If women with power can't change a toxic culture by speaking up, can anything?

If women with power can’t change a toxic culture by speaking up, can anything?

"I thought, if that's happened to me, where there's a pretty minimal power disparity ... you can only imagine what happens to people who don't have that sort of power parity."
Julia Banks

One of the most telling quotes to come out of former Liberal MP Julia Bank’s 7:30 interview on Monday night was where she asked about those who don’t have power.

It was this comment that highlighted the magnitude of the problem: not only the treatment of women in the Liberal party but the treatment of women everywhere. 

During the interview in line with the launch of her new book Power Play, Banks outlined how stepping into politics — as the only woman in 2016 to win a Liberal seat from Labor — was like stepping back in time to the 1980s. She spoke of the “blokey” culture, similar to the male-dominated companies she’d worked in decades ago. She also spoke about Prime Minister Scott Morrison attempting to “control the narrative” regarding the litany of stories on the treatment of women in politics in recent years.

She also spoke about receiving an unwelcome sexual advance at work, from a Turnbull Government Cabinet minister. She described being in a roomful of MPs, sitting on a couch when another MP sat on her right and asked, “How are you?” Banks says he then put her hand on her knee and ran it high up her leg before walking away. Banks walked over to another female MP and asked her to speak with her. The man walked over again, then walked away.

“What disturbed me the most about that and I’m sure, I know, worse things have happened to other women in the workplace, certainly they have to me but what disturbed me about that was: Here I was, a 50 something corporate lawyer, member of parliament, and that move was made on me which would classify as an unwelcome sexual advance or inappropriate touching,” Banks said on the incident.

“And I thought, if that’s happened to me, where there’s a pretty minimal power disparity … you can only imagine what happens to people who don’t have that sort of power parity.”

It was a comment for all those women who won’t ever be able to write a book, or appear on 7:30 and speak out and resign in the most public way: on the floor of parliament.

A comment also for women who work in Parliament House, with Banks saying she believes that similar inappropriate touching is likely occurring there “every day.

Given her profile, Banks has the opportunity to share what she experienced and witnessed. And thankfully she is taking this opportunity and using it to stunning effect and impact. But she also makes it clear that she has power. And even with that power, she notes that she’s far from “fearless” and that there are always consequences.

But having such opportunities is far from a given for others working in Parliament. It’s far from available for others working across other sectors, particularly in small businesses.

The ability to speak out is rarely an option in different sectors, in different businesses, in locations and places that will never get media attention for their treatment of women. It’s often rarely even an option in politics — and we can see how and where Banks had to personally deal with the consequences of that, leaving the career she’d worked so hard to achieve, and having a Prime Mininster later say he had “concerns for her welfare”. And it’s even less of an option for women of colour.

What about women with less power in politics? What about workplaces with less media interest than Parliament House? What about women with less ability to walk away from a career or job? What about younger women with less experience and knowledge on what crosses the line?

And if a story like this occurring in Parliament House, if numerous other allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation and toxicity within the Coalition Government can’t bring anyone down — at least to a point where they can’t get back up to the position they were in again — then what hope is there for other workplaces?

Julia Banks is undeniably courageous. Brittany Higgins is courageous. Senator Sarah Hanson Young, who fought the attack she experienced on the Senate floor in the courts, is courageous. Women — particularly across other party lines and in positions ranging from staffer to senator, speaking up about the sexism and racism they’re encountering, including Senator Mehreen Faruqi, are courageous.

But their voices mark just the tip of the iceberg. For every woman with even a semblance of power who can speak up about the harassment and assault they have experienced at work, there are countless others who never have the opportunity, the voice, or the power to share what they have experienced.

And surely, the powerless must also look to the powerful women who do speak up, and question the lack of consequences that eventuate as a result of their courage.

Julia Banks has/had power. Julie Bishop has/had power — and yet today she’s quoted in Nine papers as saying she had to put on a “straight face” defending Tony Abbott’s Cabinet as the only woman included. Others have/had power. And yet even this amount of power — far beyond what any “everyday” woman could imagine, let alone be able to wield, is still not enough.

We could say right now that Minister for Women Senator Marise Payne has power. Attorney-General Michaelia Cash has power. Their power has been collectively pooled into the Women’s Taskforce, established to “drive women’s equality and safety”, and yet what power do they have to stand up and say something about the latest Taskforce addition: Senator Barnaby Joyce? What power do they have to ask their party to take a look inwards, to consider the example it’s establishing across wider Australia?

What power do they have to ensure the Morrison Government issues a credible and solid response to the recommendations made in Kate Jenkins’ [email protected] report?

For every woman able to make that decision to walk away and to use it to highlight what they experienced, there are countless others again who have no choice but to stay. Few choices over whether to say a word. Few choices but to receive the abuse and harassment again and again in order to hold onto their jobs or careers.

And when even the women in government are being hamstrung in their abilities to initiate significant change for all women across Australia — which is what I want to believe is occurring in the Coalition Government — what hope do we have?

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