IWD 2018: The devil hot on the heels of the zeitgeist

in Opinion
  • Virginia Haussegger

    Virginia Haussegger

    Chief Editor, BroadAgenda

    Virginia Haussegger AM is an Adj Professor at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA), University of Canberra, and Director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation. She is a veteran television presenter and journalist who has reported around the globe for Australia's leading current affairs programs across the ABC, Channel 7 and 9 Network.

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Are you done with women yet? Sick of hearing about them?

I can't glance at my media feed, or scan a news website without the 'women thing' wagging a vindictive finger. A preoccupation with women’s issues - rights, power and pushback - is jamming the airwaves.

Feminist action and online campaigns are springing up like poppies in a battlefield. Ballsy women are shouting on TV and raging in print. They're bonding, hugging and high fiving with new found purpose.

 #MeToo spokeswoman Tarana Burke, declared the MeToo juggernaut “a movement of Joy!”

All this energy is giving oxygen to what anti-sexual harassment crusader Tracey Spicer proclaimed a “seminal moment in history”, at last weekend’s All About Women festival. Beamed via satellite from the Opera House to 30 locations across Australia and New Zealand, thousands of women cheered wildly when the festival’s star attraction, #MeToo spokeswoman Tarana Burke, declared the MeToo juggernaut “a movement of Joy!” It was a celebration of the empowerment women feel when their collective voice is finally heard. And back in January, when Oprah bellowed down the barrel “A new day is on the horizon!” I cheered too.

4 Oprah

The media frame was a world in which power wore a tie, and authority bounced with an Adams apple.

For years I dreamt of a moment like this. As a television journalist for almost three decades and a news presenter for half those years, I waged daily battles against the ubiquitous sexism in media, and the lack of women on our screens as professional and serious players. Women were all but absent from our hard news stories, our editorial meetings, and our 'expert spokesperson' contact lists. The media frame was a world in which power wore a tie, and authority bounced with an Adams apple. Back then the profound absence of women in public life and positions of power barely raised an eyebrow.

So, what’s changed? What’s brought about this current media noise about the role and rights of women and the preoccupation with women in leadership? Has the feminist project suddenly reached some kind of climax and we’re all giddy from breathing the rarefied air of success?

No. Far from it. But yes - the ground has shifted.

 The visceral anger at having an unmarried, childless, non-conforming woman in charge of the ‘Joint’ was a game changer for the media

In Australia it began when Gillard became Prime Minister. The visceral anger at having an unmarried, childless, non-conforming woman in charge of the ‘Joint’ was a game changer for the media. It rocked our traditional frame of what power was supposed to look and act like. And her presence confused a public utterly baffled by female leadership.

5 Gillard Julia Gillard, Australian Prime Minister 2010-2013

Since then a confluence of global events, largely fuelled by the elevation of a self-declared sexist and male supremacist to the role of US President, has caused a seismic genderquake. The Women’s March gave voice to myriad concerns about women’s absence, oppression and … impatience for change. Now the #MeToo, #TimesUp, #HeForShe and countless sister campaigns have helped awaken public consciousness to the truth of gender inequality and entrenched, systemic power imbalance.

The fear and shame women have long felt about speaking out has shifted to men. 

shutterstock 563367793

The fear and shame women have long felt about speaking out has shifted to men. Some of those men harbour private shame over their own shitty sexist behaviour and a fear of being called out. For others it’s a collaborator’s shame over doing nothing about women’s paucity of power, authority, and lack of respect, not to mention their male complicity in blocking women’s access to leadership.

Like it or not, this escalating ‘noise’ is forcing a new discussion about the rights of women and the role of men.

But right now, on International Women’s Day with its #PressForProgress theme, we need to watch our back, as there is a devil hot on the heels of the zeitgeist.

 

First, a stocktake. What do we mean by progress? Given Australia’s national success is built around economic units - unlike New Zealand’s ‘living standard framework’ – let’s look at the numbers. In my mother’s generation women in the public service were forced to quit their jobs once they got married. Now women make up 58 percent of the Australian public service. But their numbers dwindle in the climb to the top.

We yo-yo in and out of federal Cabinet, depending on the man in charge. 

Similarly women in the hot seat of politics, where the real power resides, can’t quite crack the proverbial class ceiling of ‘critical mass’ one third. We yo-yo in and out of federal Cabinet, depending on the man in charge. Five years ago there was one woman among 19 men. Now 24 percent of Cabinet is female, several years after Canada declared an uncompromising 50/50 split in gender representation.

6 2013 Tony Abbott Cabinet

Australia’s global comparisons are lousy. We rank number 1 in the world for women’s education, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, but 48out of 144 nations for political empowerment; 42 for economic participation; and a gobsmacking 104 for health and survival. Australia’s overall score is 35. In 2006 we ranked 15. That’s not progress people!

But worse is the brewing whiff of backlash. As women continue to push for progress, some men are clearly disoriented by the demands for change. Ironically, the sabre rattling from men’s rights groups and the high octave hysteria from furious online misogynists are mobilising angry women. And while the Minister for Women may help stifle the hate trolls by bringing social media companies inline, that won’t stop the seething hatred rooted in some men.

But hate isn’t the only problem. The real sleeper here is a growing public grumble that good men are somehow missing out… as women move up. This poses a devastating threat to women’s progress.

 A third of Australians believe “when it comes to giving women equal rights – things have gone far enough.” 

When an ACT Liberal politician bemoaned that “if you are a heterosexual, employed, white male over the age of 30 you’re not really included in anything”, Mark Parton’s concern about a feminist attack on male privilege won him plenty of sympathy. 

7 Mark Paton MLA ABC Mark Parton MLA in the ACT Legislative Assembly (Photo: ABC)

Which is why this week’s IPSOS poll on Global Misconceptions of Equality is not surprising. A third of Australians believe “when it comes to giving women equal rights – things have gone far enough.” Only half those surveyed disagreed.   

Press for Progress is not a rally call to women. It’s a call out to men.

This column was also published in The Age and The Canberra Times newspapers, and Sydney Morning Herald online 7 march 2018

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