Who’s afraid of women who speak their truth?

Last week, an articulate, passionate, intelligent Egyptian feminist with flaming red hair said the word “fuck” several times on the ABC’s Q&A episode. She said it as part of her own message – “Fuck the patriarchy” – and she said it when quoting another feminist. She also called Donald Trump a ‘fascist fuck’ and suggested our own PM is a mini version of Donald Trump. She discussed our parallel path with the American experience. People are rising up around the world, she pointed out, risking their lives to protest against corporate control and climate change, and the Australian PM wants to ban boycotts. 

An Aboriginal woman said the Australian police force was designed to perpetuate white, colonialist, patriarchal forms of violence, particularly against our Indigenous peoples, and that attempting to reform the police in Australia was a waste of time; that we need to find other ways to deal with the issues that our police are currently expected to resolve. 

An American older woman said that the attempt by our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, to make it unlawful for consumers to agitate for change by boycotting or otherwise challenging corporations and institutions that harm the planet is “ridiculous”. This same panellist spoke of the endemic ageism against both young and old in our society and workplaces, and of the need to get past the – largely patriarchal – belief that a person’s value as a human being diminishes with age. 

An Australian feminist said the political system in Australia – as in many parts of the world – is steeped in colonialism, patriarchy and male violence and that our Prime Minister is part of the group that is most privileged by that system. 

All of the panellists spoke eloquently about the depth and embeddedness of discrimination against people who are not white males in this country.

None of this is new. And yet, by Friday, the ABC had announced it will conduct an investigation into this episode of Q&A because there had been complaints about the language used (presumably the fact an Egyptian feminist said “fuck” several times) and that the content was offensive to some. And – what a surprise – when I immediately went to watch the programme on ABC’s iView, this episode was not available and I was presented with a message saying I should check my internet connection. Other Q&A episodes on iView were working just fine, so it was definitely not my internet connection. I found the episode on the Q&A website, and was left wondering if this is a new form of censorship visited by our government on the national broadcaster – removing content that a few people find ‘offensive’.   

Which bit was offensive, I wonder, and to whom? Were our Indigenous people offended by an Indigenous woman telling the audience exactly what it’s like to deal with the police and the justice system in Australia when you are a member of our Indigenous communities? Were women who have suffered violence at the hands of men offended by the clear linkages drawn between the perpetrators of that violence and patriarchal systems of control, including colonialism and white supremacy? Were the 30% of Australians who were born overseas offended by a passionate defence of their rights to live here without discrimination and harm? Were our elders who rely on the aged care system offended by the disgust expressed by panellists in response to the findings of the Royal Commission into Aged Care? Were older women who have suffered humiliation and discrimination in the workplace offended by an older woman saying “this is what happens, and it is not good enough”? 

Or was it, again, the Egyptian feminist who was found to be offensive when she asked, “How long must we wait for men and boys to stop murdering us?” and suggested that a violent response to the ongoing rape and murder of women may be the only way to get men and the patriarchy to change. The ensuing panel discussion sent a clear message that violence is not the first, second, or even third option – it’s what happens when all other avenues have been tried and have failed; when the dominant rulers refuse to listen or take steps to create serious change. Yet this discussion has been described as inciting feminists to violence, fuelling the apparent need for censorship and an investigation. 

So who, exactly, was offended? Our Prime Minister for being called ‘ridiculous’, ‘fascist’, and identified as a member of the privileged elite? For having the influence of his evangelical christian ideology on his leadership scrutinised? Was it the white Australians who would prefer not to have to think about the consequences of 200 years of colonialism for our Indigenous peoples, or about the endemic racism that runs in a strong current just under the surface of our “she’ll be right” Australian way of life? Or people who just get offended by the word “fuck”, particularly when it is uttered by a woman?   

I’m confused. No, just kidding. I have a fairly good idea of who was ‘offended’ by this episode of Q&A, and I can pretty much guarantee it wasn’t anyone who identifies as any of the following:

  1. Older or younger people who have suffered or are likely to suffer age discrimination
  2. Members of our Indigenous peoples
  3. Feminists
  4. Members of minority groups (note to Ashton Applewhite: women are not a minority group)
  5. Immigrants and refugees
  6. People living in aged care
  7. Women who have experienced or understand male violence
  8. Activists against governments who want to ignore climate change
  9. Activists against organisations who want to ignore the impacts of their actions on climate change
  10. Front line services who deal with the results of domestic abuse, discrimination and patriarchal violence

It seems that whoever was offended by this Q&A episode, and whatever it was that pressed their particular buttons, they couldn’t possibly have been representative of the majority of Australians. So why is the ABC treating this particular Q&A episode as if it is poisonous? (Psst…. I heard that 200 people complained. Seriously. 200. You see more than that on mildly confronting LinkedIn posts, and LinkedIn doesn’t go into meltdown over it even if sometimes they probably should). 

The conclusion I am left to draw is that what a small minority of people found offensive about this particular Q&A episode was that it contained women speaking their truth and criticising our political systems and some of those women were not white.  And the word fuck was used with great abandon. What does it say about Australia in 2019 that this is enough to prompt censorship, sabre rattling and doom-laden investigations? It says that what these women had to say was absolutely accurate. 

The problem of the “brilliant jerk” trope for diversity and inclusion

We hear it quite a lot these days – how companies are ceasing to be tolerant of the “brilliant jerk” – the human in a company who is too difficult to get along with.  They may be a bully, an harasser, a narcissist or suffer deeply from anxiety which they choose to express in unhelpful ways.  They often cause problems for their staff, colleagues, and higher ups.  Sometimes they cause problems for clients too.  Many do great work, are high revenue earners, highly creative or brilliant researchers.  Sometimes they don’t do much of note but are just considered unreasonable in the way they behave.

Their immediate manager doesn’t know how to deal with them, so they toss the ball to HR.  The HR partner tells them to behave better ‘or else’.  Maybe – depending on their perceived value to the organisation – they are sent on some training, are given some coaching or a mentor.  The company tries everything, but nothing works.  So eventually they performance manage the ‘brilliant jerk’ (BJ) out of the company.  And people make money writing books about how not to cope with the brilliant jerks.

There is no doubt that BJs can be found in most organisations, and there is also no doubt that they can make life very difficult indeed.   I’ve worked with my fair share of difficult people; at times I have been one.  Sometimes the only option available to an organisation is to terminate employment when the behaviour of an individual is repeatedly not consistent with the organisation’s values.  And sometimes they take that option because nobody is asking why or looking for a better solution, and everyone is worried about ending up in a court of law. 

The “brilliant jerk” trope poses a number of problems for the ethos and actuality of diversity and inclusion. 

First, labelling anybody as a “brilliant jerk” is instantly discriminatory.  It sets a person up to be perceived negatively and to be treated disrespectfully – it leaves no room for a different story to be heard.  It reminds me strongly of the “hysterical woman” label that was (and still is) given to any woman who, stifled and frustrated with society’s expectations of her, acted out and was labelled ‘crazy’ for her trouble.  Arwa Mahdawi put it succinctly: “The “crazy woman” has become a kneejerk way to put women in their place and remind them that, no matter what they achieve, they are inherently flawed.”  Labelling someone as a ‘brilliant jerk’ because they behave in challenging ways is no different – it also has become a kneejerk reaction to encountering someone who is difficult to deal with. 

Regardless of whether a person’s behaviour is really unacceptable, the “brilliant jerk” label is derogatory in tone and intent. 

This is not to say that consistently bad behaviour towards other people should be tolerated; it shouldn’t.  And I think there is a high likelihood that in some cases, a person may be labelled a BJ simply because they don’t fit.  Someone who has a different level of social skills or is trying really hard to cope with discriminatory practices or bad behaviour around them may be placed into the convenient bucket labelled “brilliant jerk”.  And that is problem number two for diversity and inclusion – if organisations are going to start enacting a zero tolerance policy for people they consider to be ‘brilliant jerks’, someone had better keep track of the demographic of the BJs. 

The third problem for diversity and inclusion in the BJ trope is that we are in danger of confusing ‘inclusion’ with ‘everybody must like and feel comfortable with everybody else’.  That social norm is how we got in this mess in the first place, because the people we like and feel most comfortable with are people just like us.  If we are going to do diversity and inclusion well, we need to get really comfortable with being around people who are not like us, who we may not actually like very much, and who we may never feel entirely comfortable with. 

