by Fiona Armstrong

June 17, 2013

Growing up in rural Queensland during the 70’s, I have been exposed to more than my fair share of sexism.

This was the era of Joh Bjelke Peterson after all, and women were largely invisible in public and political life.

Insulting women on the basis of gender was a national sport, and attitudes to women in that state at that time was in part responsible for my decision not to return to live there following my first overseas trip at age 20.

Sexism was an ever present issue for the period of my professional life spent working as a registered nurse and – during that period of reflection that motherhood affords – one of the reasons I chose to change career.

I chose journalism – also a profession notorious for its sexist treatment of women, but while I was certainly witness to sexism, I was largely unaffected by it. And in the career I now have – in advocacy, research and communications in the health and environment not-for-profit sector – I’m pleased to say I have had the privilege of meeting and working with more men genuinely supportive of female leaders than in both my former careers combined.

But while I have witnessed plenty of sexism, it’s not something I have ever felt compelled to campaign on, or even respond to, preferring to simply avoid sexist environments and people.

That is, until Julia Gillard became Prime Minister.

The events of the last week have highlighted this in a way that has meant even the most reticent of observers now concede the treatment of our first female Prime Minister has been shockingly disrespectful, degrading, offensive and sexist.

But really, I wonder, what took you so long?

As documented in Anne Summers recent book, The Misogyny Factor, she has been exposed to deeply offensive and violent insults for the entire term of her Prime Ministership.

Like Alan Jones suggesting she should be stuffed in a chaff bag and dumped at sea. Or that her father “died in shame”. Tony Abbott saying she has a target on her forehead but won’t “lie down and die”. Ex Howard staffer Grahame Morris suggesting she should be “kicked to death”. A talkback caller asking if taxpayers paid for her tampons. Degrading and pornographic images and cartoons circulated online.

By the middle of last year my level of concern about the way the Prime Minister was being treated and the impact this would have on young women considering roles in leadership and public life led to a series of conversations with other women seeking their views on how they felt about it, and what might be done.

Over the period of a few months, a loose group formed, with women in media, diversity, health, and disability whose views I respected and who shared a deep concern that women in Australia all stood to lose if we failed to stand up against the tide of vitriol and hatred that was being expressed towards women leaders in Australia.

I’m personally motivated to respond because I have two daughters. Through them, and through participation in their amazing public girls school in Melbourne, I have witnessed a sample of this generation of extraordinary young women: whip-smart, street savvy, techno expert, environmentally-aware, socially connected, equity and diversity champions – all of whom have the potential to create a new wave of leadership in this country that could be so transformative it makes my eyes water to think about it.

But will they?

By late 2012, our group was so concerned that the environment for women in leadership in Australia was becoming so toxic that it would lead to brilliant women abandoning stellar careers and discourage young women from pursuing them, we elected to develop a campaign to highlight the risk to society from sexism and misogyny.

The campaign that came to be called Sexism: See It. Say it. Stop It. is born out of our determination to stop sexism and misogyny in this country and to contribute to creating a culture in which it is unacceptable to where it is socially and politically unacceptable to disrespect our women leaders.

We launched it on International Women’s Day where the overwhelming response was positive – from both men and women, many of whom expressed private distress at the way politics was being practiced and alarmed at the implications for women and girls if allowed to continue. Many signatories were from health leaders – both women and men – reflecting our shared networks perhaps, but serving to highlight the risk that sexism and misogyny pose to the health of the community. Many also expressed their gratitude that someone had taken the initiative to “do something”; others signed on as whole families – mothers, fathers and daughters.

Since then, it’s been a bit of a slow burn. On the Queen’s Birthday weekend, we launched a new project to encourage people to nominate women for our national awards. Knowing that on Australia Day many more men than women receive our nation’s highest honours, we sought to contribute to the efforts of others to encourage Australians to nominate women whose achievements they admire for an Order of Australia Award.

That also attracted interest and support – but nothing like the wave of traffic we experienced on our Twitter stream, Facebook page and website over the last week when the combination of a sexist soccer coach, an appalling menu, and offensive and intrusive questioning of the Prime Minister by a radio shock jock caused many people to say “enough!”

To me it’s very interesting that it took an insult towards a man close to her, before any serious repercussions occurred. No-one else has been counseled, stood down, or sacked – despite years of vicious, offensive violent insults.

After all, it’s clear to observers internationally that that the Prime Minister has been subjected to a continual campaign of sexism throughout her term: The Irish Times reported this week that the Australian Prime Minister is “attacked relentlessly in contemptible, offensive terms“, saying it revealed the extent to which sexism is tolerated in Australia.

The Times suggested it would be unthinkable for an Irish male politician to stand in front of signs referring to a female rival as a “bitch” or repeatedly accuse her of being a liar because the reality of a minority government forced her to abandon an earlier claim.

Would any male politicians in other countries, I wonder, endorse the political candidacy of a colleague whose fundraising dinner menu described the incumbent Prime Minister as a piece of meat, and referred to her genitalia as a “big red box”?

As Greg Baum noted in the Fairfax media this week, “right now, Australia is seen around the world as a land of sexist, racist, bullying troglodytes”.

The relentless pursuit of Julia Gillard as our first female Prime Minister in sexist and misogynist terms has opened an ugly wound in Australian public and political life. At a period in our history where women are better educated, more independent and more capable of contributing to public and corporate life than ever before, it has been chilling to witness how the spectre of a woman in the country’s top job has unleashed a kind of medieval hatred.

Before the events of the last week, I was concerned and saddened about the treatment of the Prime Minister and its implications for women. Now I know I and many other women and men are also appalled and disgusted by the way our Prime Minister is treated.  It is sexism, plain and simple, and quite frankly, I’ve had a gutful of it.

I encourage all Australians to recognise that this behaviour and the endorsement of it by others – tacit or otherwise – leads to an erosion of respect for the office. Why else would we see school children feeling sufficiently empowered to throw a sandwich at the prime minister, for goodness sake?

This disrespectful and offensive behaviour undermines respect for women in general and can contribute to violence against women. It requires all of us – men included – to stand up and call out this behaviour as well as women. Because when you ignore it, belittle it, trivialize it, and patronize those who object, you denigrate and insult all women.

You don’t have to like her, or vote for her, but please, let’s STOP the rudeness, the denigration, the continual stream of hideously offensive, sexist and inappropriate remarks and accusations. Let’s return, as one man once remarked, to a ‘kinder, gentler polity’, where the issues that face our nation have centre stage, not the woman in charge.

Join Sexism: See It. Say It. Stop It. in standing up for the respectful and equal treatment of women in leadership. We’ll all benefit if you do.

Fiona Armstrong is a not a member of any political party. She has not previously voted for a Gillard government, nor does she intend to in the future.



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