March 8, 2013
The Age

Stop pussyfooting, time for women to roar!

I guess I had it coming. A fat, black, rubber penis slapped down on my desk. I had complained that the male reporters I worked with were unfairly assigned all the ”hard news” and international stories, while female journalists were left with the fluff.

So there the stinking thing sat, erect and bobbing in my face.

Shocked? You bet I was. Offended? Utterly. Moved to tears? Ditto. But did I cry? No way. It was a ”grow up, baby” moment.

There were plenty of those back in the heady world of commercial television, some 20 years ago.

And the penis gag was only the beginning. Next I was told to shorten my skirt (not a gag), then sent overseas to film a beauty pageant.

But none of that was a surprise. My recruitment to that network had begun with a boorish lecture from a revered TV executive about what a waste of money it was to hire women, ”who just go and have bloody babies”. He insinuated those breeders on the ”corporate tit” should pay for the privilege of working.

Roll two decades forward and it’s impossible to imagine such a conversation – or the fat penis prop – happening now. These days I look around our workplaces and am awestruck by the gutsy strength, talent and expertise of the young women around me. It’s a joy to muse on how incredibly far we’ve come.

And then reality hits, like a drone.

Despite several decades of workplace legislation and the institutional scaffolding now in place – shaky and imperfect as that may be – Australian women are failing badly to share work and power with men. Our participation in the workforce remains weak, with an exceptionally high rate of women working part-time. And our progress into positions of leadership and power remains abysmal.

These are painful admissions. But the legacy of International Women’s Day demands a few home truths. And lately I’ve begun to feel as though I’m watching a fast-forward march towards the past, as I witness brilliant, well-qualified, exceptionally hard-working women opt out and give up. Commemorating the 10th anniversary of my now infamous column in these pages, ”The sins of our feminist mothers”, writer Nicolle Flint recently questioned whether I had ”caused a generation of women to regress in the workplace just when women were gaining a collective foothold”. (Lucky I wear a bulletproof vest. But yes, I still felt the blow!) She goes on to suggest that perhaps educated young women heeded my warning ”so thoroughly [that] their careers have been sacrificed for children”. While I sympathise with Flint’s passion and her point, I don’t accept her premise.

My call to young women to be aware of the short window on fertility and to consider the consequences of their choices was in order to encourage serious consideration about how best to strengthen, plan and enhance their careers. Not scuttle them.

Nevertheless, the sad truth is we haven’t come far at all. And ”having it all” – or not – is not the problem. It’s the diversion. The real issue is our own failure to demand and take what we’re owed.

The hugely anticipated book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, one of the world’s most successful female executives and COO of Facebook, doesn’t hit US bookshops until next week, yet already it has been widely trashed for suggesting women need to do more to ”lean in” to their careers and pursue their ambitions.

Sandberg’s book, along with her ”Lean In Circles” spawning across cyberspace, urge women to exert greater confidence in the workplace, and stop ”leaning back”. She argues that women demur in salary negotiations; say too little in meetings (or too much); fail to push for promotions; and – most importantly – put a lid on their ambitions once they become pregnant or even begin thinking about having a family.

With her $23 million annual salary, it’s easy to hate Sandberg. And many women do. Particularly given she appears to blame women for their career shortfalls, rather than the other things we’re more comfortable blaming, such as institutional obstacles and gender bias. Thorny as it is, Sandberg has a very good point. However, here in Australia we need to do much more than ”lean in”.

Sexism is so deeply entrenched in our national psyche, and male chauvinism so rampant, we hardly even notice the ubiquitous control men wield over every aspect of women’s lives. It’s not just our workplaces but our universities, parliaments, media, military, courts, churches, councils, banks, shopping malls – just about every major national institution and industry is run and controlled by a majority of men.

How is it possible that after 50 years of second-wave feminism we have made such little progress? How is it that despite all the mechanisms in place to ensure gender equality, and laws that ban the kind of nonsense I was subjected to as a cub reporter, women are still so under-represented in leadership and wield such little real power?

A clue to the very uncomfortable answer lies deep within women ourselves, and the messages we have internalised from birth about gender roles. Our own unconscious bias feeds foolish but deep-rooted notions that a woman’s role is to support, while men lead. We too readily accept that power and authority is something invested in men, whereas women provide care, nurture and collaboration.

And when a woman strays from these ”norms”, she is quickly vilified as abnormal or worse – a barren bitch who’s out to ”destroy the joint”.

Of course, to suggest women are partially at fault in their own downfall – and need to toughen-up – is akin to feminist heresy. I just hope the energy of feminist anger will focus on the right target. The real target.

Australian males get more of everything. They get more attention. They get more pay – even as first-year graduates. Men have more chance of being full-time employees. They have a 97 per cent greater chance of being a CEO or chairman of an ASX 500 company and 91 per cent greater chance of being a senior executive.

They even get to watch more television, as women do two-thirds of the housework. When men get so much more – of everything – forget about leaning in.

It’s time to roar out! Enough! And perhaps slap a few fat penises back where they belong.

Virginia Haussegger is a journalist and author of Wonder Woman: The Myth of ''Having It All''.

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