Unless we start getting comfortable with our diversity discomfort, inclusion will remain out of reach.

The fourth problem of the BJ trope for diversity and inclusion is that it feeds the current trend of rewarding people for doing nothing more than being nice to other people.  I know this is an over-simplification, but I have a genuine concern that the people who now seem to get ahead most readily are those who just have really good interpersonal skills.  They make other people feel comfortable, and that makes them likeable, and that gets them rewarded.  Those who are not well-liked may not get rewarded for their otherwise excellent work. 

This is standard in-group/out-group stuff – people who do not fit the prevailing norm in a workplace or society are often disliked for their difference, and the narrative changes based on their likeability.  Their good interpersonal skills are reframed as creepy or self-interested.  A quiet demeanour is perceived as antisocial or arrogant, while a desire to do a good job is characterised as sucking up to the boss.  The same behaviours in a person who is part of the in-group, who is liked for their conformity to the norm, are given a positive spin – an excellent communicator, quiet and reflective, goes the extra mile to get the job done well.   

The thing is, there is a world of difference between someone who is not well liked and someone who is an active problem.  And in the diversity and inclusion space, not being well-liked is often synonymous with simply being different from the social norm.  If being liked and making other people feel comfortable is a key criterion for success in an organisation, anyone who is a bit different is going to face problems in that workplace. 

For diversity and inclusion to work well, we need to get past the need to like everyone we work with and we need to stop rewarding niceness as a particular asset in the workplace. 

By setting up a ‘brilliant jerk’ trope, and developing a mythology around it of the brilliant-but-unmanageable superhuman, we set up an environment where not being comfortable, likeable or nice is potentially a barrier to success. 

Perhaps a person who is very difficult at work is not suited to that workplace and should be moved on – people who behave unethically, immorally or illegally are clearly not the right fit for a workplace.  Aggression towards others, harassment and bullying are likewise not OK, and some of those behaviours can be managed and effectively negated.  But when deciding if someone is too difficult to manage effectively, we need to be sure that there is not another story going on behind someone’s apparently difficult behaviour before we label them as ‘the problem’.    

Why women compete on appearance

There was an article out yesterday (6 April 2019:  “Fat chicks shouldn’t wear Lycra”) about a woman who was trying to get fit by riding a bike and the street harassment she suffered because she was overweight. It’s just another example of the deeply embedded sexism in our society and the continuing lack of respect and value that many men give to women who fail to live up to their expectations of beauty and behaviour.
In a discussion about the article, a friend of mine commented that at her gym, women seem to be more concerned with how much weight they have lost and whether they look any better from the exercise they do, whereas the men seem to be there mainly to get healthy.  Women competing 3She went on to ask why women put themselves under so much pressure to look a certain way, and compete with each other on appearance – clothes, weight, makeup, meeting beauty standards.  She said she didn’t want to blame men for the problems women have with their appearance, which is what she thought I wanted to do, that it is a complex issue and she was concerned about the way this preoccupation with appearance affects children. So this is my response.
First, I don’t think blaming men is an answer to anything.  Holding men to account is a different issue altogether, and we should absolutely do that.  I don’t blame or hate men and I don’t want men to be damaged any more than I want women to be damaged. I do want men to step up and be accountable for changing the way they think about and behave towards women. 
Second, women’s preoccupation with appearance is definitely not a simple issue; it is a systemic problem that has become multifaceted over the centuries. If I blame anything, it’s the system that developed over those centuries which disadvantages both women and men in different ways, but primarily women. That system is changing, slowly, and it needs to keep changing.  That change needs to happen on a variety of levels, including the tendency for men to sexually objectify women (by, for example, assuming that the apparently unpleasing appearance of a fat woman wearing Lycra while riding a bicycle is a direct affront to their apparent entitlement to see only gorgeous women with tight bums riding bicycles, and to make their displeasure publically known).

Women competing 2Taking it as read that some men feel it is their right and duty to judge and comment on women’s appearance and rate them on physical characteristics to determine their sexual desirability, why is it that women compete with each other on appearance? Because for centuries, women had no recourse other than to find and catch men to marry them so they could be provided with the basics for survival and, if they were lucky, some luxuries as well. For a very large chunk of human history, women were perceived and treated as commodities – used to ensure inheritance passed down the family line by producing the required male heir; used to provide domestic labour, to produce the next generation and feed the menfolk. For a very long time, women (in most societies) could not own property, earn their own income, or even buy the necessities of life; they were almost totally reliant on men to provide the means for them to live.

Life tended to be difficult and short for women who remained unmarried, unless they were members of the upper classes for whom the rules were frequently bent. For other women, remaining unmarried usually meant aServitude 1 life of servitude – either as a servant, nanny, nurserymaid or governess to an upper class household, or to a relative’s family – caring for young children, frail elderly and invalids, and providing other domestic labour.  Despite all this free labour, women in these circumstances were generally considered to be burdens on their families and could be treated very badly.  If an unmarried woman was unfortunate enough to have no relatives to take her in, life was very bleak indeed. 

Unmarried women were also targets of suspicion as witches and the bringers of disaster – crop failings and livestock deaths were frequently blamed on the nearest unmarried woman who would often suffer awful consequences.  Single women were also not recognised in private law until well into the 20th Century as women’s legal rights were considered to be inextricably bound to their husbands’ (Dubler, A. 2003, Theoretical Inquiries in Law, 4.2).

White wedding 4Marriage became essential to their survival, so women became adept at working the marriage market. And the primary attribute a woman needed to get the man she wanted was her appearance – big breasts, big hips, a nice face, good hair, good teeth…. much like a cattle market 🙂.  A father who could give the intended groom some money or possessions to make up for the fact he was getting this woman for life was an added advantage.  Then she needed some kind of ‘purity certificate’ – men were quite happy to badger unmarried women into having sex with them, but they only wanted to marry virgins. So women also became very adept at fending off men’s advances, and the poor unfortunates who were unsuccessful faced lives of penury and misery, being disowned by their families and relegated to the poor house or prostitution. 

Spinster 3Most women – understandably – wanted to get out of the circumstances they grew up in by finding and marrying men who could provide a nicer life. In order to do that, they needed to ramp up the competition with other women who were after the same thing. So women paid careful attention to their appearance, and learned to be pleasing to men so they could maximise their chances of getting married and avoiding the fate of the typical ‘spinster’ (a term coined to describe unmarried women who spun thread or wool for a living).
Physical fitness was less of an issue before the 20th century because people walked a lot more, did manual labour in the fields, rode horses and later bicycles and didn’t have domestic appliances, elevators or lifts. Food was also less accessible to many people who lived on the edge of hunger much of the time. While having an hourglass figure was considered ideal, thinness was not valued and being plump was seen as a sign of wealth and good health. That began to change in the Victorian era, when new fads around diet and exercise began to predominate, and these have morphed into today’s obsession with thinness.

Imposing beauty ideals on women to improve their chances of getting married while limiting their abilities to lead full, independent and respected lives without being married set the scene for women to compete with each other on appearance.  It made men’s approval the goal of so many women’s endeavours, and set men up to believe they had the right to be judge and jury on a woman’s appearance.  All of this led to the pervasive male sense of entitlement to women’s time, attention, and bodies which has become so embedded in our social fabric.  This relatively simple dynamic is a root cause of domestic violence, sexual harassment and sexual assault in all its forms.

Women's emancipation 1If men over the centuries had been smart enough to realise what a great deal they were getting, instead of behaving as if being married to a woman was a terrible burden they had to bear; if they had placed greater value on the person and the partnership rather than on outward trappings of beauty; and if men en masse had respected, appreciated and valued the incredible contribution women made to their wellbeing, then we would probably never have needed suffragism or feminism.  We would have had a world in which women’s lives and work were equally valued alongside men’s. 

Instead, men were taught to treat women as property and not to value or respect us.  They were taught that women exist to please men and that there is no value in women who are not pleasing to men.  This gives rise to a lack of respect for women who are not pleasing to men and comments such as “Fat chicks shouldn’t wear Lycra!” are derivative of this lack of respect.  All of which led to the inevitable result that women finally said “Enough. We’re not doing this shit any more.  If we have to do what you men do in order to get out from under this tyranny, then that’s what we will do.” And the Women’s Emancipation Movement was born.  And so many men (and women) still don’t get it.

Why aren’t we there yet?

