Intersectionality: Aboriginal Women and Employment

Tara attended the 2017 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women 61st Session, where she represented Charles Darwin University. She is currently studying a Bachelor of Applied Social Science (Indigenous Resource Management & Indigenous Social Policy)


Colonisation involved the implementation of an overriding patriarchal system through the intentional dismemberment of traditional Aboriginal economic, political, social, spiritual and ceremonial domains. Aboriginal women have had their land, families and personal autonomy systematically removed by generations of discriminative government policy, whilst simultaneously being blamed for their low socio-economic position in Australian society. This continues to perpetuate the colonial and patriarchal oppression of Aboriginal women inherited by society today.

Aboriginal women are already vulnerable to living in poverty, and to psychological distress associated with these material living conditions. Growing inequality further risks marginalising Aboriginal women by making it more difficult to access health, housing and employment, as well as increasing stigma and diminishing equality of opportunity more generally.

In Central Australia, Aboriginal women commonly experience discrimination in the workplace on two fronts; firstly, based on their Aboriginality and secondly, based on gender. The combination of these intersecting axes disempower Indigenous women to a degree not experienced by white, or ‘racially privileged’ women and cannot be understood by thinking about race or gender in isolation. Intersectionality is the concept of such tension.

This paper aims to explore intersectionality in a post-colonial Australian context and to identify the relationship between social determinants and economic empowerment for Aboriginal women in Central Australia.


1. Add a gender dimension to Special Measures;

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 enables employers to create employment or promotion opportunities that are only open to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These are called Special Measures, and can be used to recruit to any position. In 2013, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that “while half of Indigenous men aged 15-64 were employed, there were a smaller proportion of women who were employed (43%)”. By including a gender dimension to Special Measures, Aboriginal women could be provided greater opportunity to engage in the workforce.

2. Multiple and complementary support mechanisms to increase employment rates and improve the retention of Indigenous women engaged in the workforce;

These include ongoing mentoring and support; flexible work arrangements to allow Indigenous employees to meet their work, family and/or community obligations; the provision of family support; and tackling racism in the workplace via initiatives such as the provision of cross-cultural training.

During the earliest phases of recruitment, pre-employment assessments and customised training for Indigenous jobseekers should be provided to ensure individuals are made ‘employment- ready’. For jobseekers that experience multiple barriers to finding employment (for example, drug and alcohol issues, mental and physical health issues, family violence and a lack of literacy and numeracy), policies and programs involving intensive assistance in overcoming multiple barriers should be provided.

Additionally, non-standard recruitment strategies should be employed by organisations in the recruitment process to increase the likelihood of Indigenous people who would ordinarily be screened out from conventional selection processes, now having the opportunity to secure positions.

A wide range of actions and strategies could also be included in Reconciliation Action Plan’s (RAPs), which generally involve greater awareness of cultural issues and often the setting of employment targets. Although the impact on RAPs in increasing Indigenous employment and retention has not been evaluated, they are a potentially important tool in efforts to increase Indigenous employment.

3. Strengthening pathways for career advancement; and

This can be achieved through the provision of incentives and government subsidised education and training opportunities for Aboriginal women to engage in supervisory or management roles. Through the provision of further training and professional development opportunities for Aboriginal women, we could expect a considerable increase in employee retention and greater socio economic outcomes throughout the community.

Additionally, through investment in community development programs, the creation of new jobs, particularly in remote communities, would provide further opportunities for career advancement for Aboriginal women in Central Australia.

4. Funding and support to develop a substantial body of high-quality research, focused specifically on the social determinants and their link to economic security for Aboriginal women.

Further study and research into alternative employment programs/positions and community development opportunities is a fundamental step in advancing the economic empowerment of Aboriginal women in the workplace.

Research should be conducted on how best to pursue economic decolonisation. This can be achieved through further study into classical Indigenous economies and strategies to integrate these principles into western models. In terms of community attitudes to western employment models, Grey et al. (2012 p. 13) writes that:

A number of ethnographic studies directly seek to provide insights into the cultural attitudes to paid employment among particular groups of Indigenous Australians, particularly those living in Remote areas of Australia (Arthur & David-Petero 2000; Musharbash 2001; Austin- Broos 2006). These studies identify a range of cultural beliefs and practices that can be inconsistent with the behaviours and practices generally required for paid employment. These include the time commitments associated with maintaining family relationships and cultural obligations. These practices are also associated with geographic mobility, which is often inconsistent with paid employment... There has been little research into the extent to which cultural beliefs and practices of Indigenous people living in Regional centres and Major cities affect their desire to be in paid employment or their ability to retain employment.

