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Workplace sexism: we still don't want to talk about it

Sex Discrimination

I'm not sure when the word "sexist" became one of the most polarising words in the English language. Is it really so bad to talk about something that many agree is alive and well in the Australian workforce and community?

Despite laws prohibiting sex discrimination gaining wide acceptance in this country in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we are a long way from gender equality in key aspects of life.

Women and children experience alarmingly high levels of family violence. Women are twice as likely to live in poverty in old age after a lifetime of unpaid caring and lower earning capacity. And women are still under-represented in leadership and decision-making positions in our communities, parliaments, workplaces, universities and boardrooms.

One of the key barriers to gender equality is the way we accept a degree of ‘everyday sexism’ as harmless.

The everyday sexism that women experience in the workplace includes emails addressed to "gents", being told to shush in meetings, being called catty if they disagree with another woman, being asked when they plan to have children, and being overlooked for promotion if they are pregnant.

Often, women don’t speak up about this everyday sexism because they feel it’s not malicious and the incidents are too small to make a fuss.

Evidence from recent research confirms sexual harassment and sex discrimination continues to be an everyday experience for some women and also men, but workers have learnt that it is better to tolerate everyday sexism than to object.

Research by the Royal College of Surgeons, for example, found that while almost 50 per cent of fellows, trainees and international medical graduates reported being subject to discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment, making a complaint was seen as 'career suicide'.

Research in the Australian Defence Force found that there was a reluctance to report sexual harassment for fear of victimisation, lack of confidentiality and career consequences.

A 2015 Survey by the National Union of Students found that almost three quarters of students had been sexually harassed, yet only 5 per cent reported their harassment or assault. Research in Victoria Police found that while 40 per cent of women experienced sexual harassment, only 11 per cent made complaints through the available channels. Policewomen called it the continuum of compromise. You let it go at a low level and then after a while you accept it as normal.

It is not just in workplaces that people are reluctant to speak up; this is a community-wide problem. We pride ourselves on being a straight-talking nation yet we deride whingers and we label those who experience discrimination, sexual harassment and victimization as troublemakers. As for the bystanders who speak up? They are cast as the fun police who give voice to political correctness gone mad.

Brian Kruger of Toll and James Fazzino of Incitec Pivot argue that establishing a culture where colleagues speak out on near misses and hold each other to account for minimum standards is the best way to avoid fatalities in the workplace. Similarly, creating a respectful culture that addresses everyday sexism may well be the best path towards gender equality. We need to consider how speaking up can become acceptable, like wearing the once maligned fluoro-vests is now cool.

We are now rightfully outraged at rapes, physical assault, discrimination and harassment. But talking about the high level of low level sexism in our workplaces, sports, households, universities and communities causes disproportionately venomous responses.
If we want to improve gender equality we need to talk about the deeply embedded systemic and attitudinal barriers that prevent it. We need to use words such as “sexism” and terms such as “misogynist” and “feminist”, not as labels for people but as descriptors of the barriers to gender equality, which are often unconscious and unintentional.

This is not a conversation about villains and victims; it is about cultural and attitudinal change.

Published in Australian Financial Review