Linda Peach

Speech given to the VIEW Clubs ND International Women’s Day Luncheon, 9th March 2018

A couple of weeks ago, I was at Circular Quay, waiting for a ferry.  It was not particularly late – about 8.00 on a Thursday night.  I had been to a show at the Opera House with a friend and we were both catching ferries home.  The wharf was crowded.  I looked around and said to my friend, “Nowhere to sit”.  A man – middle aged, plump, for some bizarre reason wearing a hat at night – was sitting on the seat in front of where we were standing.  He looked up at me and said “You can sit on my lap if you like luv”.

It took a moment for the reality to sink in of what this complete stranger had just said to me, and in that moment, my ingrained politeness took control and I said, “No, thank you very much.”  My brain caught up in that split second, and I followed it with “Why on earth would I want to do that?”

I’m in my sixth decade and in the eyes of most of the stylised heterosexual world, I’m pretty much washed up as an object of sexual desire, and I’m fairly sure this man’s comment had nothing to do with any actual desire or expectation on his part that I would sit on his lap.  So what did he actually want?

Of course I can’t possibly know exactly what was going through his mind at the time.  Perhaps he genuinely did think to himself, “Oh, there’s a hot looking older babe.  I’ll ask her to sit on my lap and I know she’ll be delighted and happy and we’ll have fantastic sex and maybe fall in love and get married and then she can look after me.”  Or maybe the limit of his thinking was “Woman. She should be paying attention to me.”

Fundamentally, in some basic and unacknowledged way, he wanted my attention.  More than that, he felt entitled to my attention and he wanted me to know that he was entitled to it.  He wanted me to feel all the things I did feel – surprised, disgusted, annoyed, sick.  He wanted me to know that all he had to do was say something like this in order to gain a measure of control in my space.

And it worked.  Because here I am, using it as an example at the beginning of my talk here today.

This tactic where men control women’s spaces plays out very successfully, in myriad forms, countless numbers of times every second of every day here on planet earth, and it has done since records began.  As women, we are constantly aware of the male presence.  Whether it is walking home at night, internal radar on overdrive, keys in one hand, mobile in the other, walking faster than we normally would, sticking to the middle of the road, avoiding dark shadows and bushes…. Or on public transport, wishing the man next to you would close his legs so your knee didn’t have to be in contact with his; squashing yourself into the corner to try and avoid this unwanted contact.  Or at work, wondering if that casual male hand that just drifted across your buttocks was intentional, or wishing that the male client would talk to your face and not somewhere between your shoulders and your hips.

With all of this going on, it is hardly surprising that a fundamentally pointless comment from a stranger on a ferry wharf can put us on instant alert.  Is this person a threat or just an idiot?  Is he getting the same ferry?  Is there somewhere I can sit so he can’t see me?  What do I do if he gets off at the same stop and follows me to my car, parked in a dark street near a park because that’s the only place to park?

The bottom line is that it is exhausting being a woman in this world.  The sense of safety and unconcern that most men seem to carry around with them has never, ever been mine.  And I’m pretty sure it’s never been any of yours either.

Do any of you sometimes think about what it might be like to go for a walk around your neighbourhood at night, on your own, when it’s cool and quiet, for the simple enjoyment of walking?  I do.  When I watch movies where the male protagonist goes off to a cabin in the woods to have some “me time” and stays there, unconcerned for his safety, for several days, I wonder what that must be like.  I would never do either of these things, because the training of my entire life – to never put myself in a vulnerable situation in case some man takes advantage of my vulnerability – would make it an unpleasant experience of watchfulness and fear.

As it happened, the man at the ferry wharf was just a silly person making a pointless comment.  He and his female companion – yes, he said what he said in full view and hearing of her – caught a different ferry and I did not feel threatened.  But the line between that and how it could have played out is a very thin one indeed.

So here we are, International Women’s Day 2018 and the theme for this year is “Press for Progress”.  I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I confess this theme made me sigh and mutter, “What, again?  Why hasn’t gender inequality been relegated to the history books already?”

In a small act of rebellion, I devised my own hashtag for IWD this year – hashtag-why-aren’t-we-there-yet – because I think this is a far more important question that everyone needs to be focusing on for IWD now.  We talk fairly constantly about how women are constrained from reaching a variety of goals that men seem to achieve as a matter of course.  We all know that gender inequality is real – well, there are a fair number of both overt and covert Men’s Rights Activists who would dispute that statement, but as they tend to be hostile towards women generally, I habitually discount their points of view – we all know that gender inequality is real.

We know that the world is shaped around masculine privilege and that as women, we have basically had to fit in with it for a very long time indeed.  Masculine privilege pervades almost every aspect of our lives and because we grow up with it being normalised, we often don’t begin to even see it until something happens that crystallises our awareness.  And once we do become aware, it is impossible to stop being aware.

Let’s think for a moment about women’s toilets.  Ladies’ loos are an oblique form of masculine privilege – there are never enough of them, they tend to be small and awkward, and because going to the loo for a woman is usually a two-handed job, there’s never anywhere to put your handbag and coat so that they aren’t draping in something unmentionable or getting wet next to the hand basins.  Men get to wander in, do their business and wander out again in fairly short order, women invariably have to queue.  We know this is how it happens – we’ve lived with the queues for the ladies’ loos every day of our lives.  I reckon that the day somebody builds a public venue with enough women’s toilets so that there is never a queue for them will be the day that we know we have real equality.

Masculine privilege pervades every aspect of our lives, and in some very dark and unpleasant ways.  The recent #MeToo movement has brought into public consciousness the dark side of entitlement, but as our Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, said, it’s nothing new.  What’s new about it is that now we talk about it.  Back in the day, we didn’t talk about it.  Like the queues for the toilets, we just accepted that this was a normal part of our existence as women and did our best to manage it.

In my first job as a receptionist in a car repair outfit in Brisbane, there was an old guy who all the girls knew to steer clear of.  He would always stand just a little too close, position himself near your desk so he could see down the front of your top, be the first one to open a door for the ‘ladies’, and then stand in the doorway so we had to squeeze past him (impossible to do without some part of your body coming into contact with his).  He was the epitome of the “dirty old man”. Nobody censured him or took him to task over his behaviour.  Instead, all the girls took responsibility for avoiding him whenever possible, giggling politely at his antics because if we displayed irritation or distaste, that was an invitation to tell us we shouldn’t be so sensitive.

In my next job as a secretary in a multinational, we girls used to serve catered food to the all-male boozy boardroom lunches our bosses regularly held with clients, and clear up afterwards.  No woman ever got to sit at the table, of course, other than to take the minutes.  After one of these events, I was cornered in the kitchen by a male client who put his hands where they shouldn’t have been and tried to kiss me.  I pushed him away and said a few choice words.  When I raised it with my male bosses, they told me not to take things so seriously, and that the client had complained about how I behaved towards him.  And a career opportunity in that organisation was suddenly no longer available to me.

Fast forward ten years and I was living overseas.  I had been working as an office manager and my boss and I had a flirty thing going on.  I was most definitely a willing participant in this.  But when it came to the crunch, good sense prevailed, I drew away and said yeah, probably not a good idea.  He agreed and the flirty thing was over.  A little while later, I started dating another man and lo and behold, while I was on holidays in Australia, I got a phone call from the boss to tell me my services were no longer required.

Ten years later, I was a full-time university student in Australia, finishing my Honours year and preparing to start my PhD which – through a few twists and turns – eventually became about gender inequality and feminism and sexism and how it just never seems to really change.  I was at a Christmas barbecue with all the neighbours in the street in 2006 ish.  It was late, most people had staggered home and I was helping the hostess clear up the empties.  One male neighbour was still there and as I bent down to pick up an empty bottle, he grabbed my hips and did something sexually suggestive to me.  I was shocked and horrified and disgusted and I dropped everything and went home, feeling angry, frightened and tearful.  This was only – what? – maybe 12 years ago?  And even then, his behaviour, while disgusting and degrading and all those things, was seen as “just a joke” by everyone except me.  The man in question seemed to think I should have been flattered.

So… I finished my PhD 5 years ago and started working in the field of gender equality and diversity and inclusion, and while I acknowledge that we have come quite a long way, still I find myself asking that question every day:  “Why aren’t we there yet?”

There’s no question that progress has been made.  Women do now sit in some boardrooms and occupy positions of power and influence.  Education for women to the highest levels is now pretty normal in our society and the idea of married women and mothers being in paid employment is no longer shocking or illegal.  Women have easier access to birth control and are less at the mercy of their reproductive organs than at any time in history.  Women’s voices are raised and given airtime, albeit in some cases selectively and often with a substantial backlash from the Men’s Rights Activists and other online trolls.

