July 2, 2013
By Marie Bellino
When I grow up I want to be a pop star. If a pretty young girl uttered these words, few would question her career choice, as it’s perfectly acceptable to pursue an occupation that capitalises on her physical beauty.
Conversely, if another girl proclaimed: When I grow up I want to be the Prime Minister, her statement would probably provoke looks of bemusement or mockery, considering ‘saviour’ Rudd’s return as leader of the Labor party.
It is only in recent history that an Australian woman has assumed this role of great national importance, but it is an unenviable spotlight to be in since it invites its fair share of controversy and disdain. As a journalist wryly observed in the UK Guardian, the “slaying” expected by women who dare occupy high office in Australia, is comparable to the impending doom of a “recently-deflowered teenage girl at an abandoned summer camp in a horror movie.”
There’s no escaping the unflinching criticism directed at women who take on influential positions traditionally held by members of the exclusive ‘boys’ club.’ Recent events in politics and the Australian Defence Force highlight the imbalance of power that threatens to derail women’s continued progress in Australian society.
Australia was once synonymous with Crocodile Dundee, Sunday barbies and a fiery Kiwi thespian we like to claim as our own, until that speech; an unexpected, explosive commentary on misogyny in Australian politics, delivered by none other than Prime Minister of the time, Julia Gillard.
The impassioned speech attracted thunderous applause from women around the globe, as Gillard challenged Tony Abbott and his party’s attitude towards women and disrespect for her leadership role. She recalled an interviewer’s question about the under-representation of women in institutions of power, to which Abbott replied: “what if men are by physiology or temperament, more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command?” His comments suggested gender equality in leadership positions was of no consequence, and by extension, underhandedly questioned Gillard’s suitability for the top job.
Every time Abbott undermined Gillard’s authority as a woman, the nation experienced a dangerous flashback to the 1950’s, when women’s rights were suppressed by dominant patriarchal values, and work life was largely an extension of their role in the domestic sphere. Mid twentieth century mores have no place in 2013 politics, yet degrading, female archetypes are still a part of everyday vocabulary. Who can forget Gillard’s disgust when Abbott stood next to signs outside Parliament that characterised her as a “witch” and “man’s bitch?” His sentiments were bolstered by outspoken talkback host, Alan Jones, who has been given a substantial platform to espouse misogynistic ideals, once implying Gillard needed to be silenced by “putting her into a chaff bag and hoisting her into the Tasman Sea.” But there was no greater blow than Jones’ personal attack at a Liberal party function, when he attributed Gillard’s father’s passing to “shame” over his daughter’s questionable leadership. Abbott later played tag team with Jones, echoing his stinging remarks in Parliament.
Julia was the butt of many a Liberal party joke during her leadership; the most juvenile being an LNP donor’s unsavoury ‘mock’ menu for a party fundraiser, which crudely likened her body to a “Kentucky fried quail.” Whether or not Liberal MPs were aware of the menu, the restaurateur’s description of the incident as a “light-hearted” joke intended for him and his son reveals the inherent sexism in Australian society, which reduces intelligent, capable women to mere bodies exposed to harsh judgment and ridicule. Sadly, this is just the tip of the iceberg, as the blatant objectification of women continues in the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The effect on victims of this gross violation is no laughing matter.
The recent scandal involving the circulation of emails containing degrading, explicit images of female ADF members and others, along with offensive commentary, has rocked the foundations of the institution. According to Chief of Army Lieutenant-General David Morrison, the seriousness of the incident surpasses the 2011 ADFA “Skype scandal.” Three officers have been suspended, while more than 100 other personnel appear to have had some connection to the incident. What makes it particularly problematic besides the sheer number of people involved, including high ranking leaders, is the conniving way the details were disseminated. Lewd material was not only distributed across Defence computer systems, but also over the internet for millions of people to view and scrutinise, thereby exacerbating the humiliation. The act sends the message that women don’t belong in the army, and objectification is acceptable.
The dark side of machismo has long cast a shadow over the male dominated ADF. Dr Ben Wadham, a former infantry soldier, received death threats after leaking denigrating comments on the RAR buddies Facebook page, which described all women as “filthy, lying whores.” Similar pages created by members of the Australian army have emerged. Despite the obscene behaviour of the culprits, these beliefs are not formed in a vacuum. Identifying their employer and posting photos of themselves in official uniform connotes pride in their actions, alluding to the normalisation of misogynistic beliefs in army life. Wadham affirms sexism is a major characteristic of the culture, revealing details of a 1990’s book published out of the ADFA known as the Lexicon of Cadet Language, which included roughly 200 derogatory terms for women. Although initiatives have been implemented to address inequality in the Force since the publication was released, recent events demand a more systematic approach to stamp out misogynistic views entrenched in army culture.
A deep-seated patriarchal belief that women play the supporting role, rather than the protagonist in the public domain is at the heart of the gender power imbalance. According to the 2012 Australian Census of Women in Leadership, Australia has the lowest percentage of women in top executive positions compared to countries with a similar corporate structure like New Zealand and the United States. Dr Jennifer Whelan, Research Fellow at the Melbourne Business School, attributes the slow progress to a common view that “gender diversity and inclusion” is not a “crucial bottom line endeavour.” Women’s voices are often drowned out by the supposed authority of their male counterparts.
Destroy the Joint, an anti-sexism organisation, garnered attention for their commentary on Gillard and Morrison’s exposure of the culture of misogyny in politics and the ADF. They maintain that Gillard was “mocked and trivialised” in Australia, while Morrison was “hailed a hero.” The great divide between two leaders’ essentially congruent messages about gender inequality reiterates the rational man/emotional woman dichotomy, which attributes women’s words and actions to feeling, rather than logic and intellect, thereby questioning their validity. The dismissal of her concerns as emotional rhetoric suggests it takes a man in a leadership position to render it a legitimate issue.
Misogyny will continue to infiltrate social institutions as long as we turn a blind eye to it. As Morrison asserts, “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” Despite the controversy that marred her leadership, Julia Gillard’s fierce conviction and drive as PM will facilitate the empowerment of aspiring female politicians to come. The leaders of this country have a responsibility to take a stand against misogynistic values and practices as she did, raising the level of respect for women and supporting their integral place in the public domain. On a micro level, families and educational institutions have the ability to instill confidence in young women, thereby teaching them self-worth.
Goddess Graduates is an initiative that empowers female university graduates entering the workplace. It aims to shift restrictive thought patterns and foster trust in their abilities, which its founder, Lisa Camille Robertson, identifies as a major inhibiting factor for women pursuing leadership positions. The workshop will be taught throughout 11 universities in NSW and include a mentorship program, equipping women with the resources required to achieve their career goals.
It is high time we started focusing on the quality of the contribution we make to society, rather than the combination of chromosomes that partly constitute our DNA. Equality is crucial to the prosperity and health of the nation. It is every woman’s right to aim high without fearing her safety or dignity will be jeopardised. The glass ceiling only exists if we allow it to. It is time to destroy it.