Leadership | Diversity | Inclusion

Ending everyday sexism

“Our sex discrimination laws and work place laws have contributed to a significant decrease in overt discriminations… But our progress has stalled and it’s time to discuss the attitudinal and systemic barriers that impede gender equality,” Human Rights Commission Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins has told a CEDA audience in Adelaide.

At the event, Everyday sexism, she described the topic as one “given little serious attention by employers”.

“It’s an experience that is very familiar to some, and invisible to others. Speaking out means being accused of ‘political correctness gone mad’, and much worse: victimisation and backlash,” Ms Jenkins said.

“It’s one of the hardest topics to discuss, as it’s perceived by some as too trivial.

“Everyday sexism comes into play in critical decision points in careers for men and women, influencing who to appoint, develop, sponsor, reward and promote.

“Speaking out against everyday sexism can have consequences for reputations, relationships and careers. Particularly when ‘getting’ the joke, or not rocking the boat, is an important part of fitting in and job success.”

Ms Jenkins explained these comments in relation to recent projects, working with the Victoria Police, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, the Defence Force and 39 universities across Australia.

The accounts from anonymous interviews and surveys within these organisations highlighted a range of alarming attitudes, including sexual harassment, bullying and exclusion based on gender.

Some of the comments expressed by participants in the interviews included:

“Recently a superintendent said: ‘Pregnant police women are like cows: they are useless and they should be chucked in a paddock’.” This comment was made as part of the research for the Victorian Police review into sex discrimination, sexual harassment and predatory behaviour.

“I was told I would only be considered for a job if I had my tubes tied.” This comment was made as part of the expert review into the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

“Every single time something is offered in terms of praise, promotion, opportunity – there is always a rumour. ‘It’s because she’s a girl.’ This comment was made from a member of the Defence Force.

“In engineering, university lecturers are overwhelmingly male and tend to dismiss women or talk down to them.” This comment came from part of the national survey of more than 30,000 students from across Australia’s 39 universities.

“The experiences in these four very different contexts exposed to me some very consistent themes,” she said.

Ms Jenkins said the themes included outdated stereotypes, which both negatively affect women and men. She also said they revealed how “ineffective a complaint mechanism is in tackling these smaller issues, but deflecting, laughing, silence and in-action exacerbates the damage.”

Lastly, she said the projects showed the “important role men, leaders and bystanders (i.e. all of us) play in eliminating everyday sexism”.