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You have piercing eyes

By Neheda Barakat
Director, YWCA Victoria

"You have piercing eyes."

The New Year, 2016, for the gender equality campaign began much like the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. In the same way it has done since 1945, the race began by firing of the cannon in Sydney and finished in Hobart. Likewise, the flotilla in the vast ocean of highly professional ‘male, not so pale and stale’ community, wend their way back to the bastion of chauvinism with a litany of sexists incidents.

It began with the South Australian conservative, Jamie Briggs’s inappropriate behaviour towards a consular staffer at a bar that eventually led to his resignation. Mr. Briggs couldn’t help himself and reportedly told this staffer “You have piercing eyes” then placed his arm around her and kissed her on the neck. After an internal investigation, Mr. Briggs accepted his behaviour did not meet ministerial standards and eventually offered his resignation.  But what is more disturbing about this incident is the reaction by other ministers. The Weekend Australian reported, “His forced resignation has left several government ministers concerned that the bar for acceptable conduct has been raised impossibly high.”

Clearly it was because a week later, it was not so much the “piercing eyes” but the “mad fucking witch” made by the Immigration minister, Peter Dutton. In a text message intended for his ousted colleague, Mr. Briggs, Mr. Dutton called the political editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Samantha Maiden, “a mad fucking witch.” He apologized. That chorus from the previous week remained silent on this incident.  

No sooner had we recovered from the insults flying out of Canberra, the action moved to the sporting arena. Enter cricketer, Chris Gayle with his suggestive remarks to a female reporter during an interview. The batsman effectively propositioned her on air, saying he had been keen to be interviewed by her "just to see your eyes for the first time. Hopefully we can win this game and we can have a drink after," Gayle continued, "Don't blush, baby." He was fined for his misconduct. These women were simply at work. Get the message?

Evidently not because one week later, Channel 7’s sports commentator Hamish McLachlan joined the solecistic queue. New ‘Weekend Sunrise’, weather presenter, Monika Radulovic’s first day on the job will forever be memorable. The SMH reported that it was a light-hearted moment. "Hamish here does not want to leave my side," the 25-year-old laughed. McLachlan lunged, wrapping his arms low and tight around Radulovic's waist and pulling her to him. "Professional please!" she demanded. She pushed him away with her arm, and pulled a face and McLachlan jumped over a nearby fence. "I'll go, I'm out," he said. His comment — "there's been stuff all week on that" — suggests he quickly realised what hullabaloo might follow.” The “hullabaloo”, Mr. McLachlan and Co., has been going on since Ernst Haeckel proposed the term Homo stupidus, hundreds of years ago.

Two weeks later, and still on ‘7’, the network’s tennis coverage included this tweet “check out the sexiest woman (sic) at #AusOpen” accompanied by pictures of Maria Sharapova and Eugenie Bouchard.  These women were at work.

Just as we thought there are no more detours to the bottom and that these incidents were merely misdemeanours due to the silly season, serious allegations emerged in the finance sector. Two traders sacked by ANZ banking group for inappropriate behaviour are suing the bank for tens of millions of dollars, claiming a rampant culture of sex, drugs and alcohol was condoned among senior staff on the dealing floor. A maelstrom followed as details of “two HR women” who accompanied the men to a lap-dancing bar to conduct business became front and centre of the allegations.

By mid January and on cue an incident in the legal sector portended its own version of workplace relations.  Reports emerged of sexual harassment allegations made against a senior Melbourne lawyer that included sending a younger female employee photos of his erect penis and unwelcome sexually explicit text messages as well as bombarding her with improper advances.  At work and after work.

The following week, ‘Mumbrella’ reported that M&C Saatchi celebrated the agency’s 21 years in Australia by hosting 600 staff and clients at the exclusive Beresford Hotel in Sydney’s Surry Hills. ‘It wouldn’t be a 21st, however, without a cake. Ladies and gentlemen, happy birthday,’ Saatchi CEO James Leggett said before a woman jumped out from inside the cake to perform a striptease” with her head covered by a designer tote bag.   Homo Stupidus - we are ‘back to the future.’

Women make up 50.2% of the Australian population. They have reached critical mass in the workforce, certainly not across all sectors, and going to work should not mean having to think about how to sidestep this fossilised footprint - that “all pervasive male attitude often subliminally” as the SMH’s Stephanie Wood opined “towards women: creatures to be joked about, described and commentated on with demeaning language; pawed, ogled and propositioned, regardless of context, regardless of whether they've invited the attention.”

As January was about to wrap up, and still in ad land, the apparent gender “fun” continued. Car service franchise ‘Ultra Tune’s latest effort is a series of advertisements featuring two women dressed in raunchy rubber cat suits with a voiceover read by a male with a deep voice that tells us “Get into rubber (and get into Wimbledon)” and "We're into rubber". The executive chairman of ‘Ultra Tune’, Sean Buckley, told the media that it was  “a bit of fun that people have taken too seriously.” No Mr. Buckley, there is nothing fun about gratuitous sexualisation.  Get the message?

January opened the doors to ‘stale’ words and conduct and nonetheless by potential change agents - men at the top of their game in politics, sport, media, law, banking and advertising. Larrikinism is no longer cute and is out of step with modern times. The unintended consequences here, the trickle-down effect, has set back some of the gains made by the numerous gender equality campaigns and the tendency is to point the finger, to pull that single lever but it is rarely that simple. If we are to tackle the issue of sexism, racism or any other ‘ism’ at work and beyond, we need to drill down to find out why this behaviour persists and if we do so we will discover that it is never an individual effort or a single issue, it is systemic. As January has clearly shown us.  

These incidents are no footnotes and come from a variety of environments - boardrooms, sporting clubs, trading rooms and so on – they highlight a lack of meaningful action on the issue of gender equality. It deserves more attention than simply saying so and is long overdue.  When the people at the top – companies, associations, high profile identities, bosses, parents, etc  - behave in a boorish manner or any other manner, that’s a cue to followers that it is appropriate and acceptable. 85% of the way we communicate is without writing or speaking a word – some would argue that percentage is even higher. Physiology including voice, tonality, expressions, body language, and demeanour give out as stronger cues and messages as the written and spoken word. Action and words speak as loudly as each other.

In the case of Jamie Briggs, the action of the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, gives us some hope that perhaps the ‘culture’ tide, at least in Canberra, might be turning. That no longer we have to remind ourselves that the imbecility coming out of Capital Hill is actually coming from the front-bench, back-bench and cross-bench and not some suburban park bench. The PM’s decisive action, the highest office in the land, sent strong ‘cues’ to the rest of the community. It has the potential to reify a meaningful and long lasting change that will shift mindsets on gender equality and much more.

In case you missed it, the winning yacht in the Sydney to Hobart race made history because the owner (and crew member) is a female. At work.



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