Sexism still ripe in Australia

28 September 2016
Sexism is still a large issue in Australia, despite popular belief. Credit: Charlotte Cooper/Flickr
Sexism is still a large issue in Australia, despite popular belief. Credit: Charlotte Cooper/Flickr

In 2009, Professor Elizabeth Blackburn became the first Australian woman to win a Nobel Prize. In 2010, Julia Gillard became Australia's first female prime minister. In 2012, Jacqueline Freney became Australia's highest achieving athlete at a single Olympic games, winning eight gold medals at the London Paralympics.

Australian women are thriving, breaking glass ceilings and coming out on top. Surely, gender equality has been achieved. Surely, sexism does not still lurk in the shadows of Australian society.

Right? Wrong.

MediaDrive asked several women, aged from their teens to mid-50s, to share their experiences of sexism, and their responses revealed experiences ranging from mild assumptions of capabilities based on gender to blatant sexual harassment.

Dr Sandy Darab, a social and societal issues expert at Southern Cross University, defines sexism as discrimination or prejudice against an individual or a group on the basis of their sex or gender.

Whilst gender discrimination has diminished significantly compared to previous decades in Australia, statistics show that enough isn’t being done by the government to achieve gender equality.

In 2006, Australia ranked 15th on a global index measuring gender equality. By 2013, we had dropped to 24th, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

Sexism can take a number of forms, from assumptions about the types of work women and men should do, to inappropriate remarks about an individual’s body.

As one interviewee highlighted, it becomes difficult to hold sexist individuals to account because sexism is so ingrained in our society.

“One of the boys in the gang, being a hot day, decided to get the hose out and wet the girls’ t-shirts. I felt like I shouldn’t make a fuss because the other girls weren’t making a fuss,” the interviewee said about an incident at work.

However, the woman did take a stand, showing the man that his behaviour was not acceptable. 

Unfortunately, this experience is not unique. Sexual harassment is ripe in Australia, especially in the workplace, where a quarter of women were sexually harassed between 2007 and 2012, according to the AHRC.

Indeed, there have been multiple examples of sexual harassment reported in the media this year. 

In April, the Hotties of Melbourne Uni Facebook page was removed after a petition against the page created by a female law student went viral. The page posted pictures of female students without their consent, with comments sexualising the students.

In January, West Indies cricketer Chris Gayle caused outrage when he repeatedly made inappropriate comments to sports journalist Mel McLaughlin in a live television interview following his performance in the T20 Big Bash League, saying “Don’t blush, baby”.

However, sexual harassment is not the only form of sexism women face. In September, a male Twitter user was accused of 'mansplaining' physics to NASA astronaut Jessica Meir.

The user attempted to correct her tweet that said water spontaneously boils at the space equivalent zone, leading to an onslaught of responses on Twitter.

Tweet sent to NASA austronaut Jessica Meir

Twitter users accused the man of being condescending and highlighted the outrageousness of challenging a NASA austronaut that holds a PhD in Marine Biology and a Masters in Space Studies on her knowledge of thermodynamics.

Societal constructions of sexism

There are broader social constructions of gender discrimination that Dr Darab says Australia must recognise in order to tackle sexism. These can include pay gaps, parental responsibilities, and superannuation payouts.

In Australia, for the average woman to earn an income equal to her male co-worker, she must work an extra 66 days a year, according to AHRC.

On the same note, mothers spend twice as many hours caring for children than fathers, making those extra 66 days of work difficult to squeeze in.

As a result, superannuation payouts for women were just over half of what men received in 2009-2010, according to a study conducted by the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia Limited.

There is also unequal representation of women in positions of power, as Dr Darab points out.

“Look at the current [Turnbull] Federal Government. How many women do they have on their front bench?” asked Dr Darab.

“Despite the fact that women number roughly half the population, we have had one female prime minister (Julia Gillard) and her reign was peppered by sexist commentary that no male prime minister has been subject to.”

In particular, one incident in 2011 that gained wide media attention involved an anti-carbon tax protest outside of Parliament House, during which Tony Abbott addressed the crowd, while allowing protestors to hold up behind him misongynistic posters, reading 'Ditch the Witch' and 'JuLIAR...Bob Brown's bitch (sic)'.  

Increasing incidents such as this led to Julia Gillard's misogyny speech, in which she addressed the sexism that she was facing from the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, his party and the media.

"The Leader of the Opposition (Tony Abbott) says that people who hold sexist views and who are misogynists are not appropriate for high office. Well, I hope the Leader of the Opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation," prime minister Gillard said, during her misogyny speech in 2012.

"Because if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn't need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror."

These examples suggest that Australia’s social structures not only limit the capacity of women to prosper, but place women at a disadvantage and encourage broader perceptions in society that women are inferior to men.

This perception that women are inferior to men can having devastating consequences. As M. Caprioli highlights in his 2005 journal article Primed for Violence: The Role of Gender Inequality in Predicting Internal Conflict, gender inequality has been identified as a justification for domestic violence.

Indeed, According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one in three women have experienced physical violence.

In fact, domestic violence is now the leading cause of preventable deaths in women, more so than smoking or obesity, according to the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation.

Moving forward

However, women are publicly campaigning to end sexism in Australia and drawing attention to unacceptable behaviour. A number of individuals and organisations have taken the lead on tackling everyday sexism in society. 

Caitlin Stasey is an Australian actress and co-founder of Herself.com, a feminist website dedicated to empowering women and their bodies. The website features images of naked women, and includes interviews with each photographed woman.

The Facebook and Twitter account Destroy The Joint aims to highlight the frequency of female deaths in Australia as a result of domestic violence by keeping a running tally of the number of women have been murdered that year. 

There are also organisations such as The Everyday Sexism Project, who provide an outlet for women and men to share their experiences of everyday sexism, creating community awareness of these issues.

Dr Darab said that while inequality in the workplace has improved significantly, we still have a way to go.

“Today we have equal employment opportunities and equal pay legislation which is a huge step forward,” said Dr Darab.

“However, we also have a gender pay gap which is currently 17.3 per cent but has hovered between 15 and 19 per cent for more than two decades.”

In 2014, the number of women on the Boards of publicly listed companies increased by over 10 per cent, according to AHRC.

Every Australian can help fight sexism in our society. Dr Darab offered the following advice on how to combat the inequality in Australia:

"Affirm the worth of women and minority groups as the average Australian goes about their daily lives, educating their children and joining parties to progress gender equality.

"As long as these sexist discourses prevail, women will not have the same rights as men."