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Made in Dagenham

By John Töns - posted Friday, 29 October 2010

If there is one movie that we should all see it is this movie. It deals with the Ford Dagenham strike of 1968. The even meant nothing to me when it occurred - I certainly could not recall it being reported - but it was one event that changed the lives of millions in the developed world.

A group of 187 women went on strike in order to get equal pay. I recall that at about that time a woman took on the union at Broken Hill - she had the temerity to want to continue to work after she was married.

In 1968 I started on a teaching career at that time women could not be promoted to senior positions because of course once they got married they would be supported by their husbands. There was also a pay differential although that did not last long.


Partly as a result of their action and that of women elsewhere we saw the end of discrimination based on gender or did we?

It is true that levels of pay today are attached to the job rather than the gender of a person yet women's pay is still significantly below that of men.

What seems to have happened is that occupations that are predominantly staffed by women are attracting lower rates of pay then those where men predominate. In gender neutral occupations such as the legal profession women still appear to face a struggle to be recognized as equal contributors.

We would like to believe that because we have a female Prime Minister, that we have some women in powerful jobs that somehow we have created a fair society, however, our society falls well short of being a fair society.

The ultimate test of a fair society is whether or not accidents of birth make a significant different to one's life chances. One way to test that proposition is to simply count. Look at the distribution of the prison population, look at the distribution of people on welfare, look at the incomes of people. Look at all the things that we can use as a metric of people's ability to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. If these various sub-populations reflect the sort of distribution that we see in society at large then we know that society is probably as fair as it could be; at the very least we can say with some confidence that it is unlikely that accidents of birth make a significant difference.

But when we find for example that people from Aboriginal backgrounds dominate our prison populations but are a small segment of our total population then we have to ask questions about how fair our society is.


If we find that women's income remains below that of men then clearly gender still does make a difference.

If we find that the incomes of people in rural and regional Australia is well below the national average then we can see that where you live remains an obstacle to getting a fair deal.

The reality is that we collect a wealth of data about our lives. It is high time that we took a close look at that data and asked ourselves the question whether or not the data confirms our belief that people are being treated fairly or whether or not the dice is loaded for some groups of people.

This is not about individual people being evil but rather about the reality that our social and political institutions create the conditions that determine how fair our society is. If we find our society is unfair then we need to change or abolish the institutions that shape that unfairness.

I think Steinbeck summed it up well when in the Grapes of Wrath one of the dispossessed tenant farmers says this:

"I got to figure" the tenant said. "We all got to figure. There's some way to stop this. Its not like lightening or earthquakes. We've got a bad thing made by men. And by God that's something we can change"

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About the Author

John Töns is President of the Zero Carbon Network a network established to promote clear thinking about the issues associated with climate change. In addition to operating the only zero carbon boarding kennels in South Australia he is also completing a PhD at Flinders University in the area of Global Justice. John is a founding member of a new political party Stop Population Growth Now.

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