Australia’s First People have been mar­gin­al­ised through­out the cen­tur­ies, ever since Cap­tain Cook first landed on the country’s East Coast in 1770. Only 3.3% of Australia’s pop­u­la­tion today are Abori­gin­al, and they mainly live in remote com­munit­ies in the country’s North and West.

These com­munit­ies keep Abori­gin­al cul­ture alive through Dream­ing stor­ies, art­work, and more. When look­ing at Abori­gin­al cul­ture, it’s inter­est­ing to com­pare male and female rela­tions in these com­munit­ies, to see how much they dif­fer to European stand­ards — and indeed, wheth­er they have been affected by White Aus­trali­ans over the years.

In this art­icle, we will look at dif­fer­ent aspects of Indi­gen­ous Aus­trali­an soci­ety and the gender roles with each.

Family Life

In Abori­gin­al com­munit­ies, rear­ing chil­dren does typ­ic­ally fol­low the pat­tern of most soci­et­ies; it is con­sidered to be a woman’s duty. How­ever, Abori­gin­als do not see this as defin­it­ive — both par­ents are expec­ted to have a nur­tur­ing role and an act­ive involve­ment in the child’s upbring­ing.

Gender equal­ity — and dis­par­ity — with­in the fam­ily and com­munity is not often the top­ic of dis­cus­sion but it does seem to be more the moth­er and wife who assumes a ‘home­maker’ role, just like in many soci­et­ies around the world. Women are rarely thought to be sub­or­din­ate to men, but they do gen­er­ally have dif­fer­ent fam­ily roles.

Inter­est­ingly, some people believe the female’s role as home­maker was due to European influ­ence and that it is chan­ging as Abori­gin­al people are regain­ing their voice and iden­tity — they are “tak­ing more respons­ib­il­ity in areas of com­munity life which European ideo­logy has pos­ited as male domains” (source).


Abori­gin­al women gained the right to vote shortly after white women. The actu­al year var­ied across states, but all Aborig­nal women could vote by the end of the 19th cen­tury. This was revoked from them, how­ever, in the 1902 Com­mon­wealth Fran­chise Act.

All Abori­gin­al people regained the right to vote in 1962, but they were only included in the census from 1967. Abori­gin­al men and women have had more or less equal vot­ing rights through­out the dec­ades, but they have obvi­ously been very far behind Europeans — even now, only 58% are registered to vote.


Abori­gin­al men and women have starkly dif­fer­ent levels of edu­ca­tion and sub­sequently employ­ment ranges. This report states that “Abori­gin­al women [have returned] to their tra­di­tion­al role of edu­cat­ors” and also that “many Abori­gin­al women have suc­cess­fully trained as health work­ers”. Some go on to work in offices, par­tic­u­larly with Abori­gin­al busi­nesses. Gen­er­ally, Abori­gin­al women seem to be more lit­er­ate and gen­er­ally bet­ter edu­cated than Indi­gen­ous males, who take more jobs as manu­al work­ers.

Des­pite their high­er levels of edu­ca­tion, there is a large gender pay gap between Abori­gin­al men and women, with males earn­ing sub­stan­tially more, even for lower-skilled jobs.


While hunt­ing is gen­er­ally thought of as a male-dom­in­ated activ­ity, Abori­gin­al women have hunted through­out his­tory, and con­tin­ue to do so. Tra­di­tion­ally, they have more ‘gath­er­ing’ jobs, col­lect­ing fruit and veget­ables, and hunt­ing small anim­als, where­as men would focus more on hunt­ing anim­als like kangaroos or emus. How­ever, some women do hunt big­ger anim­als too — and it is recog­nised that the tra­di­tion­al hunt­ing duties are com­ple­ment­ary to each oth­er.

Traditional Ceremonies

Some tra­di­tion­al cere­mon­ies are male only. The main male cere­mony is the ‘bora’ which is a rite of pas­sage cel­eb­ra­tion for boys becom­ing adults. There are also woman-only cere­mon­ies, which men are not per­mit­ted to. Non­ethe­less, mixed-sex cere­mon­ies are more fre­quent and enjoyed by entire com­munit­ies, where they tell Dream­ing stor­ies against back­drops of scared Abori­gin­al sites.


Gambling is a key fea­ture of many Abori­gin­al Aus­trali­an com­munit­ies, with his­tory span­ning back 300 years — when it was repor­ted that Macas­san traders intro­duced gambling cards to the North­ern region. Since the arrival of Europeans, rates of gambling have increased in rur­al areas, and many people in these parts of the coun­try have gambling prob­lems.

Men and women alike gamble, but it is thought that gambling issues are more com­mon amongst men than women. Women who start gambling when young are des­ig­nated as high-risk for devel­op­ing gambling prob­lems later in life, where­as men who work part-time or are sep­ar­ated from part­ners might have more of a risk of devel­op­ing gambling issues. The more tra­di­tion­al view of women as home­makers may res­ult in their lower rates of gambling.


Alco­hol prob­lems in Abori­gin­al com­munit­ies can be severe, they can affect both sexes and all ages. Women gen­er­ally drink slightly less than men, which fol­lows pat­terns seen in most cul­tures.

Due to the pre­val­ence of dry com­munit­ies through­out Aus­tralia, aver­age drink­ing rates are lower. This report states that there is a “rel­at­ively low fre­quency of con­sump­tion (3.5 medi­an drink­ing days in the last month for men, 1.8 for women). How­ever, when people did drink, they repor­ted a high medi­an num­ber of stand­ard drinks per occa­sion (19.4 for men, 14.8 for women).” Women do have sub­stan­tially longer dry peri­ods — 90 versus 30 days on aver­age.

Alco­hol depend­ency may there­fore be more of a prob­lem for Indi­gen­ous men than women, who may find more of a sense of com­munity and camarader­ie with oth­ers of the same gender, as well as be more edu­cated, but it is still an issue that needs to be addressed in some com­munit­ies.


Abori­gin­al cul­ture is not inher­ently sex­ist — women are seen as dif­fer­ent to men, but rarely sub­or­din­ate. In fact, European cul­ture, and the struc­tures that they have put onto Aboriginal’s nat­ive lands, seem to have made Abori­gin­al cul­ture more sex­ist and the gender roles more pro­nounced. In cit­ies, the gap between men and women seems broad­er than in com­munit­ies, where both genders are appre­ci­ated for their unique roles.

There are still some cru­cial dif­fer­ences between men and women in Abori­gin­al soci­ety. Some, such as the dif­fer­ence in hunt­ing styles and gender spe­cif­ic cere­mon­ies appear to be tra­di­tion­al cus­toms that bene­fit both genders. How­ever, there still is a large gender pay gap between Abori­gin­al men and women, women do gen­er­ally under­take home­maker roles, and men are more likely to suf­fer from alco­hol­ism and gambling addic­tions. The fact that Abori­gin­al men and women have less voice than White Aus­trali­ans to talk about these issues does need to be tar­geted.

Deal­ing with the struc­tur­al racism that all Abori­gin­al people face in mod­ern Aus­trali­an soci­ety, and giv­ing Abori­gin­al Aus­trali­ans a voice to describe the main issues that they face are import­ant step­ping stones to tack­ling gender issues with­in the com­munity.

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