Earlier this week, Essential Research found that 61% of women think sexism is a problem in Australia, compared to 42% of men. Plenty of women already know this. They live and experience it daily. This is especially true in male-dominated industries where a woman’s presence is a novelty, rather than the norm.
The problem is there are still so many male-dominated areas of political, social and community life where women are the exception: boards, senior leadership, conference panels, certain political parties at the state and federal level, councils, sporting regulatory bodies, community organisations, an average day at work.
Away from the political sphere, comments made by Socceroos coach Holger Osieck Tuesday night following the team’s win against Jordan demonstrates how male-dominated circumstances can encourage sexist remarks. Surrounded by mostly male journalists and handlers at a post-game press conference, Osieck attempted a stupid and ill-considered ‘joke’ that women should “shut up in public”. He thought it was off the record but, unsurprisingly given he was surrounded by cameras and journalists, it was recorded.
For women working in male-dominated conditions, speaking out about sexism is especially hard. You’re outnumbered. You’re already out of place. You’re likely to lose any sense of ‘inclusion’ you may have sought to achieve. It takes considerable courage to make such a move. It puts your job, friendships with colleagues and career at risk.
That’s why grassroots activism, particularly via social media, has been so powerful and effective in addressing sexism. It’s also why Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech hit such a nerve — so many of us have felt like Gillard, in that situation, wishing we had been able to make that speech. It’s why when the body parts of our first female prime minister are mocked in printed materials associated with a national Liberal party fundraiser, we get angry.
So many women go to work every day living with the reality of sexism, often just seemingly innocent remarks that seem so off-the-cuff and good-humoured by those who speak them, but cut deep for those whose gender is used as entertainment. We look for like-minded individuals who can help us voice our problem with such remarks, and for leaders who legitimise the fact it’s ok to put your foot down.
While many women have the ability to speak up about the sexism they’ve encountered, they don’t necessarily have the confidence to get their voice heard, or willingness to lose their hard fought chance at inclusion and acceptance amongst an all-male crowd. That’s completely understandable, especially when politicians like Joe Hockey dismiss the issue as unimportant, as he did Wednesday, and we’re told to move on to more pressing political matters.
We need to take sexism seriously, even when we may say there are more ‘worthy’ causes like genital mutilation that feminists should be speaking out about — such as what Janet Albrechtsen claimed on the ABC’s 7:30 program last night.
Sexist comments cut at everything women and men fight to achieve on increasing women’s representation and participation. Women face enough difficulties trying to break into male-dominated areas of working and social life, to undermine their presence via stupid words spoken for no other reason but an attempt at a joke makes it all the more hard to break into those circles, and to want to stick around.
We’re better off collectively demonstrating again and again that sexism is unacceptable. Sure, some will find it irritating and annoying and tell us to focus our efforts elsewhere — a convenient means to shut people up — but unless it goes away the issue still requires our attention and scrutiny.
And if we can’t stamp out basic, stupid, sexist behaviour among educated men who well and truly know better, then what hope do we have for other issues?