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Humans typically come in two sexes - male and female.But when it comes to gender, differences aren't clearly defined and have never been. In the next 40 years, can Australia reach gender equality?
Olga Klepova & Signe Dean / SBS Radio

21 Sep 2015 - 4:45 PM  UPDATED 22 Sep 2015 - 1:19 PM

Humans typically come in two sexes - male and female. But when it comes to gender, differences aren't clearly defined and have never been.

In the next 40 years, can Australia reach gender equality? Will we see more female C-E-Os and house-husbands?

Olga Klepova and Signe Deanlooks at gender roles today and in the future.

People are different in many ways, their gender is just one part.

We are all familiar with gender stereotypes. Women are nurturing while men are tough. Women gather fruit and nuts, men hunt wild animals. But beneath the surface, traditional gender roles are much more complicated.

For one, a person's biological sex doesn't universally determ  ine their personality. University of Wollongong Senior Lecturer in Sociology Dr Michael Flood specialises in gender relations.

Dr Flood says that attributing qualities to a person's sex is known as 'gender essentialism' and in today's society it is breaking down.

"The notion that there are somehow essential and fundamental and big differences between males and females, where, you know, men are seen to be stronger and more competent and women are seen to be naturally nurturing and weak and so on. That kind of gender essentialism has broken down."

Culture plays a huge role in how we perceive gender roles.

Taking Australian men as an example, Dr Flood says there are long held archetypes we expect - like the courageous 'Aussie digger,'* or powerful political leaders.

Men and women sometimes act according to gender roles and sometimes they don't.

Much depends on context and there are individual differences between people as well.

So are we really getting rid of gender essentialism?

La Trobe University Senior Lecturer on Gender and Sexuality Dr Carolyn D'Cruz thinks that we're often stuck in categories of male and female.

"I think our concepts of gender really need to shift. One of the biggest things that really needs to shift is attaching traits of masculinity to man and traits of femininity to women. I think there are many people in the world that actually feel more comfortable between genders. There's such a rigid conception of men and women that that actually makes it hard to think of the future beyond those two categories."

On top of a person's biological sex, there are many factors to consider.

"We never simply a man or a woman, we also have an ethnicity, we also have a religion, we are also differed by race, we are also differed by nation. So I think there's a lot of intersecting variables and factors that make us live our genders differently, besides being men and women, or trans or intersex or anything in between and beyond. I think it's really really important to understand that depending on where you're born, on what language you speak, what colour you are, what kind of culture you come from, what your beliefs systems are, that is also gonna change the way you going to live your gender."

Currently there are community services for people who have questions about their gender and roles in society.

Services often target young people who are seeking guidance and information.

Westerly Windina (who was formerly recognised Australian male surfer Peter Drouyne) went through a similar period of limbo a few decades ago prior to making the decision to become a woman.

At the time she had no support services to assist her transition.    

"What happened to me that it took decades of confusion and all the rest of it, making decisions and all sorts of problems. It was a war in itself, a war define myself - who am I, what am I and I never knew, because no one knew anything about this sort of thing."

Victorian Royal Women's Hospital Director of the Centre for Women's Mental Health Professor Louise Newman emphasises the importance of an open discussion on gender issues.

She says greater awareness of the issues can lead to people receiving support and help, regardless of the decisions they make.

"There's absolutely I think at the moment no evidence to suggest that somehow greater social discussion of an issue encourages people to become either homosexual or transgendered. There might be some sections of the community might have anxieties about that. What we do hope that this greater awareness of the issues does give greater access to information. We hope that it reduces things like depression and distress associated with having questions about gender."

Masculinity researcher Dr Michael Flood says in Western societies, younger generations are more open to shifts in gender attitudes.

"There's recent survey data showing that young people, people in, for example, their teens or their twenties, are much more comfortable with a blurring or a breaking down of gender categories and gender boundaries, than older generations. Much more comfortable, for example, with women asking men on a date, or taking the sexual initiative; much more comfortable with men wearing make-up, much more comfortable with fathers being involved in nurturing and caretaking of children, and so on."

