Gender, race and their intersections: a case study of public policy work in Western Australia

Karen Vincent

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Abstract

Race, gender and their intersections matter in public policy. In what ways they matter is explored in the policy work context of the West Australian (WA) public sector. My research examines how these concepts are understood by policy actors and enacted through practices and processes that can have life and death consequences.

My research draws on material from the gendered and racialised field of family and domestic violence (FDV) policy and service development in WA. A case study approach is taken to consider the policy development context of a major public inquiry known as the ‘Gordon Inquiry’ into government agency responses to FDV in Indigenous communities. Purposive conversations were held with experts in the field and thirty-five in-depth interviews were conducted with key policy actors engaged with policy development and service delivery in this field. ‘Deep listening’ (Carol Bacchi & Eveline, 2009) to accounts by policy actors and engaging in self-reflection has enabled a deeper understanding of underlying themes, issues and dilemmas.

Neither feminism nor anti-racist intentions have been sufficient to ensure gender- and racial sensitive policy reform across the public sector. And despite policy activism, my research identifies that gendering and racialising remains poorly conceptualised or invisible in policy work within this highly politicised public policy arena. At the heart of the problem are ideas and their contestability. Within this public sector environment, ‘bleeding heart’ (Mumby, as cited in Lea, 2009, p. 7) policy actors are confronted with dilemmas and contradictions in their work resulting in considerable anxiety, risk-aversion behaviours, withdrawal and denial among other reactions. Gendered and racialised policy processes, structures and procedures often frustrate the good intentions of policy actors deeply committed to improving the quality of life experienced by the most disadvantaged Aboriginal peoples. Implications of sexism and racism for making and implementing ‘good’ or ‘bad’ policy in this context are not always clear to the policy participants. Some policy actors continue to operate with a primordial view of race and sex, and category politics contributes to disguise the interconnections between systems of oppression.

Using ‘the intersectional approach’ (Berger & Guidroz, 2009) with its multi-focal ‘lens’ to research ongoing ‘racing-gendering’ (Hawkesworth, 2006) in public policy work, my research contributes to the work on ‘inequality regimes’ (Acker, 2006). Illustrated by policy actors’ accounts, new information and insight reveals how environmental factors particular to the public sector affect policy performances aimed at equality. While my research has an Australian Indigenous focus, themes and issues dealt with speak to universal problematics of race and gender. Conclusions are reached about the how, when, where and why of developing an intersectionality approach in public policy, a domain crucial to achieving anti-oppressive praxis. I conclude that the equality project can be enhanced by a new policy activism that takes greater account of reflexivity, collective engagement and public sector reform.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2010

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