The end-of-year edition of The Walkley Magazine (produced by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance) features several articles about the emergence of gender politics and sexism in public debates this year. Or as its cover says, “Sexism goes #boom”.

In “Way to destroy the joint, Alan”, UTS academic and journalist Jenna Price notes that between August 31 and Nov 4, 2011, the news database Factiva found 125 mentions of sexism in Australia media.

She says: “A year later, from the day that <broadcaster Alan> Jones said women were destroying the joint, through the time when it was reported that he said the PM’s father died of shame, to the day I filed this story, that number was 2,561.”  (This count does not include the huge volume of commentary on Twitter et al.)

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In the article below, the University of Sydney’s Professor Lesley Barclay – who has held many leadership positions during her career – urges Croakey readers, both male and female, to reflect upon their personal responses to women in positions of power.

If we want more women in leadership positions, whether in the health sector or more widely, then it’s time for people to speak up and make a stand when they witness discriminatory language or behaviour, she says.


It’s time for some honest, self-reflection in the gender debate

Lesley Barclay writes:

Sexism and misogyny are words used more frequently than for decades.

As a young midwife in the 60s and 70s, and a woman grappling with mature age study, work and family, I found the lessons attached to these words extraordinarily powerful. They were helpful in understanding my life and my profession.

Perhaps some of these lessons (for example why some women were patronised during birth by some obstetricians and as a midwife I felt unable to stop this) need revisiting in light of the deeply personal nastiness creeping into our society and manifest in our political and social systems.

Social justice issues such as gender and racism also are deeply embedded in our health systems and their delivery, as my research over seven years in maternity care for remote-living Aboriginal women has confirmed.

Gender remains a vital issue. It has not gone away and indeed appears to be returning with a vehemence that is surprising.

Perhaps this is because we have a woman prime minister, Julia Gillard, and another woman Gina Rinehart, who is the wealthiest Australian.

It is worthwhile considering how these outstanding women are treated both very similarly and yet also quite differently by many of us.

Both women are extremely hard-working, intelligent and exceptional leaders. Gina Rinehart took a struggling company at age 38 and turned it around. She is now the 29th wealthiest person in the world. Julia Gillard is shepherding Australia through a global economic crisis so successfully that we are the envy of the world.

But how are they constructed or presented as leaders to Australian society?

Julia Gillard’s chosen childless state was described by a Liberal senator Bill Heffernan as ‘barren’ (he later apologised for his comment). Mark Latham claims this will lead to a lack of empathy.

Gina Rinehart, on the other hand, is pilloried in the press because of problems of inheritance that have fractured relationships with 2 of her 3 children.

It is unlikely that a man in the position of either of these women would generate press coverage or critique in relation to their reproductive capacity or private parenting decisions.

Both women attract criticism, indeed commentary, about their physical appearance and dress. I cannot imagine Bill Gates being criticised for the expensive watch he wears or David Cameron on his shape or where his suit was tailored while Gina Rinehart’s pearls are mentioned frequently and Julia Gillard’s jackets and body attract frequent commentary.

It behoves us all to consider whether our willingness to tolerate the disrespect directed at these exceptional women is moderated by our political persuasion?

If we are left-leaning in orientation we might tolerate criticism of one of the world’s best businesswomen, but bridle at criticism of the Prime Minister.

In either case, is this not an example of a deep-seated sexism in all of us – men and women – coming to the surface?

Do we let some sexist comments pass by without protest, but resent them being directed at others?

As I look back to the 60s as a young woman and midwife, I did not protest for two reasons: it was unheard of for a female to challenge a senior male doctor; and more than this, I identified as a professional and felt somehow above this dilemma as my professional ‘culture’ overcame my concerns over the way women were treated.

This is also worrying today if this means our ‘political’ bent allows a basic lack of respect and unfairness to women to creep back into our society. This is not only harmful for the health and wellbeing of individuals subjected to such treatment, but bodes poorly for wider societal cohesion and wellbeing.

As I wrote this piece, I Googled both women and discovered a web page that exhibited the obnoxious behaviour that they both face, and unfortunately balances out the benefits of some excellent social media commentary I also found.

This would deter most of us from taking on leadership of the calibre they both provide and the public persona that is necessary to be successful in those roles. This is a lesson for us all, women and men.

Women in leadership roles already carry many burdens; let’s not add to them with unfair gender-based critique.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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