Did you know that on Wednesday this week, in protest at International Women’s Day, Men’s Rights Activists wore face masks – you know, those blue face masks that surgeons wear in all the best TV medical dramas – with anti-women slogans on them?  One said “Never support women”.  Never support women.  That man clearly felt he had to make that statement in public.  The wonderful thing about social media is that his face with its abhorrent mask is now plastered across every corner of the internet.  Face mask or not, someone will recognise him….

So yes, there has been progress and there continues to be progress.  Since the last International Women’s Day we have seen some amazing movements.  We have seen #MeToo start and build up a good head of steam, and then #TimesUp joined it, along with #MenToo.  The Everyday Sexism movement has highlighted the kind of nonsensical comment that the ferry wharf guy made to me, and the foundational disrespect for women that such comments illustrate.  The Pussy Hat movement, derivative of the wonderful women’s marches spurred by the election of Donald Trump, has given a symbol to the modern face of feminism.

But feminism itself is struggling to progress.  The ‘third wave’ as it is known, or as I prefer to think of it – “Me” feminism – is becoming entrenched.  Women are being told repeatedly that our experiences of inequality are, in fact, because we don’t know how to ask for what we want, we let other people take the lead and for some reason lack confidence to go after our goals.  Neoliberal feminists such as Sheryl Sandberg write best-selling books on the topic, choosing to ignore the inherent position of privilege from which she writes.  The rather myopic idea that an individual’s experience is representative of all women is a persistent barrier to gender equality and to embracing diversity of all kinds.

What we appear to be seeing is a new backlash, and one which is even more dangerous than earlier backlashes against women’s rights, because this one primarily comes from women, and particularly young women.  Young women have been rejecting feminism and feminist thought in droves for the past couple of decades.  Some say feminism is an out-of-date, old-fashioned term with unfortunate connotations of hairy legs and burnt bras and they don’t want to be associated with it.  They say they believe in all the things feminism is about but don’t want to identify themselves as ‘feminist’; that they don’t want to adopt a label.

But as Nakkiah Lui – an icon of young feminist women – said in an All About Women panel last Sunday, young women need to use the feminist label because the more people who use the label, the harder it is to ignore what the label represents.  Male privilege, or the patriarchy, is the system that is designed to maintain the status quo.  Sexism is the mechanism used to ensure that women are kept within the boundaries of the system.  Feminism is the resistance.

The interesting thing is that back in the days of burning bras, this movement that wanted to gain rights for women wasn’t widely known as ‘feminism’, it was known as Women’s Liberation.  Back then – and I remember this clearly from my years of growing up in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland – women marched, frequently and loudly.  They clashed with police and got arrested and thrown in prison and made a lot of noise about how they felt about the male privilege dominating their world.

The 70s and 80s saw some real progress – it was no longer illegal for married women to work; rape within marriage was criminalised; women could apply for loans as individuals without needing a husband to guarantee their repayments.  Sex Discrimination legislation was introduced.  A swathe of changes were made that enabled women to interact with the world of work and money in ways that had previously not been available to them.

These gains were made by collective action of like-minded women who took the very clear view that the personal is political and who repeatedly challenged the institutions of the day to implement real change.

The current generation of young women has been raised in the age of neoliberalism where the individual is held responsible for everything that happens to her.  If you want equality, neoliberalism whispers, you need to go out and take it.  Only you can make it happen for you.  If it doesn’t happen for you, well, you just didn’t try hard enough.

It’s a very neat and incredibly successful way to hamstring feminism.  It also meshes well with modern sexist behaviours, or benevolent sexism as Professors Peter Glick and Susan Fiske theorised.

Glick and Fiske developed their theory of Ambivalent Sexism on the basis that sexism is a mechanism for maintaining the gendered power imbalance so that men retain the bulk of the power and women don’t get access to much of it.  They suggested (and a great body of research has since supported their ideas) that there are two poles of sexist behaviour – hostile sexism and benevolent sexism.  We are all familiar with hostile sexism – the overt devaluing of women as inferior to men, and expressions of hostility towards all things female.  “What are ya, a big girl’s blouse?”

Benevolent sexism is an altogether more insidious beast.  Benevolently sexist behaviour has the same goal as hostile sexism – to devalue women and femaleness – but it is cloaked in expressions of admiration and even love.  So benevolent sexism might come in the guise of admiration for women’s remarkable mothering skills.  A benevolent sexist might say that women are such gorgeous creatures, they can’t imagine why any of them would want to be in a boardroom instead of gracing the nearest day spa.  Benevolent sexism is also often cloaked in ideas of protection for women – a very common example of this is telling women not to walk alone at night to avoid being attacked.

‘Me’ feminism gives power to benevolent sexism because it makes women responsible for fixing the system which is designed to prevent them from gaining power, and it cloaks itself in empowering rhetoric of self-actualisation, while ignoring the reality that without men moving over to give women space at the table, progress simply cannot be made.

Feminism – the social and political ideology that offers the strongest and most consistent hope for success in building a gender equal world – is being undermined from within and yet, here we are, being tasked with pressing for progress in a system that is designed to make sure progress is limited and patchy and ultimately unsuccessful.

And this is my question to all of you here today – What is modern feminism?  What does it look like?  How does it reverberate for young women?  What will it look like for girls in education in the future?  In terms of what the VIEW Clubs are all about, where does feminism sit?  Does it have a place at all?  And how is feminism responsible for our lack of progress?  What does feminism need to do to help progress the gender equality agenda further?

My mother, a staunch supporter of women’s liberation who had never heard of the gender pay gap and would not have called herself a feminist, died before I got myself organised, dropped out of the mainstream of my life and became a mature age full time university student.  I think she would have been very surprised but quite chuffed to see me being awarded my PhD in 2012.  I think she would have been delighted to see me standing here and talking to all of you today about this particular topic, from a place of knowledge and understanding.  So, as this is International Women’s Day, I’d like to finish my talk today by taking a moment to celebrate and say thanks to a woman who, certainly different, gave me the fire and understanding that took me on this journey, all the way to right here, right now.  Here’s to you, mum.

Persistent domestic violence: A social norm?

Speech given by Dr Linda Peach at the Northside Forum (Home safe? Domestic violence – a shameful cost to society) on Saturday 7th May 2016.  [I present this work as an individual and not as a representative of my employer.]

Image 1

[Photo from Sydney Morning Herald article published 30 April 2016]

On the 24th April 2016, the body of a woman was found in Snapper Point Blowhole and was later identified as Mengmei Leng, a 25-year-old international student living in Sydney.  A male relative has been charged with her murder.  Mengmei Leng was the 28th woman to lose her life to violence in Australia since 1 January 2016.

On April 26th, Violet Tamvakis was found stabbed to death in her home in Victoria.  Her son has been charged with her murder.  Violet was number 29.

On May 1st, Karen Belej was found shot dead at her home.  Her male partner has been charged with her murder.  Karen was the 30th woman who died violently in Australia since January 1 this year.  This makes the current average 1.8 women killed by violence each week of 2016.  Last year, the average was 1.5 per week and in 2014 it was 1.6.

Thank you to the team at Destroy the Joint Counting Dead Women for keeping this grim tally each year since 2012. 

Despite the daily rhetoric abhorring this state of affairs, we don’t appear to be making much progress in bringing these numbers down.

I suppose if we want to feel better about these figures, we could compare ourselves to Mexico, where the most recent estimate is 6 women murdered per day.

The World Health Organisation estimates that one in three women experience physical or sexual violence over their lifetimes, mostly perpetrated by an intimate partner.

The latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that 72% of family and domestic violence deaths in Australia are women killed by an intimate partner, and that 79% of physical assaults against women occur in their own homes. Women are also the victims in 100% of attempted murders by an intimate partner and 97% of sexual assaults by an intimate partner.  Men commit 80% of all physical assaults in Australia – 81% of physical assaults against men and 76% of physical assaults against women (ABS 2014-2015).

These statistics give us a fairly clear picture of how violence in our society is perpetrated differently according to the genders of both victims and offenders.

Today I am going to take you on a journey that I hope will lead us all to the same destination – an understanding of why these statistics exist in the first place, and how we, as a society, ensure that they don’t change much.

