Sexism in politics runs rife. So when will leaders speak up?

4 Corners proved that sexism in politics runs rife. So when will leaders speak up?

If WhatsApp notifications are anything to go by, women in political circles are fuming and some are personally hurt by the Canberra bubble’s inadequate response to 4 Corners.

Having worked as a junior staffer in Parliament ten years ago as well as more recently, I watched the program with familiar dismay and was moved by the bravery of Rachelle and Kathleen, the women who called out the inappropriate conduct of two Federal Ministers. But as damning as the revelations were, the fallout has been even more shocking.

We had a quick and dirty apology from Minister Tudge, an aggressive denial from Minister Porter, and a downplaying from the Prime Minister, that felt like a classic gaslight. And what of the opposition? Labor’s initial reaction was confusing and flimsy, then a stronger statement came a few days later, most likely thanks to pressure from Labor women working in Parliament now.

In all my discussions over the last week about the 4 Corners program, there have been starkly different takes. For many women who have worked in Parliament this was seen as the last straw in a long history of disrespect. For others (lots of men) these were seen as insider issues, of less interest to the electorate than other news of the week, since they were not damaging enough to take down a Minister. This entirely misses the point and is a dangerous perspective. 

If there is no action in response to this very clear problem at the highest level of government, the message being sent is that misogyny is culturally acceptable in Australia in 2020.

This has implications for women everywhere. Public policy outcomes are never going to properly tackle inequality if our culture is desperately lagging.

At the very least, we need action by the Government investigating the culture of the House, and by political parties raising standards of behaviour, bringing in whistleblowing and better governance.

And in the meantime, here are some things that men in Parliament should be thinking about to improve its culture. 

Very obviously but just in case not, harassment, abuse, assault and rape are against the law. Furthermore predatory behaviour, and abuse of positions of power for your own gratification are unacceptable.

It is also important to understand how the long history of women’s oppression still affects everyone. Women may have an education, a vote, and a job, but structural inequality undergirds our entire experience of and participation in our work.

Remember that some of the ways women might behave, such as using non confrontational language, bodily comportment (i.e no manspreading), and deferential eye contact are products of this history of oppression. They are not signs of weakness or incompetence and they are definitely not flirty behaviours.

Men have their own pressures to contend with certainly, but also key advantages, like a culture rich with role models to show you how to succeed professionally.

More importantly however, our history has left a legacy of what is popularly known as unconscious bias. It doesn’t mean all men treat women at work as sex objects (although some clearly do). But it is about our common conception of who looks and sounds credible. Since the archetype of success in the workplace is still usually a white alpha male, women are always at a disadvantage. 

I know that intersectionality is a trigger word for some men in politics, but if you think identity politics is going away I am afraid you will be disappointed.

Malcolm Turnbull was right that the private sector is streets ahead. Not just because they create more respectful working environments for women. So many organisations are working on getting diverse voices in leadership with things like bias training, blind recruitment and flexible work arrangements, but it is a long road.

If you get tossed out of politics (easily done) you might find yourself shopping your CV around at a few corporates. Not only will they not tolerate sexist behaviours, they will also want you to understand forces that shape us at the edges of race, class, gender, age, ethnicity, ability and sexual orientation and ask that you work to elevate all voices. 

But even the private sector still has a way to go. Good policymakers should be finding ways to help institutions improve diversity in leadership across the board.

Don’t roll your eyes or change the subject when we bring these topics up, please listen as it is in your own interests too. Try and promote an office environment that feels safe to all. Women are aware of the fact that after we leave a room in Parliament House, the political bros might move from talk on work matters to a discussion of female anatomy.

It is so disrespectful and undermining of our professional contribution you absolutely must stop. Please ask the other bros to stop too, because as Kathleen Foley so rightly said, silence normalises and spreads this culture.

It is important you think about what you say to others about women. Don’t just casually dismiss a woman’s views, perhaps because she doesn’t look or sound confident to you. What you say about a woman at work directly impacts her professional reputation which for all the reasons I have explained so far, is much harder for her to secure in the first place.

Make space for people to speak out. Party politics runs on loyalty as currency but these issues go above party politics. It is about basic respect. If a woman calls out bad behaviour then there should be no reprisal.

And finally, around the country and including in Parliament House women are still doing way more care work – with kids, older parents, and running a house.

We carry the mental load, we know when grandma has her operation etc. so when it comes to the care work at work, the organising of team lunches, the remembering of birthdays, or the dull admin task no-one wants to do, can you please just pitch in? And on the topic of care work, as policymakers you should make it a priority to recognise, reduce and redistribute unpaid care work.

Until you are able to build a workplace that genuinely values women’s views, expertise and contributions, as well as all the reasons in modern Australia that your staff may need to leave the office – to nurture kids, parents, faith, mental health – rather than work until 10pm and drink until 2am, then you’ll continue to miss the mark on what Australians need and expect from their leaders.

Instead of spending time in Parliament exploiting the worst of our history – focus on changing it. 

And if you don’t think you can get on board with any of the above then I would suggest you rethink your role representing Australian women.

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