It's a hard day to be a woman in Australia. Yesterday, we were confronted with the disgusting and demeaning description of our Prime Minister Julia Gillard based on body parts with a nasty sexual undercurrent. Today it's news of emails which are "derogatory and explicit" about women being circulated within the Australian Defence Force. We're told that some of the perpetrators are senior leaders within the ADF. All week the air waves have been filled with news about Jill Meagher's killer and his "career" of sexual violence against women and the failures of the parole system to keep violent offenders off our streets. The coach of the Australian male soccer team also said that "women should shut up in public".
Last night I heard a female commentator effectively saying that while ever female genital mutilation and so-called honour callings exist, no right to be upset about the emails, the "jokes", the snide disrespect and behaviour exists.
Now I'm hearing a male caller to radio saying that sexism seems worse because women scream about it louder these days.
EXCUSE ME! YES, I'M GOING TO PUSH BACK AGAINST SEXIST BEHAVIOUR AND SEXUAL HARASSMENT. IT'S NOT OKAY.
When it happens to the Prime Minister and other men with power and authority to act against the perpetrators do nothing, then a general attitude of disrespect flows through the rest of our community.
To me, sexism and sexual harassment are as offensive and damaging as racism. It hurts to be viewed as anything less than a person - a whole person with intelligence and emotions and talents. Why should I be viewed differently, treated differently, shown disrespect, have my competence criticised, merely because I am a woman? I can think of no good reason.
I remember turning up to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission once when I was a union official to represent a group of workers who were mainly men. A dispute had been notified because of the employer's breaches of the enterprise bargaining agreement which laid out employment conditions. Because of my capacity as a negotiator and advocate I was often sent to deal with things like this - I could solve the problem. As I approached the front door I saw this tall, strapping man waiting for someone. I thought there was a good chance that he was the workplace delegate.
I introduced myself and confirmed he was indeed the delegate.
His response was this: "Oh, so they sent us a girly," as he looked me up and down.
What a position to be put in. I was reduced to being a vagina and breasts which in his mind seemed to mean I also had no brain.
Luckily I was sure of my capacities and knew that I had the backing and respect of the senior men within the union. I gave him the opportunity to recover: "Sorry? I didn't hear you..."
He repeated the same statement.
I shook my head and told him to sit down and say nothing unless addressed specifically.
We were appearing before another "girly" while the employer was represented by a male lawyer.
I won the day on behalf of the members. From that moment, the delegate thought I was so fantastic I had to contend with him trying to follow me into my hotel room at the end of the day. He didn't succeed and from that time on he was my greatest champion.
Imagine a world where he had confidence about whoever the union sent to represent the members and judgments of competence would be based purely on performance. If I had been less experienced and lacked confidence, I could well have failed to perform as a result of his treatment.
At another time I remember being asked by a male employee (who was my junior) if I was considered to have large breasts. The question was asked in front of other people in a public place. After I caught my breath I looked him in the eye and asked him whether he was considered to have a small penis. He blushed and realised what he had done. I don't know if "tit for tat" is the right way to respond. I wanted him to feel what I was feeling, to see what it was like to be degraded in that way. It certainly had that impact.
In the lunch room today, I found myself eating lunch with four other women. I initiated a conversation about the anti-woman atmosphere. One of the women related a story of attending a law lecture in her first year at university and the lecturer proclaimed that women shouldn't practise law. She went onto finish her degree at another university and headed out into a law firm where she was one of two women in the team. "Team" lunches were held at a club that allowed only men and the boss regularly expressed frustrations about the problems caused by women practising law.
Even watching Celebrity Apprentice the other day, I noticed that in the team of four which had three men and one woman, it was the woman who fetched the soup.
I've worked with some wonderful men. I really enjoy working with men. I also enjoy working with women. I love working with people who are passionate about what they do and enjoy being around others who are passionate and able. I don't care if they're male or female. I certainly don't think all men lack respect for women but I do think there's a bad atmosphere at the moment and it starts with the leaders.
So I will make no apology for calling out sexist behaviour. I will do it loudly and I will keep doing it because that's the only way that people learn. I hope you will too.