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Disrupting sexism


The cultural shape of sexism was underlined by this video statement released last week by Chief of Army Lt Gen David Morrison. Incandescent with rage over the discovery that a network of defence officers had systematically exploited women, he vows to be ruthless in ridding the army of such personnel.

He alludes to the permissions that hold together and propel our society, and the ones that let it come undone. 'The standard you walk past,' he says, 'is the standard you accept.' By this token, his response to individuals who harbour sexist attitudes is unequivocal: 'Get out'.

If only we could similarly extract them from other areas of service and public life. In the same week that Morrison spoke so forcefully against the denigration of women, a Liberal party fundraiser menu was leaked in which Prime Minister Julia Gillard's body was the subject of vile mockery. Within days, a high profile columnist inaccurately stated that she showed too much cleavage in Parliament.

In light of Morrison's statements regarding the 'systemic problems with (Army) culture', it bears wondering how such sexist language and behaviour are perpetuated. Humans are creatures of conformity — so where are they getting the signals that it is permissible to demean women?

According to Nicole Hunter, acting manager for Community Wellbeing at Knox City Council in Victoria, these signals often emanate from rigid and archaic stereotypes. As part of a team that seeks to address domestic violence, she works to counter these stereotypes.

Last year, her team launched a local campaign centred around the slogan, 'Real men don't hit chicks'. It was a highly targeted communications strategy that set out to provoke conversation around masculinity. In other words, it sought to disrupt the cultural signals around aggression and violence. This is the sort of interference that needs to play out on a larger scale.

Hunter emphasises that there are structural dimensions that need to be addressed. 'It goes back to deep-seated views,' she says. These germinate from a child's observation of parental roles and adult relationships, which is later reinforced by the community within which he matures, such as the local sporting club. Societal cues via the media may entrench such views. 'In order to reverse it,' she says, 'you have to work all three levels.'

It is a useful framework for considering the ways in which permission is given to denigrate women. But it also emphasises the enormity of the task.

For one thing, it means overturning a very long history of women's exclusion from masculinised domains. It is telling that, today, they meet the most vigorous resistance in the same areas where they are underrepresented.

They comprise only a third of the Australian Federal Parliament, and only 14 per cent of the ADF permanent workforce. Even in business, where 45 per cent of MBA graduates are women, only 3.5 per cent of companies listed on the Australian stock exchange are led by female CEOs — one of the lowest rates in the Western world.

Such underrepresentation must be addressed if we are to disrupt the persistent worldview that women do not belong or are inherently incapable.

Framing sexism and misogyny in terms of permission should also sharpen the way we respond to abuse of women. Such behaviour is reinforced when it is met with silence and paralysis, or even laughing approval. Impunity not only benefits the perpetrator; it sets the culture of our community.

However, the same compulsion to conform presents us with opportunities to overturn tacit permissions. Social media campaigns, for instance, are increasingly disrupting sexist signals from radio shock jocks, destabilising the platform of approval upon which their business model rests.

The fact that Lt Gen Morrison immediately suspended the three officers at the centre of the latest allegations of sexual misconduct is similarly disruptive. Resoundingly so, given the contrast to the initial decision by the St Kilda Football Club to allow Stephen Milne to play after he was charged with four counts of rape.

Perhaps we need to consider how we can disrupt such signals in our own home. What permissions are we giving, for instance, when we excuse unacceptable behaviour with a flippant, 'boys will be boys'?

Fatima Measham headshotFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator who contributes regularly to Eureka Street. Her work has also appeared in The Drum, ABC Religion & Ethics, and National Times. She is a recipient of the Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship in 2013. She tweets as @foomeister.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, sexism, David Morrison, Defence Force, Julia Gillard



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Existing comments

I'm reeling in my efforts to believe that Fatima is claiming moral high ground, even as she perpetuates the torpedoed myth of a sexist Liberal Party fundraiser menu. This is on the public record: the "menu" had nothing to do with the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party, and Mal Brough in particular, were the victims of a stitch up by a mean-spirited former employee of the eatery, who, in short, told a slew of lies. This fact was settled within a few days of the story breaking. Yet on Eureka Street, well over a week after the dust has settled, we've been treated to not one, but two articles: one by Fatima, one by Brian Matthews ("History repeats for powerful Australian women") perpetuating the known false accusation. Eureka Street and its writers are constantly appealing to the virtue of justice. So, Eureka Street, I guess I'm talking to you. How can you blithely allow such unjust accusations to be propagated? More profoundly: how can a constructive dialogue between rival political adherents even get off the ground in our nation, when such disconnects between lofty rhetoric and reality are maintained and prolonged, even by you, who desire to inform the conscience of our society?

HH | 25 June 2013  

Whatever the truth of HH's assertions about the Brough dinner menu, he avoids the core message in Measham's article and Morrison's statement; 'the standard you walk past is the standard you accept'. Or, in other words, 'silence implies consent'. There have been many occasions in the life of this government when leading lights in the federal opposition have 'walked past' what should have been unacceptable standards and in doing so have contributed to a general lowering of standards. Perhaps HH could enumerate some examples where some coalition shadow minister has actually stood up against some demeaning actions.

Ginger Meggs | 25 June 2013  

Anybody who believes that Mal Brough is completely innocent in the menu affair, would believe anything.

