feminist!