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Last October when Julia Gillard lost her temper and stood up to misogyny, she crossed a line.  Many of us cheered and gave her a blue ribbon.  Yet another unseen line was almost crossed that week.  And it’s the stories behind that unpublicised fact that partly explain the vitriolic hatred of our first female Prime Minister and the current brutal backlash against feminists on social media.

It’s to do with work.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, my dad worked hard and my mum stayed at home reading Germaine Greer.  That was normal - 61% of jobs in the economy went to men working full time.  The 70s may have favoured flares but its economy favoured blue collar, blue singlet male work.   

But my kids are growing up in a very different world of work.  Because, as flares made way for shoulder pads in the eighties the economy began to transform from blue collar to pink collar.  And now, in the naughties, that pink collar is getting lipstick on it. 

Due to a massive restructuring there’s been a fall in full- time male jobs and a rise in part-time work in areas increasingly dominated by women - health care, social welfare, sales and the professions. At 45% full-time male workers are now a minority of our workforce.

And while Julia Gillard was giving it to a stone-faced Abbott in parliament new statistics were released that showed 62% of married women were working and 63% of unmarried men.  If that statistic stays on trend there will soon be more married women with a job than single blokes.

I learnt this over the weekend when economics writer George Megalogenis pointed it out to Anne Summers at the Byron Bfay Writers Festival. Anne responded reasonably that the new economy hasn’t brought equality.  Women’s full-time jobs have only risen by one pathetic per cent since I was a kid and part-time work means less pay, less power and less influence.  There’s still a huge gap in wages and much discrimination against women in the workforce - as now recognised by many men such as Kim O’Grady in his piece in Daily Life yesterday.   

All Kim had to do to get a job was add ‘Mr’ to his CV.  But for every Kim there are many Kevins who can’t change their fate so easily because they can’t get a job in the new economy.  George Megalogenis says massive economic and social change is making a new underclass ‘these men may not have the muscle to go into mining and have no trade or degree. They are now as unlikely to have a job as a sole parent or an Aboriginal Australian’.  But unlike a single mother or an Indigenous Australian these men are not used to feeling powerless. 

Power is associated with masculinity.  Perhaps these threats against women who work for equality, who speak out as feminists are an attempt to restore power and dominance.  And not just from the new underclass. Many comfortable middle class lives were washed away by the global financial crisis and there’s a palpable fear that the world is changing too fast.  Julia Gillard became a focus of rage partly because while men were losing status in the brave new world of work a woman got the top job in the country.

This does not excuse the backlash. It doesn’t excuse the vitriol, the fury, the demeaning sexual vilification and the misogyny.  It doesn’t mean we don’t need mechanisms to drive us towards equality.  After all, men still hold the reins of power and the levers of the economy.

But we need to be aware many men and their families are feeling fearful and furious.  God knows our politicians do.  They are courting these voters in this election.  Old Kevin will try to get the votes of young Kevin and Tony Abbott has been gunning for him for some time. But George Megalogenis urges caution in the wooing and overpromising  “The old unemployed male version of Alan Jones can’t do much harm to the country but the young unemployed male version of Kyle Sandilands might’. 

Now Julia Gillard has crossed the line towards unemployment herself, Australia needs to ensure that we don’t make empty promises and pander to prejudice.  The next government needs to help men and women adjust to a new economy and find new jobs.  And hopefully adjust to a future that is fair for both sexes.