Jim Jones | 26 June 2013  

Sadly for the decent members of the LNP who would and had nothing to do with the disgusting menu affair, there is evidence from his own mouth that Brough did know about the menu. http://t.co/KtFbTbQgec.

Patricia R | 26 June 2013  

HH, the issue of sexism is not a Left/Right issue. Neither wing can claim the moral high ground since sexism is deeply entrenched in Australian society. The latest discussions have been prompted by demonstrable and objectively unprecedented sexist attacks against the PM. The gender-based garbage was bad enough. However the lack of respect for the Office is equally troubling. We members of a society whose ethos of giving everyone a fair go is being destroyed, need to continue to fight the good fight - regardless of our party politics. We cannot do that if we are deliberately blind to naked hatred and discrimination against anyone.

Patricia R | 26 June 2013  

Morrison's rage was so impressive. What was special about that speech was a clear demonstration of the difference between anger and abuse. His words were part of his action. The speech was an important demonstration about how to be an adult male and passionate without choosing to damage someone else.

Jenny MacKinnon | 26 June 2013  

I didn't avoid the point of the article, GM. As is my right, I merely chose not to comment on it, and rather point to the double standards being applied by the article as a whole. What specific examples of coalition "demeaning actions" do you have in mind? And can you name any labor ministers who rebuked Julia Gillard for referring to Christopher Pyne as a "mincing poodle?" or Tanya Plibersek for the offensive posters about Tony Abbott she had hanging in her office? But at least, to your credit, you don't go as far as Jim, above, who is happy to see Brough condemned without a shred of evidence.

HH | 26 June 2013  

HH / 25 June “the ‘menu’ had nothing to do with the Liberal Party.” This is like saying that the “Ditch the Witch“ banner that Tony Abbott stood beside had nothing to do with the Liberal Party His lame excuse of “ Some I agree with. Some I do not necessarily agree with” seems a long way from rejection of such attitudes.

Robert Liddy | 26 June 2013  

So, Robert, the Liberals are tainted by association because they didn't go into the kitchen of the restaurant they were attending and unearth an uncirculated mock menu composed by the restaurant owner - who called himself a "Labor man" according to journalist Peter van Onselen -, and condemned by Mal Brough as “deeply regrettable, offensive and sexist”? Do you always check out the kitchen of restaurants you attend for bits of paper containing sexist material?

HH | 26 June 2013  

Have I missed something HH? Are you referring to another article by Measham that I have not seen? In this thought provoking article, Measham highlights the insidious nature of sexism within our society and simply asks the question 'How can we disrupt sexism when we encounter it?' A reflective approach to all aspects of our lives might help.

Charlie | 26 June 2013  

"Have I missed something HH?" Indeed you have, Charlie. Third para, second sentence. It used to be called "calumny".

HH | 26 June 2013  

HH, One Plibersak's staffer had ONE poster hanging in an inside office. That's not a good look, but exaggerating such instances does nothing for your argument. TA's standing in front of signs declaring the PM to be someone's "bitch" cannot be ignored for convenience.

Patricia R | 26 June 2013  

I believe that HH is quite right. A reference to "the menu" in the way Fatima did is another form of "walking by" what was a beat-up, a dishonesty and an injustice. How to judge the military is a difficult one; at the same time as wanting our warriors to reflect societal standards of decency and niceness, one wants them to kill and maim on our behalves. Tough call!

Eugene | 26 June 2013  

Dear Fatima, When women have been demanding for the last fifty years to be treated like men, to enjoy sexual freedoms like men, to embrace the lack of loyalty in marriage that was once the preserve of the male "cad", to swear like men, drink like men, dress like men and brawl in the streets like drunken men, it is hardly surprising that they are treated as they (men) treat other men. Lt Gereral Morrison is clearly from the era which believed women were different, were to be be respected and cared for, the very things that the flawed feminist movement screamed and railed against. Time to abandon the garbage and engage true feminine values. Then women might gain the respect they once enjoyed and the abusive male will not be so willing to crawl out from under his rock into the public domain. Might also help if the "modern" woman cherished her children and didn't join the increasing numbers of those who destroy their own both before and (increasingly these days) after birth.

john frawley | 26 June 2013  

Sexism is not only rife amongst the Defence Forces and within government circles, it is thriving well within the walls of the Catholic Church. Someone in Rome hasn't woken up to the fact than more than half the world's population is female, but there are no female administrators in areas which count. Lots of female cleaners, and sacristans!

Shirley McHugh | 26 June 2013  

John Frawley, where have you been for the past 50 years. And who has informed your perceptions of women's expectations in a fair and just society. Some little fact based information would be useful to you before you make the statement contained in you reply.

GAJ | 26 June 2013  

John Frawley, Morison is not 'from an era when women were different. He is talking about respect for other people, irrespective of their gender, race, or creed.

Ginger Meggs | 26 June 2013  

What a pity that George Pell and others in the Church's hierarchy had not come out with a statement like that of Lt. Gen Morrison when the first reports of abuse surfaced. Perhaps there would then have been a lot less walking by and accepting and a lot more zero-tolerance and reporting the crimes for what they were. There must be many priests and religious who saw, or suspected, and who nevertheless walked by.

Ginger Meggs | 26 June 2013  

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