Why do women get involved with men who treat them badly?  This is the question we often hear when we talk about domestic violence.  I think this is fundamentally the wrong question.  The right question is, “Why do so many men treat so many women so badly?”

Prince Charming

Image 2 prince charmingI’d like to start addressing that question by talking about fairy tales.  In any self-respecting fairy tale, there comes a point at which Prince Charming leans down from his white charger, silver plated armour glinting in the sunlight, scoops up the damsel in distress and carries her away to a fortified castle somewhere.  Or he spends every waking moment outside her house, throwing roses, singing ballads, pouring champagne, wooing wooing wooing…. until she gives in, and then he gets to carry her off to his fortified castle.  Everyone says “Aw.  Sweet.  Lucky little lady, that one.”

No one ever asks what happens next.  Or why an adult conversation about their potential future together never seems to take place.

Instead, the man takes charge, the woman gets swept along, apparently perfectly happy to have her life determined by the chap on whose horse she is sitting, and they all allegedly live happily ever.

Image 3 cinderellaOur society has been building romantic fantasies and spoon-feeding them to our unsuspecting children for centuries.  Hollywood continues to churn them out for both children and adults.  The problem with these fantasies, of course, is that they almost exclusively ignore women’s wants, needs and desires and in doing that, they make women objects.  Objects to be glammed up by fairy godmothers, to be admired by throngs of men, envied by just as many women (and hated by a few), and completely subject to the hero’s wants, needs and desires.  And it’s all painted in a glorious, rose coloured picture of gentle women who need protection and strong, dominant men who provide that protection.

The problem is that this places women in a position of weakness and men in a position of strength, and that creates the gendered power imbalance from which all forms of gender inequality derive.

Domestic violence is a product of romantic fantasies that can never, ever, survive in the real world.

Domestic violence is an outcome of one gender having more power than the other. 

Domestic violence is an outcome of the belief that women need men’s protection and that men need to be dominant and strong. 

Domestic violence is an outcome of the belief that providing protection confers ownership:   Because I provide for you, I have rights over you and you are here to please me.

Women need protecting, right?

The idea that women need to be cared for and protected is not new.  For many centuries, women had no choice but to be under the protection of men because they had no rights to be financially independent.  If they wanted food, shelter and clothing, then their primary option was to become attached to a man who could provide it.

Being able to attract a man was therefore essential and women’s value became inextricably embedded in their physical attractiveness to men, and in their abilities to bear and rear children.  Once married, a woman had virtually no rights – no option to leave, no option to earn her own income, no option to own property independent of her husband.  The husband became her master in every way.  And yet, without women, men could not have offspring to carry on the family line.

This, according to Professors Peter Glick and Susan Fiske, is the source of ongoing tension between the sexes – the dominant group of men has power over the subordinate group of women, but is also dependent on the subordinate group for child bearing.  This is one of the underpinnings of Glick and Fiske’s Ambivalent Sexism Theory (1997, 2001).

In this theory, the dominant group needs to ensure that the subordinate group never truly understands or wields its independent power.  So women who are perceived to be sexually attractive to men are accorded higher status than women who are perceived to be unattractive to men.  Women who defer to men’s wishes or who accept a lesser role in life receive greater rewards than women who refuse to conform or who seek independence. These seem like medieval ideas, yet they still apply today, seen particularly in the treatment of women who attain powerful positions that have previously been held by men.

This system of rewards for being good girls and punishment for being bad girls maintains the status quo very effectively.

Women as objects

Image 4 Marilyn objectification

When women are objectified as having value only in their attractiveness to men or their abilities to bear children, their own needs and wants are overridden by the needs and wants of men.  This creates a culture of entitlement among men – that is, entitlement to women’s bodies.  To look at, to touch, to be physically intimate with.

The recent University of Melbourne scandal where photographs of female students were posted online and rated by male students as to their sexual attractiveness is a very good example of the sense of entitlement that can grow out of seeing women’s needs as irrelevant.

Consider also the recent furore at the University of Queensland when some enterprising feminist students wanted to sell cupcakes that were priced according to the gender pay gap.  So women paid, on average, 17% less than men for a cupcake.  The response was jaw-droppingly severe.  The people running the stall were publicly vilified and threatened with violence, including rape and death.  Over cupcakes.  How much distance is there between that and abusing a woman for not getting the dinner ready on time?

Why is there still such a strong negative reaction to anyone who stands up for the rights of women to be treated as equals of men?

Domestic violence is a product of the belief that women’s needs and desires are unimportant.

Domestic violence is a product of the belief that women exist to please men.

Image 5 woman on street

Research from the University of North Dakota published in the journal, Violence and Gender, in 2014 reported that 30% of a sample of college men said they would force a woman to have sex “…if nobody would ever know and there wouldn’t be any consequences.”  One in three.  The sample size was admittedly small (73) and the study needs to be repeated on a much larger scale to be confirmed, but even with a small sample, this is a chilling result.

Rape in itself is another form of power and control, and the threat of being raped is used consistently to maintain control over women’s movements. At the same time, women are held to account for men’s behaviour towards women.  Girls are told from an early age that they need to cover up, be modest, not put themselves in situations where a man or men might be unable to control their desires for sexual gratification.  Girls and women are taught that they must not do anything to encourage men to take advantage of them and they must be protected from the possibility that a man will rape, assault or otherwise harm them.

I often hear parents worrying about how much anxiety they have about their daughters.  They – naturally – want their daughters to be safe.  So they warn them about where they go and who they go with, about what they wear and about how much they drink.  They tell them not to walk alone at night, not to go into isolated places on their own, not to take unregulated taxis, not to catch public transport after a certain time, not to go into car parks on their own at night…. The list of restrictions that women live with every day is a very very long one.

What I have never so far heard is any parent say that they worry that their sons might be tempted to rape girls.  I never hear parents suggest that their sons should not go near any girls who are drunk in case they decide to rape them.  Sons are not told not to walk in parks late at night in case there is a lone woman who they decide to rape.  Nor are they told to avoid public transport or not go into car parks late at night in case they are there at the same time as a woman they might rape.

But 1 in 3 college men said they would force a woman to have sex if nobody would ever know and there would be no consequences.

So if we aren’t teaching our boys to avoid being alone with women in case they decide to rape them, what are we teaching our boys about respect and consent?

Steve Biddulph in the Sydney Morning Herald recently wrote:

From casual sexism, through to the recent scandal over Facebook pages where women at Melbourne University were sexually evaluated, through to the frankly rape-based corners of the internet, to the astonishing survival, so far, of Wicked Campers with their deeply offensive slogans – rape culture is clearly something we need to address. … There is a war we need to fight to change the mindsets of boys, young men, and wider masculinity, to end the awful history of sexual violence against women and girls.

I don’t necessarily agree with all of Steve Biddulph’s argument because he suggests that rape culture derives from the teenage boy’s psyche and is a product of his fear of rejection.  I believe this to be wrong.

Rape culture derives from long-standing and deeply embedded social norms about women’s lack of power in our society.

Rape culture and victim blaming devalue women and teach disrespect of women’s autonomy.

Domestic violence is a product of lack of respect for women.

Teaching boys to be men

What does this lack of respect for women say about men?  Australia, it has been suggested quietly in the background, has a problem with masculinity.  The problem starts with how girls’ behaviour and boys’ behaviour is regulated differently in pre-school, and it grows from there.  Take the Bob Marley meme pictured.  Let’s deconstruct this meme and look at what it is really telling boys and girls, women and men:

Image 6 masculinity

“If she’s amazing, she won’t be easy.  If she’s easy, she won’t be amazing.”  So a woman who is straightforward and clear about who she is and what she wants is not amazing.  A woman who is difficult to access and resistant is amazing.

“If she’s worth it, you won’t give up.  If you give up, you’re not worthy….”  So if you come across a woman who is amazing to you, but who is not easy and is resisting your charms, then you should pursue her relentlessly because if you give up, you are not worthy.

Nowhere in this meme does it give any airtime to what this amazing woman-prize wants.  It only suggests that a man can tell an amazing woman-prize from a dud by how easily available she is.

I’ve picked this simple meme because it shows objectification where women’s worth is linked to sexual availability; rape culture where relentless pursuit and eventual domination without regard to the object’s feelings are held up as laudable masculine behaviours; and dominant masculinity where you are only considered worthy as a man if you pursue your object relentlessly.