As blurred gender boundaries become more acceptable gender equality gets closer.

Professor Newman says one area we're seeing increasing equality is family life.

"Families have changed remarkably. Already, we have diverse families. We have the majority of community opinion supporting family diversity, same sex marriage, government might not but the community does. I think that's reflecting changing attitudes and a greater acceptance that people can establish healthy relationships in a variety of ways. People of both sexes, biological sexes, can change roles and can find themselves in different sorts of roles."

As Dr Flood points out, progress is slow, but we can see the first glimpses of what we could call true equality today.

"We know for example that heterosexual couples who married in the last decade or so, are more likely to have egalitarian relationships, in terms of, say decision making, or in terms of domestic care, or in terms of their sexual lives, than couples who married in the 1980s and 90s."

Gender inequality still exists in Australia's workforce.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, women are better educated than men and more employed than ever before, but they are still not represented equally in key areas.

Female graduates in 2014 earned 5 per cent less than their male counterparts.

And in 2012 less than one-third of all Federal Parliamentarians across Australia were women.

Dr Flood explains that certain changes are taking their time.

"Some of those shifts are incredibly slow, so for example when it comes to women's participation in boardrooms or in political decision-making, at current rates of progress it will take about another hundred years for women to be 50 per cent of the C-E-Os of our top 500 companies, or for women to be 50 per cent of our political decision-makers."

Women and men are also not equally represented in all jobs.

Data from the Workplace Gender Equality Force Agency says in 2014 more than 78 per cent of health care employees were women, while more than 88 per cent of construction workers were men.

La Trobe University's Dr Carolyn D'Cruz says gender isn't likely to disappear.

"I don't think the anchors of gender will disappear and I don't think we can do without the anchors that we have inherited. I think we have to learn how gender has worked in our society. We have to understand that gender is something that actually changes historically that we attach different values and roles to gender."

And Dr Flood points out that it doesn't just change in one direction.

"There's progress and regress, we certainly shouldn't assume that Australian history or human history is a story of steady progress towards gender equality. There have been times and places in much earlier human history that were much more gender equal than in Australia at the moment."

He thinks the work of the feminist movement is far from over.

"That progress towards gender equality, hasn't happened you know somehow magically by itself, it's happened in part through struggle, it's happened through the efforts of the women's movements in feminism, it's happened through men's and women's negotiations of their daily lives and their resistance to or challenging of some traditional notions of gender, and so on."

But it's not just women's rights activism that is helping 21st century Australians put gender stereotypes in the past.

We are increasingly aware of people who don't fit into one of the two binary gender boxes.

For some, their biological sex conflicts with their gender.

For others their gender keeps shifting.

Dr Flood points out that this is not a new phenomenon.

"Historically that's not new, there have been many societies and cultures in the past where there were third genders, or  people who lived as the other sex, or people who in some ways blurred or complicated gender boundaries. But I think the growing visibility of transgender, signals a further breaking down of some traditional categories and constructions of gender."

Facing this new reality is a struggle with stereotypes and codes of behaviour.

Westerly Windina says people like her should share their experience.

"Use people like me as not guineapigs but we are experiments that have actually come good with answers to people who are genuine with these disabilities, which it is until you find out what the problem is, can overcome now because of people like me who can actually give you an answer."

Dr D'Cruz believes that advocating for transsexual rights advances our discussion on gender categories as well.

"In our everyday lives we can see people who don't fit categories and concepts that are currently circulating and the more we listen to these voices, the more I think we can be open to changing our categories to fit the people who live in our world."

But Professor Newman says people facing gender issues still confront tough social stigmas.

"People who are alone and isolated with questions about themselves can suffer considerable distress. There's also quite clear social stigma and discrimination against people who identify differently in terms of gender. And those both contribute to high rates of depression. So it's very important we break down that sort of stigma and allow people to discuss such issues hopefully before they need psychiatric or psychological help."

It's unlikely that in 40 years we are going to have a society without gender stereotypes.

But social activism and shifting gender roles are setting us on a path towards greater gender diversity and equality.