Earlier this week I wrote about Bob Hawke’s assertion that Tanya Plibersek isn’t in contention for the ALP leadership because she has a three-year old.
I explained that my initial reaction on hearing Hawke’s comment was despair. Instead of banging my head on the desk and openly weeping, as I felt inclined to do, I reasoned that given Hawke is 83 the comment wasn’t entirely unexpected. Rather than just castigating him (and anyone else who shares his view) I tried to explain why being a mother and a leader are not mutually exclusive options.
This has been construed as me excusing Hawke, which I can understand, and it’s reminded me again of a related and relevant dilemma. Which is, what is the most effective way to try and change an attitude? When you encounter an attitude or opinion that you disagree with and desperately want to shift, what do you do?
It is something I think about often but particularly when a comment, that I wholeheartedly oppose, is made in a public forum. In that instance I try to play the point not the person. Of course I’m sure some people will disagree but I did the same when Tony Abbott referred to a candidate’s sex appeal. Instead of just throwing insults at him I tried to explain why his comments were inappropriate and damaging.
I don’t tread carefully to placate anyone but because I want to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to dismiss my perspective as the rantings of another angry man hating feminist. I realise I won’t always succeed but also I’m not sure whether just getting angry at the person would always succeed either.
Hawke’s comment – truly – made my heart sink. The assumption inherent in his opinion – that being a mother somehow disqualifies a person from being considered for a role – allows discrimination on the basis of gender to perpetuate and flourish. Hearing that so clearly articulated by anyone – let alone a public figure – is demoralising.
It is a reminder that whilst it is tempting to assume the reasons gender inequality still exists are shrouded in mystery (because why else could it possibly still be a problem?) the wretched reality is the reason it exists is quite simple.
Though it might appear to defy logic, the reason we still have a sizeable pay gap is obvious. It is the same reason we have so few women running ASX-listed companies. It is the same reason why women remain under-represented in management in law, in accounting, in medicine, in engineering, in the public sector. It is the same reason so few women lead political parties around the world.
It is because more people believe women and men aren’t equal than believe they are. And that’s a deceptively difficult problem to solve. If it were easy the task of eradicating discrimination on the basis of gender, would not elude us still.
One of the complexities of this situation is that many of the same people whose attitudes and beliefs contribute to the problem honestly believe they don’t. The guilty parties in this regard aren’t just the men and women who say “Oh I’m not sexist but…”. They’re also the people who say nothing because they quietly, even unknowingly, accept in their own lives and their own minds that men and women hold different roles in society.
Unlocking that type of entrenched bias in people who deny having any entrenched bias is almost impossible. Which is why it is almost a blessing, albeit one I’d prefer to live without, when someone makes a comment like Hawke did about Plibersek having a 3 year old. It rips back the façade of any mystery and reveals the deeply entrenched bias in all of its unfettered, prejudiced, glory.
It gives us a legitimate opportunity to call it out. And when that happens, to my mind, we have a few choices; we can despair, we can go completely spare or we could try and use the opportunity to have a constructive conversation. We could even try all three.
My article earlier this week was not about excusing or accommodating Hawke’s view. His comment represents everything that I am genuinely passionate about eliminating which is why I wanted to criticise his assertion more than I wanted to criticise him.
One of the real challenges we face on the road to meaningful equality is the ambivalence around it. Because of that if we give anyone the scope to say “Oh look they’re banging on about women’s problems again,” and dismiss the view out of hand, it’s an own-goal.
So my question for all of you is this: if the ultimate objective is to change attitudes what is the best way to make that happen?