For many middle-class migrants, coming to Australia results in de-skilling and a loss of professional identity. “Islam oppresses women.” “Lebs come down here and harass our women.” “Migrants threaten Australia’s culture of gender equality.”
Sentiments like these reveal how concerns about gender are often at the heart of anxieties about cultural diversity in countries like Australia. The recurring “hijab debates”, moral panics about “ethnic gang rapists” and complaints that minorities don’t know how to treat women with respect, have abounded in post 9-11 Australia.
John Howard often used feminist-sounding language to demonise Muslim and Arab-Australians as backward and misogynistic. In the Sydney Morning Herald in 2006 he stated, “There is, within some sections of the Islamic community, an attitude towards women which is out of line with mainstream Australian society”. Later, he nominated “speaking English” and “treating women equally” as two tests of integration that minorities had to pass.
Implied in these statements is the idea that gender equality has already been achieved in Australia. Indeed, that same year in The Age, Howard famously described Australia as in a “post-feminist” stage. The burden is therefore on migrants to integrate into Australia’s egalitarian culture. Migrant families should embrace gender equality, allow women to take advantage of all the social and economic opportunities Australia has to offer, and leave their old-fashioned and oppressive ways behind.
So, do migrant women feel that Australian culture offers them gender equality? Many Muslim women have spoken out about the widespread misrepresentation of Islam in popular debates, arguing for example, that the veil is a symbol of identity and freedom rather than one of oppression. But it’s not just Muslim women who question whether Australia is so much more liberated than other societies.
My research on Chinese women in Australia has revealed that for many middle-class migrants, coming to Australia results in de-skilling and a loss of professional identity. In my interviews with women from China and Hong Kong, I heard time and again stories of “career women” - teachers, engineers, businesspeople - unable to find suitable employment in Australia, often because their qualifications were devalued or not recognised by employers. Those who did find jobs were often working substantially below their previous skill levels, sometimes in completely unrelated areas.
These experiences are borne out in the government’s own statistics. The first Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Australia showed that even after more than three years of settlement in Australia, almost 40 per cent of female primary applicant migrants were full-time housewives - double the pre-migration level. Dropping out of the workforce is a common outcome of unsuccessful job searches.
If we look at those who are employed, taking mainland Chinese women as an example, the survey showed that while 72 per cent of employed women worked in high-skilled occupations in China, this fell to only 30 per cent in Australia, even after more than three years of residence in this country. This deskilling is common among migrants to Australia, but especially pronounced for women. This means that gender inequality actually grows with migration to Australia.
How do these experiences shape how women view Australian gender relations? For some women, particularly those from China, where women are often found in traditional “male” occupations such as engineering, the Australian workforce is astonishingly backwards in its gender segmentation. One metallurgical engineer I interviewed was surprised to find so few opportunities for women in her field, recounting that during one of her job interviews, she discovered the company did not even have any female toilets. After months of fruitless job searching, she ended up opening a corner shop with her husband in suburban Sydney.
Migrant women’s experiences at home often compound their feeling that Australia offers fewer opportunities for women. Middle-class Chinese women are traditionally accustomed to receiving a high level of domestic support, either in the form of extended family members, employer-provided child-care in China, or hired domestic help in Hong Kong. In Australia, they suddenly find themselves solely responsible for household work and, are again, often surprised that Australian women have it so tough. “So many Australian women simply stop working when they have kids, so how can they ever compete with men?” asked one of my interviewees.
Most migrants from Asia expect that Australian society will be more egalitarian than their home societies. Certainly, many do enjoy their new family lives in Australia and are grateful for the opportunities their children have here. But with their own careers cut short, many women ultimately wonder whether gender equality has been achieved in Australia.
Ultimately, migration to Australia can mean that women adopt more traditional gender roles than they had in their home countries. Many skilled women become financially dependent on their spouses for the first time after migration. Many previous career women become increasingly defined by their roles as mothers and housewives, leading to a “feminisation” of their gender identity. While they may take great pride in these new identities, they are not ones that have been entirely freely chosen.
Australia engages in endless debates about work-life balance, but there is precious little change that genuinely enhances opportunities for women to shape their own life and work trajectories. While Chinese migrants would be the first to acknowledge the flaws in the systems of their home countries, Australian debates seem fiercely resistant to looking at what might be learned from other cultures.
Instead, conservative politicians and commentators are using gender issues as a proxy for racism and Islamophobia. Apart from the damage this causes to inter-cultural relations in our society, this hijacking of feminism diverts attention away from the changes that are still needed to genuinely achieve gender equality in Australia. The unyielding insistence that migrants “integrate” generates a refusal to reflect on Australian society itself, and consequently, many of the opportunities offered by multiculturalism are sacrificed. We all lose from that.