Image 7 be a manAnd this leads me to my final point for today:  men are just as disadvantaged as women by inequality between the sexes, but their disadvantage takes a different shape and form.  Because men have more power, their disadvantage is more about how their own power and access to power dictates their behaviour towards women, and also dictates what women expect of them and how women behave towards them.

The need to maintain power means that boys and men are taught to be invincible.  The more invincible you are, the better man you are.  The stronger you are, the better man you are.  The more dominant you are, the better man you are.  We teach boys not to cry, not to do things that are girly or feminine, not to feel any emotion other than aggression, and not to allow girls (the least respected people) to tell them what to do.  At the same time, we tell boys they must use their strength and their invincibility to protect women and to provide for their families.

Nowhere in this perfect man-being is there room for fallible humanness.  Men spend their lives trying to be impossible super-heroes while women spend their lives trying to be impossible super-models/mothers.

Domestic violence is a product of how boys and men are taught to be men.

Is there any hope for the future?

How do we change this picture?  How do we create a new future so that the coming generations can live without this blight on our society?  We are beginning to see change in the way that children are spoken to about gender and relationships.  We have seen campaigns like “Like A Girl”, “Man Up”, and “He For She”, which challenge the assumptions we make about gender at their very core.  These are good, solid, public information campaigns that do a great job to raise awareness.

To create real change, however, the message needs to be delivered consistently across our education system from pre-schools to universities.  A good current example is a program that the University of Melbourne is running, designed to connect schools with gender respect.


Image 8 Connect with respect

This programme is about challenging gender norms where they start – in children’s first classrooms.  And the fact that it exists gives me hope that the next generation of young women and men will have greater respect and autonomy and will be less restricted and dictated to by a set of outdated social norms.  Once that happens, we should start to see decreasing numbers of women who die each year as a result of domestic violence.


If we are to create change that will enable the women and men of the future to live in a safe society where relationships are based on mutual respect and equality – a future in which domestic violence is a rarity instead of a norm – then Australia needs to work to change its culture of masculinity and of disrespect for women.  For that safer and more respectful Australia to emerge….

  • We need to teach our children about equal, respectful relationships grounded in reality, not fairy tales.
  • We need to create a society where both women and men are respected and valued equally.
  • We need to give equal value to women’s needs as we do to men’s.
  • We need to teach boys that women’s bodies are not their property and we need to teach girls that they – and only they – have the right to decide who can touch them.
  • We need to teach girls the difference between being treated as an object and being treated with respect.
  • We need to teach and model a different type of masculinity to boys – one which is based on respect and consent, and which is grounded in very real humanness.

How do workplace rituals affect diversity and inclusion?

By Linda Peach and Heidi Sundin

‘Culture’ is, in simple terms, ‘the way we do things around here’.  In workplaces, it means the ways that people develop and maintain relationships with their colleagues, how work is organised, who makes things happen, and how things happen.  Workplace culture includes the way that colleagues socialise, how and when meetings happen, and the rituals that go with being a part of a culture.  Rituals can include after work drinks, weekend outings, end of year functions and the ways that people are welcomed and farewelled.

The culture in a workplace can create a strong bond between people and it can equally strongly exclude people from the workplace.  For this reason, culture is like a centrifugal force that keeps workplaces moving as a cohesive unit, and it can make or break efforts to improve diversity and inclusion, including gender equality.  When people feel excluded in a working environment, it is often because they don’t meet the cultural expectations of people in the workplace, or are unable or unwilling to take part in workplace rituals that support the culture.

But our rituals are fun! Surely everybody should just make an effort to fit in?

Workplace rituals can be inclusive like “casual Friday” or morning teas to celebrate milestones or to welcome people to the team.  They can also be exclusive like after work drinks, golf games on the weekend, breakfast events, go-karting, car racing or paintballing.  Rituals like these automatically exclude anyone who is generally unavailable for evenings out, early morning events or weekend outings (parents and others with caring responsibilities).  They can also exclude some people with a disability and may not take into account religious or lifestyle preferences (e.g., no alcohol or objections to some types of entertainment). Below are a couple of hypothetical examples.

Ahmed and his wife, Raziya, recently immigrated to Sydney and Ahmed quickly secured employment as a structural engineer with a large organisation.  He and Raziya have no friends or family in Sydney and have been hoping to make some social connections through Ahmed’s work.  They both love living in Sydney and are slowly getting used to the cultural differences that confront them every day.  Ahmed has been disappointed to find that most of his work is done on client sites and he rarely gets to meet and talk with the people who work in his own company.  He knows that a number of his colleagues meet up at a pub near the head office after work on Friday nights, but he is unable to go because his religious preferences preclude him from drinking alcohol and he doesn’t enjoy being around people who are drinking. He wishes they would meet somewhere else like a restaurant to have a meal and talk, but it seems the visits to the pub are very ritualised and changing them would be difficult.

Mary has been the Head of Customer Relations at this company for 10 years.  She has two children aged 4 and 7 and her husband, Jim, has a disability which he acquired in a motorbike accident five years ago.  He is unable to drive and works from home most days.  He earns quite well but Mary’s executive salary is the mainstay of their family finances.  Mary loves her job and under her leadership her department has consistently performed beyond expectations.

Accommodating Jim’s disability required modifications to the house and to afford those in a house large enough for a family, they moved to the Blue Mountains four years ago.  Mary commutes for 90 minutes each way to go to work.  She has flexible working arrangements and also works from home one day a week.  Mary’s mornings are tightly scheduled with children needing to be dropped off at pre-school (earliest time is 7 am) and at primary school (earliest time is 8 am).  Mary catches her train at 8.30, working on the train and arriving in the office by 10 am most days. Mary and Jim employ a part-time nanny who collects the children in the afternoon, takes them home and supervises their homework and then prepares dinner for the family before leaving at 7 pm.  Mary is usually home by 8 pm.

Once a quarter, Mary’s boss – the Vice President of Business Services – takes his senior leadership team out to dinner.  He chooses an expensive restaurant and the team shares news about their departments and discusses ideas and developments.  It’s the only opportunity each leader has to showcase the good work each of their teams does and to influence the VP.  Mary is excluded from this event because her caring commitments mean that she can’t attend evening functions.  She has suggested that it be changed to a weekday lunch, but the VP does not want to take people out of the office when they should be working.

How can workplace rituals be fun and inclusive?

Like most things that promote gender equality, diversity and inclusion, there is no simple answer to this question.  If the majority of people enjoy going for a drink at the pub and nothing in their own cultural or caring landscapes makes it difficult for them to indulge that preference, then asking them to change this ritual to accommodate a few people who do have difficulty with it is unlikely to be well-received.  What leaders can do, however, is deliberately create other opportunities to include people in informal networking events who might not be able to attend the ritualised events.  This might be a lunchtime gathering over food.  Morning teas and afternoon teas are often good opportunities for people to talk and network.  The challenge is in making them casual and informal enough to encourage conversation.

Reviewing workplace rituals is also an opportunity to look carefully at what is considered ‘fun’ in a workplace culture.  Historically, ‘fun’ at work has sometimes involved demeaning behaviour towards groups of people, particularly women, and that is a cultural norm that many organisations are trying hard to change.

Some organisations are no longer serving alcohol at company functions to reduce the possibility that inappropriate behaviour might see them embroiled in legal action or their reputation damaged.  Other organisations have implemented a policy that all important meetings must start and finish between 10 am and 4 pm to ensure that people with caring commitments and those who work flexibly can attend.

Workplace culture and workplace rituals can drive a healthy, inclusive and respectful culture, or they can create an environment where people can be excluded from full participation in the life of the organisation because they do not fit with cultural expectations embedded in rituals like drinks after work or meetings held after hours in nice restaurants.  Organisations can adjust their culture and rituals by adopting proactive policies and activities that are deliberately designed to be inclusive.

Original post published by The Agenda Agency:  https://www.theagendaagency.com/blog/2017/12/13/how-do-workplace-rituals-affect-diversity-and-inclusion

4 practical ways employers can support employees experiencing domestic and family violence

By Linda Peach and Heidi Sundin

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can ring the Domestic Violence Line for help on 1800 656 463.  More information is available here:  http://www.community.nsw.gov.au/parents,-carers-and-families/domestic-and-family-violence/domestic-violence-line.

What is domestic and family violence?

