May 12, 2007
The Canberra Times

Goward braves the habitat of the sexist parliamentary bear

It’s pathetic really. Laughable, if it weren’t so deplorable. But here it is: an overweight, balding politician sends a young, attractive, female journalist a voice message. He’s panting down the phone. It goes something like this, ”I saw you at the dinner last night. I didn’t come over and say hello. I just perved at you from a distance. You were the hottest thing in the room.”

She may be young, but she’s sassy and smart. She played it out loud for her colleagues and feigned a vomit. Everyone laughed. She was mildly irritated, but not offended. That’s just what it’s like around Parliament House. The ”hot” young things get used to it.

The not-so-hot older things get used to it too. But they’re not fending off sexual overtures or objectification. They’re dodging the chauvinistic jibes used against women to attack, undermine and detract. The taunts serve as a constant reminder of who runs the joint. The women of longevity in politics learn to put up with it. And perhaps so too will Pru. But I hope not.

Pru Goward has been around the block. She’s been a long time political journalist and later the nation’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner. She’s had plenty of experience of handling the grubby underbelly of Australia’s sexist psyche. She’s smart, tough and no longer ”cute” – by her own admission. Even her daughter, Kate Fischer, says she can be a ”battleaxe”. And yet not even the hide of a battleaxe was enough to protect Goward from being winded by the guttural sexism inside the political pit.

”I was quite shocked by it,” she commented this week, after just a day on the floor of the NSW Parliament. ”I have never worked in any profession as male-dominated or as ruthlessly sexist as this,” she said.

In New South Wales, it’s not just a pit, but a ”bearpit”. And they’re proud of it. The place reeks of old timber, sweat, testosterone and grandpa’s carpet. It’s a man’s house. The games inside are played by boy’s rules. Always have been.

And, unless Goward takes courage and leads the charge, they always will be.

What Pru Goward said this week was spot on. Women with experience of parliaments right around the country know that. Politics, as Goward said, is ”particularly male- dominated and extraordinarily chauvinistic, in a very primitive physical way.” Goward went on to say she ”didn’t expect people to still behave like that”.

The fact that Goward’s response to her initiation in Parliament came out as a raw gasp, rather than as a well considered press release, speaks to how bad things really are. Goward is nothing, if not strategic. Had she planned an onslaught against sexism in politics, she would have waited, taken notes, and when ready named names. Instead, she was genuinely shocked, and said so to a group of women at a leadership forum. The comments were never intended for public release. But now that it’s out there, women across Australia are hoping Goward will not shy away from pressing home the point.

But she’ll need more than a tough hide. Already the former advocate for gender equity has been shouted down. One commentator – a woman – called Goward a ”pansy”, suggesting she should ”get out of the kitchen”, if it’s too hot. She’s been castigated for giving women a bad name and ”demeaning their ability to cope in the real world”.

Extraordinary, isn’t it, how some are so willing to accept appalling displays of sexism and chauvinism as the ”real world”? It may be the reality, but that doesn’t make it right, or acceptable. What hope has

Treasurer Peter Costello got of wooing women back into the workforce when women are constantly made to feel unwelcome? Women must either ”fit in” – to the male rhythms and rants – grin and bear it, or get out. Accepting a bit of sexist sledging or sexual harassment is too often dismissed as an occupational hazard – to be copped on the chin.

The only way Australia’s antiquated chauvinism will demur and give way to a more sophisticated culture – inclusive of women – is if high profile women like Pru Goward speak up. We need the wisdom and spine of older women to help lead this charge.

The young hot chicks who field the worst of the sexual overtures in parliament houses around the country are less likely to make a noise. And the reasons for that are complicated.

When, some years ago in another place, a politician who went on to become a senior state minister pinned me up against the party room wall and, reeking of alcohol, slobbered down my neck, I froze. Later I said nothing and made no complaint. I warned other women to steer clear – but that was it.

As a journalist I had a job to do, and at the time was one of few women doing it. The last thing I wanted was to be isolated as a complainant, a ”victim” and as someone who couldn’t take ”the heat”. And at my core I was intimidated.

Perhaps now young women fending off the sexual overtures of pudgy politicians are less intimidated and more immune. There is no doubt Generation Y girls have grown up in a climate of rampant raunch culture, where sexual displays are overt and unsubtle. Perhaps that makes them tougher and better equipped to handle lecherous sexism.

More likely, however, they don’t yet understand that this is the language of power in the workplace. And being the object of someone’s lust is not the same as being considered an equal player.

Pru Goward may have felt a sexist punch heavily this week. But given her long track record, she’ll spring back – with strategy.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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