University of Queensland (UQ) Executive Dean of Arts Fred D’Agostino said last month the gender studies major would be cut from the Bachelor of Arts program.
No student commencing next year would have the option of majoring in this area.
Gender studies has a 41-year history at the university. The program was won in the early 1970s by the powerful feminist movement of the time.
It was the first of its kind in Australia and one of the first in the world.
If the discontinuation of the major goes ahead, students who are interested in pursuing this field will have to look outside Queensland, because it is the only remaining major for the discipline in the state.
Initially, only the major was being axed, with the possibility that students could pursue gender studies as a minor, but according to gender studies lecturer Professor Carole Ferrier this is no longer open for consideration by university administration.
“They want to wipe out gender studies and send us right back to square one,” she said at a staff and student teach-in on UQ St Lucia campus on April 11.
Equality for women a long way off
The common rebuke when the rallying cry of “save gender studies” is raised is, “But isn’t it irrelevant? Haven’t women achieved equality?”
D’Agostino reportedly said that the cutting of the gender studies major represented a “triumph” for the discipline because now it has reached such mainstream ubiquity that it no longer requires a specific area.
The reality is very much at odds with this assertion.
Women have not yet achieved equality in Australian society, and this inequality is little recognised and understood.
Workplaces still discriminate based on gender. On average, full-time working women’s weekly earnings is only 82.8% of men’s.
Moreover, women take up a disproportionate amount of insecure work — jobs that are casualised, with poor conditions, little security, and under-unionised.
The university is no exception. At the Save Gender Studies teach-in, National Tertiary Education Union UQ branch president Andrew Bonnell gave some alarming figures.
The percentage of women employed at A-level lecturer positions in Australian tertiary institutions is 60%. At the professor level, that drops to a mere 20%. And trends are not positive. New continuing positions are less often being given to women, who now dominate the more insecure forms of work.
Beyond the workplace, women are still expected to perform most of the unpaid labour in the home. This includes all the vital but unrecognised work of cooking, cleaning, caring and child rearing.
On top of this, negative sexualisation and objectification of women in modern capitalist society — propagated largely by the media and entertainment industries — is so deeply entrenched that many often don’t notice it.
But its effects are real — such as the development of a culture in which rape is legitimised or at least tolerated. About one-third of women in Australia will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.
It also leads to damaging mental health problems among young women, who obsess over whether their body meets the criteria of “beauty” fabricated by cosmetics, entertainment and fitness industries.
Sixty-eight percent of 15-year-old females are dieting and approximately one in 100 adolescent girls develop anorexia.
The fact is that the capitalist economic system makes impossibly contradictory demands on women: be an object of male sexual desire, but if you actually do this it’s your fault if you get raped; be sexually promiscuous, but access to abortion is made difficult or illegal; go get a “career” that shuns your need for time-off to raise a family, but be a stay-at-home mum who is expected to do all the household labour and is responsible for the majority of child rearing.
These contradictions are real and growing sharper overtime. This is the reason a course such as gender studies exists. There needs to be a critical space in which to grapple with these issues and finding ways society can overcome them.