The recent events with the Australian Leadership of the Labour Party and the events that overturned Julia Gillard as Prime Minister has meant almost everyone I meet wants to know what I think about it. This probably has something to do with the fact that I am a gender consultant and studying sociology, but really, I think that it goes far deeper than that. I think this seemingly small ripple in the workings of a political party and our Parliament has caused a greater ripple in the minds of many women and men. They know that there was something very wrong with the way our first female Prime Minister was treated, and they way she was treated was not the same as the previous Prime Minister Rudd was treated throughout his term and at his demise. Yes, Gillard may have usurped Kevin Rudd when she came into power, but she hardly played on the fact that he was a man at the time. He also didn’t have to deal with questions about his partner’s sexual preferences from smart arsed radio announcers wanting to take a swipe at a female leader.
The leadership spill and the various issues around gender during the Gillard Prime Ministership highlight the very same issues that many women face but often can’t articulate. Ms Gillard’s leadership and calm resolve served to highlight the issue of gender and sexism more clearly than ever before. It has put Australia on the world stage as a country that still discriminates against gender.
Recently I was in Madrid speaking about Gender Economics and both women and men likened Australia to the masculine culture of Spain where women still suffer blatant discrimination. Not something that most Australian’s would ever think about, and most would dispute this with open laughter, but we are not as equal in Australia as we think. We like to think that in Australia, everyone has a ‘fair go’ and we treat ‘our mates’ with fairness, but here is the thing. We don’t treat all men equally and we very often don’t treat women as equal to men. Unless you are someone that fits the criteria of a ‘mate’, which generally speaking, is a man, you don’t fit into the world of ‘mateship’ and a ‘fair go’ for everyone.
What happened to Julia has happened to many women. It has happened to me only last year in the corporate world. Most women just can’t explain what has happened to them, but they know it isn’t right and it doesn’t feel good and it isn’t fair. What’s more, it’s no good for society in general to have large tracks of the population treated so badly, yet when they speak up about the abuse or the unfairness are treated as if they are the problem. We saw this with Julia – she was accused of ‘playing the gender card’ when she spoke out. I am here to tell you that men have played the gender card for centuries and just don’t like it when it is highlighted to them.
So often as women when we cite ‘sexism’ we start a discussion that quickly turns against the women who has highlighted it and I believe this is largely because we don’t equip them with the history, the knowledge and the means to fully address the onslaught of crap that comes back at them. I constantly find that just the mere mention that a Facebook comment is derogatory or sexist results in reams of discussions from men calling my whole being into question. Talk about emotional! Some of the stuff that gets thrown at you is just so irrational and emotional it is amazing, but point that out and you are then called a ‘feminist’ like it is the worst thing a person could be called. These men try to belittle you with the “come on, it’s a joke”, or “you must be a very bitter person”, or whatever else they can think of that might just shift the contents of their sexism to the person it was aimed at instead of looking at what they said in the first place.
What happened to me and to Julia is what is happening to women everywhere. Whilst we are getting on with the job, there is a glamorous man swanning around making a name for himself. I know in my own situation, I was so busy trying to get the program I was hired to get back on track that I had little time to put the brakes on one of the men in the team who was busily making a name for himself and in the processes caused more work than was needed. This is a pack mentality, glamour attracts and in many cases, it attracts others who stand on the side of the glamorous instead of the one’s doing the work. Ultimately, just like Julia one of the glamour man’s cohorts took over my job. I knew what he was up to, it was easy to see – the trouble is that those in leadership don’t see what is actually going on and so glamour wins out in preference to substance and action. In the corporate world, you can’t cite the gender card, you can’t be seen to discriminate, but there are other ways that sexism can bring you down. These people stick together; they wage a war of glamour, of sparkle with a publicity machine that the big banks would envy. In short, they are not worried about how the work is done, they are worried about how they are seen whilst the work is done, and usually this work is done by others. They use terms like ‘she’ like it is abusive language, saying it in the same way that Tony Abbott would refer to Julia Gillard – when he would refer to the Prime Minister he would use the word ‘she’ like it was a swear word – it had an edge to it. When ‘she’ is said this way it says I don’t respect you, I am annoyed at you for being here, it says how dare you challenge my status as a man. They feel that their higher status as a man is threatened and they don’t like it. If you challenge this view like Julia and I did, then expect hostility and repercussions. I am glad that I stood up and didn’t take this treatment lying down. Like Julia I spoke up, I made them hear what they didn’t want to hear and the repercussion was that I lost the job but I am so much better for it.
Not all men behave like this of course, and I think that more and more men are aware of the way their own belief systems and gendered expectations can affect the way that they view women. These deep underlying beliefs and pictures of gendered stereotypes and what society expects of our gendered roles can cause them to go along with the results of sexist, demeaning and aggressive behaviour without thinking and so the sexist discourse continues.
This process can be damaging to women and ultimately it is damaging to those men. For many women treated this way, it damages them in a way that makes them stand aside, shut up, stop trying and fade into the background. For those of us that fight back, we get hostility and endless accusations and comments that the sexist comments are more a figment of our own imagination than the views of the male that has made the comments. It doesn’t matter the tone of the context of the comment, if a women is offended – then call it what you like, she is offended and has every right to be offended. She doesn’t need to justify why and she certainly shouldn’t need to defend herself against speaking up. In some cases the actual word is fine, just like Abbott and the use of the ‘she’ word for Gillard, the damaging part is the tone and context in which the word is used and that’s why so many women have been offended by Ms Gillard’s treatment. Its a mixture of tone, context and the continuousness of the attacks. Each attack on its own my seem trivial and for many women this is difficult to articulate when it is laughed off so easily by the person delivering the offending comment.
So what has Julia done for us? She demonstrated strength of character under the constant barrage of extremely difficult gender attacks, but more importantly, the spotlight has been shone on the level of personal assaults as a result of her gender and the sheer number of them over an extended period which has provided us with a huge amount of evidence that can now be researched.
We need to create a dialog that informs women and gives them the tools for a rational discourse on issues that they experience as a result of their gender and give them the information that allows them to respond rationally and with clear evidence when inequality raises its head. I believe that this dialog will help men to understand what is happening and will lead us to a greater understanding of the behaviours that marginalise and disadvantage some in our community. Ultimately, this will lead to social change that will benefit all in the community because the focus is on inclusion rather than exclusion and privilege.
I am organizing the 2014 Global Conference on Gender Economics which aims to work through the issues combining academic research and corporate, business and government case studies to get a dialogue on a rational approach to addressing the many issues of policy that have an underlying gender bias.