Just ignore it and it will go away. It’s the kind of advice a parent might give an angst-ridden teenager with a humiliatingly large spot on their face. It’s not how you would expect a modern political leader to answer a question about how to respond to gender discrimination in 2012.
Asked on Monday for advice by a woman who said she was experiencing discrimination from older males in her position as a local councillor, state opposition leader Isobel Redmond’s comments read like something out of a 1950s manual for good housewives. Redmond told the Committee for Economic Development of Australia women’s leadership lunch:
“Listen a lot and rather than talking a lot, ask lots of questions, preferably intelligent questions, to get the discussion to go the way you want it. I don’t think there’s much point in confrontation. I think it is easier a lot of the time to just try to ignore the discrimination and get on with being the best councillor you can be, or the best whatever it is, and ask intelligent questions and make gentle suggestions and I think you’ll find the discrimination will just disappear.”
The suggestion that ignoring gender discrimination will make it disappear is, frankly, astounding — especially when it comes from someone who might be considered a role model for young women.
If such pacifism had prevailed over the past century, it is highly unlikely women would ever have gained the right to vote, nor any semblance of pay parity. It is only by actively challenging discrimination that improvements have also been made in the rights of those with disabilities, racial minorities or gay people.
There are some who support Redmond’s sentiments, arguing that women should not be asking for “special treatment” or “tokenism”. Such arguments are often also used to discredit those advocating for minority groups, but — whether by accident or intent — they miss the point.
The key issue is that most women are not asking for special treatment, merely equal treatment. They want to be judged on merit, not gender. They should not have to be better or more intelligent than their male counterparts, nor should they have to work harder, just to be treated equally.
Perhaps most insulting of all is the idea that they should make “gentle suggestions” and “listen a lot rather than talking a lot”. Heaven forbid a woman might be assertive and outspoken — traits that often see men viewed as confident and competent, but can result in women being labelled aggressive.
Like Redmond, there will be many women who have left a job where they suffered discrimination, rather making an official complaint or seeking legal redress. This is understandable, especially given the fear of long-term career repercussions. However, “moving on” does nothing to change s-xist attitudes and unfair practices. Nor is it an option for many women whose employment choices are reduced by their limited education or skills.
Confronting gender discrimination is difficult, but those who have the courage to do so can effect meaningful change in a workplace. This may be through alerting employers to an ingrained gender bias they were not previously aware of, challenging an unhealthy workplace culture, or through legal action that reinforces the fact that anti-discrimination laws must be obeyed.
Two years ago, on the anniversary of the signing of the 1975 SA S-x Discrimination Act, I spoke to Anne Levy, one of the state’s first four female MPs. She recounted how she had made a submission to a parliamentary select committee in the ’70s outlining some of the ways in which she and other women were discriminated against, including the fact that she couldn’t get a bank loan without a guarantee from her husband, even though she earned more money than him.
On her first tour of Parliament, Levy was told by a clerk she would have no need to see the members’ bar because only the men used it: “I was so irritated by this that at the first opportunity I went into the bar … I think I only ordered a coffee but I made my point!”
Thank God for people like Levy. They have driven change — not through ignoring discrimination, but by tackling it head-on.
Just under a third of SA parliamentarians are now women. We have come a long way in the past 50 years, but there is still a long way to go before we have full gender equality.
If Redmond is convinced that “natural process” will get us there, one wonders how committed she would be, if the Liberals won government, to retaining a minister for the status of women and a state commissioner for equal opportunity.
My fear is that gender equality progress nationally will stagnate — or even be eroded — due to complacency fuelled by a belief that discrimination is no longer a concern (it is; it’s just more insidious) and by a reluctance of women to confront it.
One of the more bizarre examples of the attitude of some employers was highlighted in a recent Fairfax article by columnist Nina Funnell about an investment banking firm that demanded its female traders (yes, only the women) attend a training seminar where they were advised how to dress — including wearing lipstick and high heels.
I hope someone made a gentle and intelligent suggestion regarding what they might really like to do with those heels. Or perhaps they just ignored the whole thing in the hope it would go away.