Domestic and family violence is a violation of human rights, characterised by the intentional and systematic use of violent, abusive or intimidating behaviours to threaten, manipulate and control family members, intimate partners or former partners. Domestic and family violence can include physical assault, sexual assault, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, social abuse and financial abuse.  Abusive behaviour usually increases over time, meaning that without intervention, people who remain in these relationships are at risk of escalating harm as time goes on.[1]

There is clear evidence that gender inequality is the primary underlying cause of domestic and family violence, via a male sense of entitlement to women. Behaviours that signal a dominant attitude towards women (and others perceived to be weaker or subordinate) usually emerge in childhood.[2]

Approximately one in six women will experience some form of domestic and family violence in their lifetime. The NSW Police receive reports of around 125,000 incidents of domestic and family violence annually, and they estimate that more than double that number are not officially reported. The cost of domestic and family violence in NSW alone is estimated to be a staggering $4.5 billion each year.[3]

What are our governments doing about it?

The Federal Government released the Third Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 in 2016. The Third Action Plan, National Priority 1:  Prevention and early intervention places a strong emphasis on the need to embed gender equality in workplace culture, increase women’s workforce participation and economic security and to increase men’s involvement in efforts to improve gender equality and reduce violence.

The NSW Government Office for Women released the It Stops Here. Domestic and Family Violence Framework for Reform in 2014. In many respects, the “It Stops Here” framework provides a useful guideline for employers. It includes a range of strategic approaches including referral pathways to people who are trained in the most effective ways to respond; broad education of people about domestic and family violence, what to look for and how to respond; and a clear policy that embeds these actions in workplace culture.

How does domestic and family violence affect workplaces?

Domestic and family violence can have a range of consequences in the workplace.  If an employee is experiencing domestic violence, they may find it difficult to concentrate, may be slow to complete work, may have an increased number of unscheduled absences, and may find it difficult to cope emotionally with even small changes in their environment. They may have lost confidence in their abilities, may show signs of increased anxiety and/or depression, may become socially isolated at work or may be uncharacteristically moody or emotional.

Workplaces can become refuges for people who are experiencing domestic and family violence, providing a relatively protected place to escape from violence for a time. When employers also intentionally provide best practice support to people experiencing domestic and family violence, they have a better chance of limiting the negative impact on the workplace and on the person or people involved.

Someone who perpetrates abusive behaviour at home may not be readily identifiable at work or in any situation outside the home. Indeed, many abusers are charming and affable people outside the relationship/s they control. Abusers may also show similar signs at work as the person they abuse, such as increased absenteeism and reduced productivity. While the victim of abuse is most likely absent through injury or incapacitation, and may be less productive due to anxiety, fear, depression and emotional trauma, a perpetrator may have increased absenteeism and reduced productivity because they are perpetrating abuse through stalking or monitoring the victim during working hours.

Domestic and family violence can also affect the workplace if a perpetrator makes threatening phone calls or sends abusive emails or text messages to someone at work or makes personal visits to the workplace of someone they are abusing.[4]  Perpetrators may also use technology they have access to at work to perpetrate abuse against someone inside or outside their workplace. Abusers may also enlist colleagues in their workplace or their victim’s workplace as ‘enablers’, often first convincing them that they (the abuser) are the victim.

While there is a limit to what employers can do if they think an employee is perpetrating domestic and family abuse, they can take some steps. Paying careful attention to informal and formal complaints about workplace harassment and bullying, particularly when there are repeated complaints about one person from different people, and taking appropriate steps to deal with any issues in the workplace. Appropriate steps may include performance management, referring a person on to professional services or taking disciplinary action. A note of caution: as an employer, the focus of any action needs to be work-related, limited to providing practical support, taking steps to ensure the workplace is safe, and referring employees on to professional sources of help.

Four ways employers can support people in the workplace experiencing domestic and family violence.


1.    Make gender equality your goal

The link between gender inequality and domestic violence is unequivocal. Employers who work to embed equality in their workplaces will be improving the lives of women who work for them and contributing to the change in social attitudes that is needed for violence against women and children to be stopped. Develop and implement a gender equality strategy to ensure your workplace is free from discrimination, that women have equal opportunities to participate and progress, that there are no gender pay gaps in your remuneration structures, and that flexible working arrangements and support for people with caring responsibilities are workplace norms.

2.    Embed acknowledgement and response activities in policies and enterprise agreements.

Develop and communicate widely policies about how to support people in the workplace who are experiencing domestic and family violence. These should include clear roles and responsibilities for managers and senior leaders to support people in these circumstances. Policies should also specify how employees who perpetrate violence or abuse in the workplace are dealt with, linking in to bullying and harassment policies and procedures. Policies should include practical steps such as who to contact and what to do under different circumstances. Policies and enterprise agreements should include details of domestic and family violence leave provisions, creation of flexible working arrangements, and access to psychological services.

3.    Training

The first point of contact when someone is experiencing issues in the workplace is usually an appointed harassment and discrimination officer. Those designated people can be trained to specifically manage situations involving a person in the workplace who discloses they are experiencing domestic and family violence. Ensuring that harassment and discrimination officers can respond in the most effective ways possible is key to providing support.

In addition, all employees should have some level of training on how to appropriately support and work with people who are experiencing domestic and family violence. Managers and leaders should have more comprehensive training that focuses on how leaders in an organisation can engage in conversations about domestic and family violence and how to effectively and confidently manage situations involving victims, survivors or perpetrators.

4.    Technology

Technology that is available in modern workplaces can be used to perpetrate domestic and family violence. It is important that employers have a clear, concise and well-known policy on the appropriate use of information and communication technology that includes penalties for misuse, and specific information about misuse in perpetrating domestic and family violence.


Domestic and family violence is not only a personal or private matter; its prevalence and cost make it a whole-of-society issue. Workplaces can be impacted through absenteeism and loss of productivity, as well as potential threats to workplace health and safety. People who are experiencing domestic and family violence can be supported through workplace mechanisms, including policies and enterprise agreements that include specific provisions, formalised leave and access to flexible working conditions. Employers can also help to reduce violence against women and children in our society by making gender equality a norm, training staff and leaders to effectively respond to colleagues who may be experiencing domestic and family violence, and ensuring that all employees are held accountable for their appropriate use of an organisation’s technology.

Original post published by The Agenda Agency:  https://www.theagendaagency.com/blog/2017/12/12/4-practical-ways-employers-can-support-employees-experiencing-domestic-and-family-violence

Giving people a voice on your diversity agenda – conducting a diversity survey

By Linda Peach and Heidi Sundin

Understanding your organisation’s current state in relation to diversity and inclusion is foundational to any efforts to improve diversity and inclusion. Most organisations undertake a comprehensive consultation programme to determine where they could best direct efforts to improve diversity and inclusion.  Conducting a diversity survey is often a part of that consultation programme.

Diversity surveys come in various shapes and sizes and deciding what works best for your organisation will depend on a number of things.  Some questions that you should address before beginning the development process are detailed below.

What are you trying to achieve?

Diversity surveys usually seek to investigate three primary modalities – composition, attitudes and behaviours, and experiences.  Some surveys will cover all of these modalities and some will investigate only one or two of them. Determining which of them is most important for your organisation comes down to understanding what it is you want to achieve with your diversity survey.

Do you primarily need to know the proportions of your workforce who identify on a diversity dimension?  Do you want to know more about how people think, believe and behave in relation to diversity?  Do you want to understand more about what it is like for people who identify on a diversity dimension to work in your organisation?  Understanding which of these is of primary importance for your organisation is the key to developing a diversity survey that will be meaningful and useful.

What is the diversity composition of your workforce?

If composition is your primary concern, you will need to ask people to tell you about themselves in relation to the following diversity dimensions:

  • Age
  • Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Heritage
  • Gender (including Gender X)
  • Religion
  • Cultural background
  • Disability

What attitudes and experiences do people have of diversity in your organisation?

Once you understand the broad diversity landscape of your organisation, attention can turn to understanding how people think about and experience diversity in your organisation.  This can be a very broad field of questioning, so focus in on the things that matter most to developing your action plans and initiatives. If you want to understand the unconscious biases of your employees, then you will be getting into the realms of validated survey research that will need specific expertise to develop, run and interpret the findings.

If you are more interested in experiences, then including questions that give people an opportunity to talk about how they experience work as a member of a diversity group in your organisation is also very important.  For example, you may want to know if the lived experience of work is consistent with the organisation’s stated diversity objectives – how often people report feeling diminished or belittled at work because of their diversity status would be important in this context.  On the other side of this coin is how people who work in diverse teams experience work – what challenges do they face and how do they overcome those challenges?

