Centuries ago, back when women were still steam-powered, I used to be one of those “wacky” breakfast radio hosts. For a time, I was quite well-known and even liked by some listeners in a nation curiously grateful to hear a 20-something idiot talk about her menstrual cycle between Pearl Jam tracks. There was little that was unpleasant about this labour, and I remember most of it with warmth and disbelief — I was paid to be an arsehole! Really, the only thing that fouls my memory are the journalists.
Ever since I left the damn place close to 20 years ago, journalists have contacted me to comment on its future. What did I think of the playlist? How do I rate the Twitter account? These, clearly, are inappropriate questions for a person of my advanced age; you may as well ask my mum for her opinion on ride-sharing. So, I ignored the requests, which, in any case, receded to become an annual event, and treated them only as a reminder to change the battery in the smoke detector.
But. There’s one Triple J-related question that sends me spare, and, with the announcement that the shift I once held will again be hosted by two men, it has been posed several times in recent hours: what was it like to be a woman on the radio?
I really have no idea what journalists, who are both old and young, hope for in response. I suspect they do not, either. What was it like to be a woman on the radio? I am tempted to reply that it was trying, as our tits get in the way of the console. I choose instead not to reply at all, because I know they want to hear, “really sexist”.
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And, of course, it was sexist. I was a young woman working in the 1990s for midlife male managers, two of whom harassed me. I was excluded from catered content meetings, which my male co-host was invited to attend. The brief period I had of working on air with a woman became intolerable, due in large part to a bloke who regretted the programming decision so deeply, he insisted we feature male comedians as regular guests. This meant that we two never found the time to build the on-air rapport essential to sustain radio double-acts. This man was led far less by expertise than he was by a loathing for my gender, particularly its more forthright representatives. This became so unpleasant, I called the Human Resources manager. Long story short, I received a redundancy cheque.
But, you know, it was a five-figure redundancy cheque. With the transition from wacky radio lady to writer, there were problems. But these were pretty nice problems to have. My working life is not that sad. And it is not, by any means, representative. If I have had a shandy when I receive a call from a journalist seeking my story of workplace sexism, I tell them this. I say, “I will talk to your shitty publication about elite unfair labour practice the minute you stop bashing unions.”
I have been asked about workplace sexism for two decades, often by outlets who never cover the matter except in relation to celebrity, boardrooms or high-profile knowledge work. At first, I thought the people asking were disingenuous; they must, I thought in my Chomsky youth, be discussing elite forms of oppression to make the low-waged feel that their own, more serious problems were meaningless. Then, I realised that they were simply deluded.
They really, genuinely do believe that they are doing something for all women by focusing their attention on a lucky few.
Women already privileged of influence do not need the sympathy of press. What they need is a lawyer, which they can generally afford. Women, and men, of the working present require a much more scrupulous attention. Local press is largely in the business of celebrating “disruption”, and so rarely does it focus on matters of underemployment, casualisation, diminished purchasing power or the gobsmacking predictions of economists for future unemployment. We are looking down the barrel of the most monumental shift in labour organisation in the modern period, and you want to talk to me about whether someone looked at my tits at my well-paid job in 1997? Shouldn’t you be worried about robots?
This is not to suggest, for a minute, that anyone should dismiss workplace harassment of any kind. Nor is it to say that a gal on six figures is any less entitled to challenge sexism than a woman on the floor at a department store. The threat of aggression is not to be considered secondary to the threat of automation. I know, both empirically and rationally, just how paralysing sexism can be. But I do not believe that the problems of the few can be meaningfully compared to the problems of the many.
I know liberal feminism means very well. I understand that when an editor tells some poor sod to call me, or another woman who has enjoyed a period of conspicuous success, they believe they are doing it “for the girls”. But the benefits here are ultimately to the maintenance of unfair labour practice itself.
Let’s say that Triple J had an all-girl breakfast lineup. Let’s say that Jennifer Lawrence, or whoever the sassy Hollywood lady of the minute might be, does get paid the same obscene amount as her male lead. Why must “equality” be chiefly discussed in the context of elite jobs? Who gives a toss which “youth” gets paid well, when most can’t find work at all? When all face a future of radically diminished employment?
Of course, they will say, particularly in the case of high-profile employment, that women like me provided a double-dividend to the sisterhood. We were not only commanding decent salaries, and earning 100 cents on the dollar, but we were “inspiring” others with our cheek. This latter claim is plainly nonsense. I lectured feminism to more than 1 million women of my generation in Australia every weekday for most of the 1990s. I look at the Instagram feeds of my midlife sisters these days, and they’re full of fucking cupcakes. I didn’t “make a difference” because the entertainment industry is in the business only of pretending to make a difference.
[Barbie dolls don’t cause domestic violence]
Journalists, however, are charged with a higher responsibility. They can, if they wish, really study the things that trouble them and so many others and attempt to give a true account. They can look at the entanglements between sexism and labour conditions and agree, perhaps, that stable employment is the best defence against a groper.
But, no. It must be stories of striving and despair by the glamorous or formerly glamorous. The picture they take is not of diminished job security, but one of brave gals grabbed by horrible bosses. And, yes, some bosses are horrible. But the way to make them less horrible is not by writing endless accounts of how they were horrible to high-profile women. It’s to protect the rights of all workers to secure employment. You try fighting sexism when you’re on a contract. I did. I lost.
This Movie of the Week mode of exploring female courage must cease. It serves few but the participants named in the narrative. It overlooks the very real, very dreary experience of sexism, and other forms of prejudice, that occur in workplaces every day. It sustains the myth that a better life at the top will improve conditions at the bottom.
I urge other women who have enjoyed a period of success to refer journalists on down. If you, despite your prosperity, retain contact with a woman working in health services, retail or one of the professions in which Australians are employed in large numbers, give the correspondent her number. Say, “Sure, once my boss asked me to drop a few kilograms in order to read the news, but mine was an elite problem to have”. Remember, even though TED talks suggest the opposite, that your story of a struggle to the top is the exception. And that it is not, in fact, inspiring, but as paralysing as sexism itself.