An area where considerable flexibility could be afforded to make these hybrid economies viable could be through the development of the already existing Community Development Employment Programs (CDEP). By further tailoring CDEP programs (or similar), the existing skills and values of Aboriginal women could be harnessed and utilised.

Although there is a substantial body of high-quality research that provides strong evidence on the factors associated with the relatively low employment rates of Indigenous Australians, much less is known about what will be most effective in increasing employment rates. This needs to be the focus for the next stage of research.


Aboriginal women in Central Australia continue to be politically, socially and economically oppressed through the exclusion of their voices in key decision and policymaking, particularly in regard to community development and economic empowerment for Aboriginal women. The reluctance of mainstream Australian culture to acknowledge and recognize the unique skills, experiences and contributions made by Aboriginal women both historically and in a contemporary setting, has underwritten their place in society and perpetuated both systematic and overt workplace discrimination. Currently, there is a lack of systematic gender-based analysis and research on gender inequality in Central Australia to examine these disparities, resulting in policies and programmes that fail to meet the specific needs of Aboriginal women. This paper explores the role that gender plays, alone and in concert with other determinants, to affect the economic status of Aboriginal women across Central Australia, and highlights some initiatives aimed at empowering Aboriginal women in the workplace.

Intersectionality and mainstream feminism

Aboriginal women continue to be excluded from mainstream feminist discourse through the notion of a universalised women’s experience of disempowerment concerning gender equality. Harrell & Panagos (2010) write:

Some scholars account for the uneasy relationship between feminism and Aboriginal women by advancing that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women are actually involved in two different struggles. For these scholars, non-Aboriginal women are struggling for sex equality, while Aboriginal women are struggling for national liberation - that is, they are struggling to end the colonial relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the state.

So, whilst mainstream approaches to achieving gender equality may prove effective for many organisations and regions within Australia, further measures must be undertaken toward recognising and addressing race-and-gender inequality.

The marginalised status of Aboriginal women results from this unique combination of colonialism, racism and gender inequality. The combination of these intersecting axes disempower Indigenous women to a degree not experienced by white, or ‘racially privileged’ woman and cannot be understood by thinking about race or gender in isolation. The term intersectionality seeks to capture both the structural and dynamic consequences of the interaction between two or more forms of discrimination or systems of subordination (Gender and Racial Discrimination 2000).

Black legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw argues that Black women are frequently absent from analyses of either gender oppression or racism, since the former focuses primarily on the experiences of white women and the latter on black men (Smith 2014). This intersectional experience effectively renders Aboriginal women invisible in terms of race and gender-based activism (and often in legal discourse) and fails to address the particular manner in which Aboriginal women continue to be subordinated. Thus, it is integral that racial privilege be made visible to white, middle-class women as well as to the wider Australian public.

Aboriginal women today continue to feel limited and condemned by virtue of these ‘interlocking oppressions’, whereby emancipation can only be achieved through decolonisation from both a race and gender standpoint (Liddle 2014).

History of Aboriginal women in the workforce

Although international black feminism has cast some influence on the mainstream feminist movement, the challenges experienced by Australian Aboriginal women are not the same. This is due to the ongoing process of colonisation experienced by Aboriginal women within their traditional homelands.

The colonisation of Australia involved the implementation of an overriding patriarchal system through the dismemberment of traditional Aboriginal economic, political, social, spiritual and ceremonial domains. The historic role of traditional Aboriginal women experienced a dramatic shift in duties and responsibilities, moving women away from their traditional environments to western-style workplaces.

Miscegenation was the catalyst for assimilation policy aimed at disrupting racial purity and providing white Australia with a pool of cheap black labour (Moreton-Robinson 2000). The era of domestic servants had begun and brought with it the sexualisation, fetishisation and abuse of Indigenous women by white men in the culture of colonisation. Aboriginal women were employed as domestics in pastoral farms and cattle stations throughout the Northern Territory and were required to cook, clean, wash and iron, as well as look after the resident white children, effectively helping white women to grow the nation (Demosthenous et al. 2010, p. 4).

Whilst equal pay is a fundamental objective in achieving gender equality today, it was not until the mid-1960’s that Indigenous men and women were legally entitled to be paid award wages. Prior to this, with the exception of payment via meagre rations, many Aboriginal people were not paid for their labour at all.

Fundamental disparities could be found in the values of Aboriginal cultures during these early years of contact and those of the dominant western culture. For example, the communal nature of Aboriginal life prior to white contact meant that every member of society would pool resources in order to survive. Thrust from this way of life into stations and domestic duties, Aboriginal women felt conflicted with their exploitation but powerless in their ability to challenge white dominance.

Throughout this period, the control and subordination of Indigenous women and their families was legally sanctioned and enforced through official assimilation policy. Through the policing and containment of Aboriginal women’s’ sexuality and the subsequent removal of their children, the Stolen Generations became an act of white supremacy and as such became commonplace in the lives of Aboriginal women.

In attempting to assimilate Indigenous women as domestic servants, the identity of Aboriginal women was constructed and defined by the dominant culture, deciding who they were and how they should behave (Moreton-Robinson 2004). The construction of Indigenous identity has rippled into contemporary Australian society, further condemning Aboriginal women for their inability to achieve equality with the rest of the Australian public whilst white society fails to comprehend the destruction caused by colonisation and cultural, political and economic domination.

The relationship between social determinants and Aboriginal Peoples’ economic security

Whilst Aboriginal people equate to approximately 3% of the national population, In the Northern Territory Aboriginal people make up around a quarter of the population (Central Australian Aboriginal Congress 2016). This is due to the late arrival of colonisation to the north and central Australia; it was not until early this century that non-Aboriginal people established significant settlements in the region (CAAC 2016).

Since this time, Indigenous people have been subjected to inadequate and discriminatory Federal and State Government policy. As a result, Indigenous peoples today face a crisis in which they have the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, early mortality, and lowest levels of education in the country (Hunt & Smith 2005, p. 1). Indigenous peoples remain the most marginalised population in Australia, with lower than average incomes, higher incarceration rates (particularly amongst youth) and a heavy reliance on government financial assistance, such as social security payments. Indigenous communities face more barriers in terms of infrastructure, housing, health care and other essential services due to substantial historical funding gaps, and as a result, today many Indigenous Australians continue to live in substandard conditions.

Through the systemic denial of Indigenous self-determination along with the implementation of externally imposed policy and legislation (such the Northern Territory Intervention and the amalgamation of community councils into Super Shires), socio economic disparities will continue to restrict and oppress Indigenous peoples’ economic security.

The disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in employment outcomes is one of the pillars of the Australian government’s Closing the Gap agenda. By 2018, The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) has committed to halving the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the proportion of the working age population who are employed.

The impacts on Australian Society

In terms of mainstream gender equality in the workplace, research has shown that by closing the gap in men and women’s employment rates, Australia’s GDP would experience a boost of about 11% (Toohey et al. 2009). Furthermore, by removing disincentives for women to enter the paid workforce, the size of the Australian economy would increase by about $25 billion per year (Daley 2012). So without doubt, women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work is imperative not only for the future of Australian women, but also for the growth and development of our nation’s economy.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (2016) reported that 76% of Non-Indigenous Australians were engaged in the labour force, compared to 56% of Indigenous Australians. However, both non- Indigenous men and women were more likely to be employed than not in the labour force (77% and 67% respectively employed). Possible rationale for these statistics can be found in the lower levels of educational qualifications obtained by Indigenous peoples. The ABS (2013) report that Australians with higher levels of education are more likely to be successful in obtaining employment and in participating in the workforce, than those who had not obtained these qualifications. In 2014–15, around one-quarter (26%) of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 years and over had completed Year 12 or equivalent (ABS 2016). Additionally, [t]he Northern Territory (14%) had the lowest proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 years and over who had completed Year 12 (ABS 2016). The ABS (2016) reports that on a national scale, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are over 50% less likely than non- Indigenous people to complete year 12 or equivalent.

The impact of inequality not only affects the nations GDP, psychologists have long recognised the impact of inequality on the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities. Furthermore, economic and social circumstances are widely recognised as the foundation of our health and wellbeing. The Australian Psychological Society (2014) writes:

Social and material disadvantage and exclusion have been demonstrated to drive unequal health outcomes, and poor health also compounds disadvantage, limiting participation in employment, education and the community ... Growth in inequality of incomes and wealth leads to greater stratification of the community, with adverse impacts on trust, self-image, and equality of opportunity for those who face disadvantage; this then has negative effects on people’s health and on society more broadly.


In summary, social welfare indicators place Aboriginal women at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, making them one of the most socially marginalized groups in Australia. The history of Indigenous Australia and the subsequent socio economic disparities discussed in this paper has led to lower employment rates of Aboriginal women; Aboriginal women with significantly less formal qualifications and employability skills and significantly less Aboriginal women in leadership roles within both Indigenous and non-Indigenous workplaces. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, Australia is still very much a nation which continues to privilege a white, patriarchal culture in which exclusionary legacies, rather than being a source of shame, tend to be celebrated (Liddle 2014). A vibrant economy can only be developed by understanding the diversity of the population, their unique contributions and the barriers faced by many. To eliminate the gender gap once and for all, everyone must be able to contribute equally to the well-being of their family, community and, of course, themselves.


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