Key considerations

One of the key considerations in any survey of this type is whether data will be collected anonymously or will be linked to employee records.  There are pros and cons to both methods.

Anonymous responding

When people are asked to volunteer information anonymously, they are more likely to respond honestly because they feel confident they won’t be identified. Being mindful of the potential consequences of breaching someone’s privacy around their diversity status is of paramount importance when collecting this information.

On the downside, anonymous responses may be less accurate and anonymity limits what you can do with the data.  For example, you may want to know whether last year’s salary increases are related to diversity status.  Asking people to volunteer diversity information anonymously negates the potential to do this kind of work with the data.

Volunteering information that is linked to employee records

If diversity data can be linked to employee data, it provides the opportunity to look at how diversity is facilitated or hampered in your organisation, from recruitment through the entire employee lifecycle.  This is important data to have if you really want to understand your organisation’s diversity landscape.

The downside of collecting diversity information that is linked to an employee record is that people who do identify with a diversity dimension may find it too confronting to disclose and this may limit the numbers of honest responders.


Engaging potential respondents through a carefully structured communications plan is essential to maximise response rates.  An effective communications plan will usually follow a pattern like this:

  • Three weeks before survey launch: Email and agenda item for senior leadership team asking for their support in encouraging employees to complete the survey.
  • One to two weeks before survey launch:  Initial email to all staff from senior leadership advising of the forthcoming survey, its purpose and the motivation behind it.  Usually accompanied by a piece in a company news bulletin, on the intranet etc.
  • In the week before survey launch:  Reminder email to all staff and to senior leaders
  • Survey launch day:  depending on the collection method adopted, either send an email to all staff with a link to the survey or send emails with personalised links.
  • One, two and three weeks after survey launch:  Reminder emails giving an update on progress.  Target to particular areas if able to identify where limited responses are happening.
  • Final week of survey data collection:  reminder – one week to go
  • Three, two and one day before survey closes:  reminders to complete the survey
  • After survey closes:  Thank you and broad overview of where responses came from.

You can also add creative elements to your communications roll out to create a buzz around the diversity survey.

Communications need to reassure employees that their data will be treated in the strictest confidence and that information about them will not be disclosed to anyone they work with or any third party is vital when using this method.

Taking action on the survey

Once you have the results of the survey it is important that the insights obtained be incorporated into your diversity strategy – and you take real action. The more your people see action resulting from the diversity survey the more engagement you will see over time – because not only are people being asked for their voice – they are genuinely being heard!

How can we help

If you are considering conducting a diversity survey, we’d love to help. Check out theagendaagency.com.

Original post published by The Agenda Agency:  https://www.theagendaagency.com/blog/2018/4/8/giving-people-a-voice-on-your-diversity-agenda-conducting-a-diversity-survey

Understanding attitudes towards gender equality and how they impact the workplace

By Linda Peach and Heidi Sundin

Stereotyping and prejudice

The most persistent and pervasive barrier to achieving gender equality in workplaces, and in society generally, is the attitude that people hold about it. In psychology-speak, people hold stereotypes about women and men and their expected behaviours and roles in life. Stereotypes start out as schemas or shortcuts to make sense of the world.  We learn to create schemas based on what we are told and what we experience. So a schema most of us have is that clouds in the sky mean it might rain. We have learnt this schema probably because our parents told us about what happens when there are clouds in the sky.  After we test this out for truth and get wet a few times, the schema reminds us to take steps to stay dry and warm. Sometimes it rains and sometimes it doesn’t, but the schema stays in place.

An obvious and widely-held schema about gender is that women are better at caring for people than men. The schema becomes a stereotype when we apply it to all women indiscriminately (i.e., all women are better carers than all men), and it becomes a prejudice when we use it to judge the behaviour of all women based on it (e.g., women who prioritise motherhood are ‘good’ women and women who don’t are ‘bad’ women).  So a woman who aspires to be a CEO may be passed over for the role because the people making the decision have an embedded schema that women are best suited to mothering, and – often without conscious awareness – they react negatively to women who do not conform to that schema.

We hold stereotypes and prejudices about men as well of course, which we apply in the same way – judging individual men based on whether they do things we think men should do (be strong and dominant, for example) rather than things we think are inappropriate for men (be gentle and caring, for example).  A man who aspires to be a nurse or a receptionist may be passed over for a role because the people making the decision have an embedded schema that only women are suited to this work. We all have unconscious biases (prejudices) about a range of things and while unconscious bias training can lead people to have an ‘aha!’ moment or two, it rarely leads to any sustainable behaviour change.

How to understand the beliefs that people hold about gender equality

As a general rule, we don’t talk about our schemas or prejudices with other people (except maybe in unconscious bias training) and often we have no real awareness of how much they affect our decision-making. This is one of the reasons why changing your recruitment practices is vital if you genuinely want to improve gender equality in your organisation – people who recruit on ‘gut instinct’ are always operating on a schema, and schemas can be wildly inaccurate, even though they make the person holding them feel comfortable.  Consider these two scenarios:

I’m taking my umbrella today because there are clouds in the sky. I know the forecast says there will be no rain, but I am taking my umbrella anyway, because I will feel safer if I have an umbrella with me today.

I’m not going to hire that young woman I interviewed for the position. She has a great degree and excellent experience but I felt more comfortable with the young man I interviewed, even though he had less experience.

In both cases, these people were making decisions based on how comfortable they felt rather than on objective facts (it isn’t going to rain today; she is a better candidate than him).  That’s how prejudices or unconscious biases work.

To understand the beliefs that people in your organisation hold about gender equality, you need to find a way to have that conversation or gather that information. It might be through a survey, focus groups, interviews, employee forums… there is a wide variety of methods you can use to find out what people think.

Tapping into attitudes and beliefs that lie outside conscious awareness requires in-depth knowledge and understanding of the behavioural theories and processes that underlie schemas, along with well-developed skills in how to devise questions or conduct focus groups/interviews that can reveal those unconscious belief structures, and how to analyse and interpret the data.

Someone conducting this kind of research might use validated scales and inventories such as the Harvard Implicit Association Inventory (IAT), or they may develop their own constructs and questions to measure them.  While many people use the IAT as a kind of ‘look-see’ at unconscious biases, the interpretation of results should only be done by someone qualified and who has a solid and deep understanding of the behavioural theories that underpin the tests.

What to do with your new understanding

Once you have undertaken some research that tells you about the attitudes your employees hold about gender equality, the interpretive analysis should identify the most common beliefs among them. This presents an opportunity to address these issues in the workplace. An ethical consideration at this point is whether an employer has the right to demand change in relation to an individual’s deeply held belief structures. An excellent rule of thumb is, ‘only in so far as they affect their behaviour at work’. Essentially, you are asking people to adopt a set of behaviours in the workplace that are consistent with your organisation’s stated values in relation to gender equality.  Whether they choose to adopt them outside the workplace is an outcome that employers can’t control.

Changing people’s attitudes and behaviour can be difficult, and it is not possible to design a half-day course that will lead to any sustainable attitude or behaviour change. For this reason, creating change in this space means taking the long view.  You might adopt a number of strategies to challenge traditional beliefs over time, such as:

  • Use deliberate gender flipping in communications – e.g., pictures of men doing parenting work and women doing construction work; receptionists called Bruce and engineers called Katie.
  • At ‘women’s events’, interview some men about how they balance work and family responsibilities
  • Review and change policies and procedures that allow or support traditional attitudes, particularly in recruitment, promotion and performance review.  For example, set up unambiguous guidelines around recruitment practices – shortlists and panels that must be gender balanced etc. Put checks and balances in place to help ensure fairness in the process. Create sign offs on the process as well as the outcome. These things may not change a person’s attitudes or beliefs, but they place controls around how those attitudes manifest at work.
  • Engage an expert in the field to undertake regular discussion forums with small groups of employees to talk about ways to change behaviours that affect gender equality in the workplace.

How can we help

If you are looking to better understand the beliefs and attitudes held in your organisation, and improve gender equality in your organisation, we’d love to help. Check out theagendaagency.com.

Originally published by The Agenda Agency:  https://www.theagendaagency.com/blog/2018/4/8/giving-people-a-voice-on-your-diversity-agenda-conducting-a-diversity-survey-by-linda-peach-and-heidi-sundin