We’re not going to move serenely into some more perfect post-Weinstein world without addressing the big structural issues that made those sorts of shocking actions possible.

Sexual harassment occurs at a point where a culture of bullying and harassment, on one side, overlaps with gender inequality on the other. As an industry, the media has been remarkably slow in dealing with gender inequality in any concrete fashion. On the other hand, they’ve been a bit overly enthusiastic in embracing the tools of modern managerialism that legitimise bullying.

The media and entertainment industries are not necessarily the worst offenders. Harassment and discrimination exist across the national workforce. But when journalists stumble, it damages public trust, particularly when viewers or readers can see easily that the stumbles reflect a more masculinised culture; it’s more than just one person’s bad behaviour.

In journalism, for about 50 years, it seemed that time would inexorably end sexism at work. Since about 1970, women have accounted for the majority of industry cadets and trainees, and students in Australia’s journalism schools. How long could it be before they changed the industry? Pretty long, as it has turned out.

It was only early this century that the craft reached anything like gender parity at a national level. And in most of our major newsrooms, it’s only been the past decade that a majority-female newsroom was anything other than a statistical oddity. And still, women are paid less and get fewer opportunities.

At the management level — particularly in the private sector — journalism remains a peculiarly male preserve, with the testosterone rising the further up the ladder you go. Over the next decade, we’ll see newspapers close without having ever had a female editor. And we’ll wonder what went wrong.

Individual acts of harassment and bullying have contributed. The bullying didn’t have to be overtly sexual: like the prominent editor who would approach women with known childcare responsibilities late in the afternoon saying: “Got a great story here for you to follow up … oh, that’s right. You’re one of those who have to leave early. I better give this to someone who can put in the time.”

Most of it was anonymously structural – the result of thousands of micro-decisions on the allocations of stories, rounds and pay rises. Each, maybe, justifiable on their own. In aggregate, deeply discriminatory.

Over time, force of numbers has helped things improve. Or maybe, the glass ceiling has just been pushed up a couple of layers.

At the same time, the creeping rise of managerialism in creative industries has legitimated — almost structured — workplace bullying. When the claims about Don Burke broke, there was, in some Twitter timelines, a cry of, “Where was human resources?”

“Human resources” is one of those justly unloved managerial neologisms that crept into the Australian media in the 1990s and early 2000s. Supporters of the phrase — corporate PR types — may savour the “human” adjective and slide over the noun, “resources”, because it shows what they really think. “Resources” probably better than, say, “inputs”, but there’s no concealing that HR is simply about managing resources — for the employer’s benefit.

The policies and procedures that modern human resources brings to an organisation can provide greater transparency and certainty. They can help address acknowledged bad behaviour. They can also act as a shield. They’ve brought to life that ugly transitive verb: “to performance manage” — the use of human resources procedures to manage an employee out of the organisation. More than one complainant has found out about this process the hard way, most notoriously in the recent case of a cadet journalist at Channel Seven in Adelaide, who was removed for “bullying” after she complained about sexism at work.

As Australia’s media rush to make sure their backs are covered with harassment policies that are “best practice”, perhaps they could put more effort into genuine structural change that shapes the 21st-century media to reflect 21st-century society.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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