Australia: A Sexist Nation?

Originally published 17 September 2014 by Spook Magazine.

It seems that hardly a week goes by without an episode of flagrant sexism making news headlines. Earlier this month, Australian hip hop group Bliss N Eso came under fire when band member Max MacKinnon posted a series of controversial photos on Instagram whilst at Madam Tussauds. One of the images depicted MacKinnon raising a clenched fist to the head of a wax figure of Rihanna, along with the caption “Where did ya throw those fucking car keys woman!?! #rihanna #smackmybitch #shelovesthewayithurts.”

While passed off as a joke, this misogynistic act devalued and mocked the experience of domestic violence the pop star (and by implication, all survivors of domestic violence) endured in 2009. The rapper later apologised and removed the photos however many sought to downplay the event, including female callers on Triple J’s Hack, who defended MacKinnon, explaining that his stunt was merely a joke. Yet there is nothing funny about domestic violence, nor is this an isolated incident. Rather, it is indicative of a broader issue at play in Australia: there is a culture of sexism which underscores our society and subtly dictates an adherence to gender norms.

Sexism has pervaded Australian society since the time of white settlement, which was emblematic of the patriarchal worldview of European colonialists at the time. The idea of mateship, which defines our national identity, forms the backbone of our collective consciousness. This notion is inherently masculine in nature, with women largely absent from the myths surrounding nation building. As famously argued by Anne Summers, from these early colonial times, women were either whores or mothers, viewed through the moralistic prism of good or bad.

It is this virulent sexism that dogged Julia Gillard during her time as Prime Minister, which saw her attacked time and time again on the basis of her gender; from being labeled “Bob Brown’s bitch” to accusations of remaining “deliberately barren” – statements which would seem ridiculous if levelled against a man. The predominating cultural attitude perpetuated by the media and politicians alike refuses to accept that there is more to women than issues that relate solely to their gender.

Opportunities to move public discussions beyond this paradigm often miss the mark. The recent all female panel on ABC’s Q&A, was touted as being “100% Women 100% Dangerous.” This premise was undermined from the outset by host Tony Jones, whose presence served to remind viewers that men are still in charge. The panel included some influential and distinguished women, including academics, writers, activists, and journalists. Despite this, the questions selected by producers dealt with issues relating to the gender of the panelists, which was hardly dangerous content.

While discussions about these issues are important, they are not the only areas women are qualified to speak on. By focussing on questions relating to reproductive rights, parenting and sexuality, the content merely reinforced societal beliefs surrounding gender which inform sexist attitudes: that is, due to the biological ability to reproduce, women are naturally more concerned with child rearing and domesticity. A truly dangerous concept for a show that purports to be about “democracy in action” would have been to move beyond the gender of these women, and in doing so, ask questions that are ordinarily dominated by the opinions of men: issues relating to politics, the economy, climate change, and war.

When we look at the men whose opinions determine the outcomes of these debates, politicians who are predominantly middle-aged, conservative, and white, it’s not surprising that women are relegated to discuss traditional “women’s issues” on national TV. The current makeup of the Commonwealth government under Tony Abbott paints a woeful picture of inclusive gender representation – women hold 40 out of 150 seats in the House of Representatives, with only one woman, Julie Bishop, in the cabinet. Meanwhile the attitudes of Abbott and his cohorts towards women would not be out of place in the 1950s.

Recent attempts by the government to deregulate the higher education system and increase the interest on HECS repayments have been criticised by many for unduly hitting women harder than men. When questioned over the issue on ABC’s 7.30, Education Minister Christopher Pyne replied “women are well-represented amongst the teaching and nursing students. They will not be able to earn the high incomes that say dentists or lawyers will earn.” This ham-fisted response not only revealed the prevailing sexism of the government, but was also factually bereft, given that there are more women graduating with law degrees than men.

These attitudes are not confined to the conservative elements of government; sexism permeates most areas of civil society. Girls are outperforming boys in schools and are graduating from university in higher numbers than their male counterparts; 61 percent of law graduates are women, yet only 22 percent hold senior positions in law firms. In business, women make up 17.6 percent of Australia’s top corporate board members and only 3.5 percent are CEOs, while the pay gap between men and women is currently at a 20 year high of 18.4 percent. These statistics are a far cry from shock jock Alan Jones’ remark in 2012 that “women are destroying the joint.” Rather, it seems that those in power, with the help of the media, are set on excluding women from participating equally across the board.

The Australian Human Rights Commission attributes this gobsmacking inequity to “gender stereotyping, industry and occupational segregation, caring responsibilities, discrimination, and the under-representation of women in leadership positions, particularly in male-dominated industries.” In 2010, they launched the Gender Equality Blueprint, which recommended the introduction of a minimum target of 40 percent women on all Australian government boards, senior executive ranks of the public service, companies providing goods or services to the Australian government, and on the boards of all publicly listed companies. But the non-binding nature of the target means that these recommendations serve merely as guidelines. By comparison, Norway legislated a 40 percent quota for female directors on publicly listed boards back in 2003, and women now make up 42 percent of all board members.

The introduction of quotas clearly helps to overcome gender inequity in business and politics, and Australia could learn much from Norway’s lead. Yet in order to introduce such legislation, there needs to be a corresponding political will, which at present is absent at all levels of government. Increasing the number of women in decision-making positions will not simply enhance gender representation in our society. It requires a seismic shift in the way gender is taught and performed, to eliminate our deeply ingrained cultural tendency towards sexism.

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