Earlier today I spoke at a breakfast event hosted by the Law Society of NSW on the subject of sexual harassment in the law. The panel included human rights barrister Kate Eastman SC, Maurice Blackburn principal lawyer, Josh Bornstein and Now Australia’s executive director Kristine Ziwica.
Over granola and cinnamon scrolls we traversed terrain including the depth of the problem in the legal profession, the merits of mandatory reporting for misconduct and the power imbalance that has – and does – allow harassment to flourish.
The backdrop to this conversation was extraordinary even by the unprecedented standards of 2018. Aside from the torrential rain drenching Sydney the treatment of women is, once again, firmly in the spotlight.
And if there was any doubt about the challenge in redistributing power – which Josh Bornstein described as being ultimately critical to changing the pattern of harassment – the previous 24 hours ought to be indicative. The challenge is immense.
Just yesterday Julia Banks sensationally quit the Liberal Party delivering a powerful and eloquent speech citing the party’s appalling treatment of women as a contributing factor. The fact none of her colleagues (with the exception of Craig Laundy) stood around to listen was telling.
— Bevan Shields (@BevanShields) November 27, 2018
Hour later, in the senate, Sarah Hanson-Young was, once again, subject to vile commentary in the chamber that caused the Greens leader Richard Di Natale to describe Senator Barry O’Sullivan as a pig and ultimately get ejected.
another sterling moment for the Barry O'Sullivan highlight reel – another sexist dig at Sarah Hanson-Young, just hours after Julia Banks quit the party in part due to how male MPs treat female MPs https://t.co/Oz5aVSjSpJ pic.twitter.com/xRWE86swzd
— Josh Butler (@JoshButler) November 27, 2018
Hanson-Young delivered a powerful speech of her own in response:
“As the person in this chamber whom the reprehensible and disgusting comments were directed to by Senator O’Sullivan, I want to make it very clear that I am thankful to Senator Di Natale for standing up and calling them out.
That is what real men do. Real men don’t insult and threaten women, and they don’t slut-shame them and they don’t attack them and make them feel bullied in their workplace.
I have sat in this chamber for weeks and weeks – months – and heard the disgusting slurs and attacks coming from a particular group in this place. And I, for one, am sick of it, and I know many of my female colleagues on all sides of politics are sick of it, too. And I will name you because you are not fit to be in this chamber, you’re not fit to represent your constituents and you’re not fit to call yourselves men: Senator O’Sullivan, Senator Anning, Senator Bernardi and Senator Leyonhjelm.
You day after day come into this place, hurl insults across this chamber and play the gender card and, the moment anyone stands up to you, you have the most fragile glass jaws of all. You are cowards. Every time you get called out, you refuse to stand by it.”
On Wednesday morning the chamber dealt with the subject of exactly what conduct is and isn’t acceptable. Senator Scott Ryan said:
“This is not just a matter of rules, this is a matter of respect, of each other, the institution, of those who elected us, and the [people] whose interests we represent.”
Di Natale offered this:
“Australia does have a deep and disturbing problem of violence against women. I remember Malcolm Turnbull, the former Prime Minister saying that not all disrespect towards women leads to violence but that’s where all the violence against women starts.
We in this play should be setting an example for the nation, and and yet these, one of the most powerful institutions of the country, allows men to openly and brazenly shame, insult and harass female members of parliament dash and it reinforces that culture that leads to 72 women are being murdered by their partners this year.”
And guess who walked out instead of listening?
— Brett Worthington (@BWorthington_) November 27, 2018
Senator Penny Wong slammed the use of personal smears in the chamber.
“The shaming of women has been used for decades, even centuries, as a tool of control by those in power. It is odious behaviour, it has never been appropriate and it is not acceptable in this place.”
The trouble – as I see it – is that what should be acceptable and what is acceptable are two very different things.
It should not be acceptable for women to be harassed or demeaned in the workplace -whether that workplace is a department store shop floor, a court room, a law firm or the Senate.
It should not be acceptable for women to be bullied and harassed. And yet? It is acceptable and it has been for some time.
How else has harassment achieved the extraordinary scale revealed by #MeToo? By people turning a blind eye. Accepting it. It has not flourished because no one knew it was happening.
At the Law Society breakfast event earlier Kristine Ziwica spoke about one potential result for workplaces that do allow this behaviour to go unchecked: ultimately women may abandon them and given women comprise 50% of the population and talent this may present a problem.
The Liberal party seems a good case in point here. Analysis from The Guardian’s Amy Remeikis indicates the “Liberal party is looking at retaining six women MPs at the next election.”
That spells disaster for the representation of women in politics more broadly but if it forces other workplaces and leadership groups to consider the pitfalls of failing to consider the treatment of women a top line priority perhaps it won’t be in vain.