Reclaiming strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identities through a gender equity lens: a research project

Project aim and objectives

This project sought to explore the diversity of current views and understandings of gender roles, gender equity and the role of gender relations in developing respective relationships, in South Australian Aboriginal communities.


  • To explore the current evidence about gender roles and gender equity in the Australian literature and Australian policy documents regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
  • To understand how Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people consider gender and gender roles, and how these views relate to equity as a fairness principle.
  • To understand what Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander young people are told (by family, community and the broader society) about their roles according to their gender.
  • To explore how strong Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander men and women are portrayed and how strong positive gender roles and relationships are envisioned.

Project team

Project leader: Amanda Mitchell

Project partner: South Australian Aboriginal Families Health Research Partnership

Administering organisation: Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia

Project timeline: 1/01/2017—31/10/2018


  • A systematic review and meta-synthesis of research examining views and understandings of gender roles and responsibilities in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
  • A discursive analysis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and social policy to explore how gender and gender equity is positioned in these policies.
  • In-depth interviews with community members across a diverse range of age and gender identities in three sites in South Australia, to explore views regarding gender equity, cultural identity and strong relationships.
  • Facilitated consensus workshops to discuss preliminary findings with community members and other stakeholders, to ensure they had the opportunity to shape the interpretation of findings, the recommendations for research and policy, and the dissemination strategies.

Project findings

  • Understandings of gender were diverse and ranged from biological to understanding gender as a complex, social and cultural concept, with diversity of understandings in all age groups, and an acknowledgement 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 (child rearing, 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 fewer 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 expressions of emotions are gendered and acknowledged that this is particularly problematic for men in the community. It was often suggested that more culturally safe spaces specific to men are needed to allow 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.

Project outcomes

Project outcomes


  • This was an exploratory study, providing the first documented evidence of views about gender equity from an Aboriginal perspective.
  • This project will help to raise awareness about the influence of gender in Aboriginal people’s lives, including how being an Aboriginal man or woman influence opportunities and experiences in work, family  and  community  activities, as well as the specific experiences and needs of  Aboriginal  people who identify as LGBTIQ. This information is important to understand how policies, programs and services developed for Aboriginal people could be improved to meet the specific needs of women and men. Understanding what Aboriginal people think is fair or unfair will also help to determine whether general policies developed by the government about gender equity are relevant for Aboriginal people.
  • The findings support Indigenous people to strengthen and reclaim their cultural responsibilities which will contribute to building strong, positive, cultural identities, thus enhancing social and emotional wellbeing.
  • Two Aboriginal project team members were new to research and were mentored to develop research skills. Additionally, five Aboriginal investigators were able to strengthen their research leadership skills.

Related resources:

Acknowledgement of Country

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