“Gender equality and democratic participation” emerged in international public policy discourse in the 1990s largely as a response to the intransigence of women’s inferior social, economic and political status. The Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 concluded that nothing had changed to improve women’s status in the ten-year period since the previous world conference in Nairobi. Accordingly, it was time to make public institutions “own the problem” and to do something about it. The problem, the conference participants suggested, was not “women”. Rather, it was the inequalities produced by a principle of social organization that shaped and inflected major public institutions – namely, gender.

Contemporaneous with these developments, research and debate within the social sciences took a strong turn toward examining the global trend toward democratization and issues of public governance. Though this engagement was characterized by considerable diversity and contestation, it featured a significant consensus. This was that politics is constitutive for the processes of society as a whole and not simply a mechanical “reflection” of social and economic interests. Further, in a democracy, such politics necessarily involves participation. The kind of participation that prevails shapes the patterns of social relations and processes that develop, especially those associated with the distribution of resources, both material and symbolic.

By this time, the socially constitutive character of “the political” was already a well established feature of Australian social science scholarship that identified the state and processes of public institutions as a key source of gender inequality. As a further number of Australian researchers emphasised, however, such processes did not simply advance a monolithic “patriarchal interest” and nor did they affect all women in the same way. Rather, as all agreed, they were gendered in uneven and nuanced ways that some proposed could be understood as multiple configurations of political practice that they called “gender regimes”. According to developments in the study of gender, politics and public policy in North America and Britain, it was women’s inclusion as participants in democratic political process that was vital in addressing and redressing the problem. But such participation would need to incorporate women’s diversity to ensure that women could voice their needs in such a way that it expressed their differential identities and concerns.

By the late 1990s, despite these advances in the conceptualization of gender and its relationship to the state and democratic participation, the specific dynamics by which gender operated in public institutions were not clearly understood. This was largely attributable to the dearth of large-scale, empirical research on the subject. By 2004, however, Australian social researchers have explored this problem in considerable depth and from diverse perspectives. Most of this work has been funded by large Australian Research Council grants, often in combination with funding from “industry partner” through the Council’s SPIRT and Linkage programs. The proposed workshop will present and discuss the findings of this recent scholarship, critically assessing its implications for the development of Australian public policy that advances gender equality and democratic participation.

The main purpose of the workshop is to provide a forum for active social science researchers to:

  1. Present and discuss recent research on advancing gender equality and democratic participation,
  2. Identify and report on strategies from this research that governments could adopt in advancing the goal of gender equality and democratic participation, and
  3. Identify priority areas and directions for further social research in the field.

Given its strong public policy orientation, a further key purpose of the workshop is to include and engage senior policymakers and media representation in discussions. The main themes will include:

  1. Gender regimes in public sector workplace organization and public policy making.
  2. Women’s participation in senior decision making in large Australian organizations.
  3. Developing a framework for conducting gender-based analysis in public policy.
  4. Undoing masculine privilege in public institutions.
  5. Engendering and degendering public governance.