Partnering with the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute, the Aboriginal Gender Study investigated contemporary understandings of gender, gender roles, and the concept of gender equity in three Aboriginal communities in South Australia. The study applied Indigenous research methodologies which privileged Aboriginal people as experts in their own lives, and centralised culturally safe approaches including yarning circles and ongoing community engagement. Between 2017 and 2018 yarning circles were held with 49 community members across a diverse range of age (above 18 years) and gender identities in metropolitan and regional sites.
Key findings from the yarning circles:
- Understandings of gender were diverse and ranged from biological to understanding gender as a complex, social and cultural concept. This diversity of understandings was apparent in all age groups. There was acknowledgment that understandings have changed through generations.
- Strong Aboriginal men were described in terms of their knowledge of culture and identity, and their ability to share this knowledge with family and community. Other depictions of strong men included ‘good fathers’, ‘hard workers’, and ‘providers’.
- Strong Aboriginal women were portrayed as being connected to culture, and being influential in their families and the community. Women (particularly older women) self-identified as resilient and survivors.
- Participants also defined a strong cultural identity for men and women in terms of reciprocity, including sharing resources, caring for family and giving back to the community, including in paid employment roles.
- Parents, community members and peers were reported as having the strongest influence over children and young people when learning about gender roles and norms.
- Both men and women were seen as nurturers in the family although there were contradictions around how this played out in everyday life. Some older and younger women expressed the view that women undertook the bulk of family responsibilities (childrearing, emotional support and domestic duties) whilst young men and some older women believe that child rearing is more shared among young parents.
- Connection to family and culture was expressed as an important aspect of Aboriginal life and integral to maintaining resilience. Loss of connections or limited support networks were reported as problematic for both men and women but there was a consistent view that men had less sources of support available to them to foster these connections. Participants commonly referred to men’s loss of a place in the community as a result of government policies, intergenerational trauma and other ongoing effects of colonisation.
- Almost all participants recognised that the expression of emotions are gendered and acknowledged that this is particularly problematic for men in the community. It was often suggested that the development of spaces specific to men would allow for emotions to be expressed in a safe environment.
- Experiences of racism were commonly reported by participants and these were gendered, reflected in stereotypes regarding men and women as well as episodes of transphobia and homophobia within and outside of the community.
- Although the language around ‘gender equity’ was not commonly used by participants, the principles of gender equity were widely accepted by the community. For example, when discussing fairness they spoke of equal partnerships between women and men, and sharing and fulfilling responsibilities to family and community. Many agreed that the nature of these responsibilities may be different for women and men, such as in cultural activities. This conceptualisation of gender equity as partnerships and fulfilling responsibilities highlights the important role that reciprocity plays in many Aboriginal cultures and value systems, and the importance of instilling responsibility from an early age. This is an important distinction to current Western understandings of gender equity, which focus on individual rights to access power and resources, and often employment issues (such as the gender pay gap).
- While gender equity was thought of as equal partnerships, described as ‘men and women walking side by side’, in certain domains this appeared to only be aspirational, for example, there were contradictory findings regarding the degree of shared roles within the family.
As this research was a small scale, exploratory project the conclusions require further exploration via a larger study. However, these findings do suggest that gendered experiences need to be considered in policy and programs that aim to improve the health and social and emotional wellbeing among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Similarly, the findings above are representative of the communities and groups we engaged with and may not be reflective of other Aboriginal communities. Further research across both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is suggested to explore the diversity of views at a national level.