Captain Mona Shindy accepts her award (Source)

When Captain Mona Shindy, a distinguished 26-year veteran of the Royal Australian Navy, was named Telstra Business Woman of the Year in Melbourne last night, guests lost little time in standing to cheer the director of littoral warfare and maritime support.

Shindy is difficult not to applaud. As she did to the judges of the prestigious award, she stands out in this crowd. She walks tall in mess attire while the rest of us lope in heels. She instructs on billion-dollar budgets while most winners toy with millions. She commands difficult ideas like “ambiguity” in her acceptance speech while others defer softly to “empowerment” or “hope”. In this joyous moment, I would follow her into the middle of the ocean. She is gifted of such powerful elegance, she would shame a Chanel suit.

In Docklands last night, 1000 well-dressed people gave a driven, clearly brilliant sailor a heartfelt standing O. But they also happened to be applauding military purchase, for which Shindy is a key adviser. And it is a strange week to toast the national acquisition of frontline maritime hardware. As Shindy accepted the award and the room, quite audibly, accepted this as hard evidence that the world had quickly come so very far — “She’s a woman! And a Muslim! In a hijab in the navy!” — another woman in Canberra deliberated on acceptance of an appeal. Defence Minister Marise Payne is considering a request for the support by an Australian frigate to a French aircraft carrier as President Francois Hollande calls openly for “merciless” asymmetry.

There’s loud applause. There are some tears at neighbouring tables, and a woman who knows my spoilsport nature a little challenges me in the moment and says, “Even you have to admit that this is pretty great”. And, of course, it is pretty great that the Egyptian-born daughter of hardworking parents became a decorated sailor charged with lethal responsibility. To think of the war in Syria and Iraq — which is not, as Hollande’s “act of war” pronouncement strategically suggests, something that began unprompted by the West last Friday night but is the result of years of conflict — is not to think less of the impressive Business Woman of the Year.

But it is to think about the mystifying properties of the suffix “woman”, which seems able to soften even the hardest political reality.

To be clear: Captain Shindy and all honorees — my sentimental favourite was mango-grower Marie Piccone, who was every bit as sweet and vibrant as the fruit she cultivates — are exceptional persons. They have earned their applause and Telstra its brand approbation. Considered in its own terms, this is a productive event that looks beyond the usual dull terms of profit and pizzazz and shows deference to women in a range of sectors and styles not necessarily informed by Sheryl Sandberg’s lean thinking. Personally, I could have done without hearing three versions of ‘80s hymn  Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves, but this is the quibble of a music snob. On a relative feminine scale, the Business Woman of the Year Award, now in its 20th year, is not a frivolous, Oprahfied event. It ain’t the worst thing Telstra has ever done.

But the worst thing modern feminism has ever done is to claim for a gender a place beyond reproach and to allow the word “woman” to offset critical thinking. Here we are, in the days before unimaginable slaughter in which our military will likely participate begins, and we take no pause before celebrating the military.

The participation of women and of other “minorities” in military action neutralises the nature of the participation itself. Well-to-do women on boards, female clergy or actresses who earn eight-figure sums to make awful films are celebrated as trailblazers and not as individuals following a well-worn path to Shitsville. In a “woman” reading, the only problem with this brutal, tasteless world is that women don’t have their share. We want equal opportunity to create inequality in wealth and uphold asymmetry in war and preserve the fiction that an inspiring individual can spark a world of change.

It’s not Shindy’s, nor is it Telstra’s, fault that individual excellence is now mistakenly seen as the precondition for social excellence. It’s not, to be honest, even modern feminism’s fault. Since Magna Carta, the Anglophone West has been fairly in love with the idea that equal opportunity to seize power is as close to equality as we ever care to get. If you just permit free men, women, people of colour or whomever the chance to excel, then all will fall into a more “natural” hierarchical order.

In her keynote address, Jetstar CEO Jayne Hrdlicka made the claim, as many did, that diversity was good for business. Shindy said it was good for the military. Diverse participation, so the popular story goes, has better outcomes.

What these better outcomes might be is the matter of blurry debate. More women in full-time, prestigious jobs doesn’t alter the broad fact of joyless under-employment, and more women military officers is very unlikely to meaningfully alter the body count in the Middle East or the future of Australian foreign policy.

It is pleasant and it is decent to honour exceptional individuals. It is deluded and it is indecent to suppose, as many do, that exceptional individuals will give us mediocre people a better stab at life. The neoliberal storybook has a new chapter. Sisters are writin’ it for themselves.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey