Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.
When I was 18, my 30-something boss took us out for ‘team drinks’. If you’ve ever worked in a city office block, you’ve probably been out for team drinks: it’s where someone whips out the company credit card and you do shots on a Thursday night and vomit in a Myer cubicle while someone you only know from work holds your hair back. In my experience.
On this particular night we grabbed a booth in the dark corner of a basement bar. My boss insisted I sit next to him. Under the table he rested his hand on my thigh. I was rigid with fear, but … was it sexual harassment if you weren’t at work? Did team drinks count? Was I misreading it? Maybe he was just being friendly.
Half of the team were still at the table when he leaned over and said, ‘I’m going to use a red frog lolly to eat you out. It’s like having two tongues. It’ll blow your mind.’ I remember the force with which he squeezed my leg as he went on: ‘I’ll buy you a change of clothes in the morning, so no-one will know you haven’t been home.’
His girlfriend, who was also in our ‘team’, was metres away in the bathroom.
* * *
A study released by Sydney University in March of this year revealed that one in ten Australian women are sexually harassed at work.1 The definition of ‘sexual harassment’ is not included, but it’s irrelevant. Ten per cent of Australian women feel uncomfortable, compromised or at risk when they go to work.
Already marginalised women are much more likely to be harassed. Let’s rephrase that. Men are much more likely to harass already marginalised women. They sexually harass women who are culturally and linguistically diverse twice as often (16%), and they sexually harass women with disability twice as often (18%). The study doesn’t differentiate between cis and trans women, but other evidence suggests trans women are the target of sexual violence at a rate of about twice that of the wider population.2
Of the men surveyed as part of this study, 50 per cent thought men and women were treated equally in the workplace. Given the high rate of harassment of marginalised groups, there’s a statistical likelihood that some of these men think ‘we’re all treated equally’ while also sexually harassing the women they work with.
Can you hear our lack of surprise? More than one-third of us globally have experienced physical or sexual violence.3 According to this report, 34 per cent of women think gender equality in the workforce will remain the same over the next ten years. We will continue to be sexually harassed ad infinitum. Our granddaughters’ granddaughters will be swatting away their male boss’s hand while he ‘accidentally’ touches her arse on his way to the space microwave.
Wait, though. We legislated against sexual harassment at work, didn’t we?
* * *
In 1986 historian Helen Jones was commissioned by the South Australian government to write In Her Own Name, a book about life for women in colonial South Australia, as part of sesquicentennial ‘celebrations’. In it, she outlined the many ways in which women had been oppressed: Indigenous women routinely had their children taken away from them, and were forcibly displaced and institutionalised. Before women’s suffrage was passed, married European women couldn’t own land, had no rights to their own children, and were frequently abandoned without recourse.
But the last chapter of this book, optimistically subtitled ‘Towards Equal Opportunity’, describes Jones’s confidence that things would be different now. That this kind of prejudice and injustice was in the past, and that all women were just about to be equal. Late in the chapter, she describes the allegedly changing attitudes towards sexual harassment:
Parliament acknowledged that the ‘socially pervasive’ problem of sexual harassment had caused suffering and feelings of degradation for many women, for years beyond the event.
Once the Equal Opportunity Act had passed, in December 1984 … the way was opened for freer conditions for women in the workplace. The boundaries of acceptable behaviour and of responsibility were defined; discrimination was outlawed.4
‘The potential now exists’, wrote Helen Jones 32 years ago, ‘for equity of a kind barely envisaged by earlier South Australians.’ But they did envisage it. Everything was going to be different for women long before Helen Jones’s book. Right?
* * *
South Australia was only the second government in the world to grant women the vote, in 1894. At that time, politically astute letters began to appear in the local papers. From activist Mary Lee, ‘You tax her to support a government which she has no voice in choosing or rejecting.’ From pastor J.C. Kirby, a progressive man, ‘What is the history of the legal dealings of man towards woman, but one long history of robbery, tyranny, and brutal wrong.’ But Lee described herself as ‘once the slip of an old red-hot Tory stem’.5 Kirby was in favour of women’s suffrage but campaigned fiercely against sex work and secularism.
When these activists, and those like them, petitioned for women’s rights in the 1880s, they operated with a narrow field of vision. Much of the conversation around rights for women was that they should be granted to those who were landholders, those who were independently wealthy. In other words, those they believed could ‘contribute’. What they were asking for was not reform for all women—not for Indigenous women, who were also granted the right to vote but not the social encouragement; not for women living in poverty, who hadn’t the means to learn about their rights; not for women with disability, who were involuntarily hospitalised without release. They were middle- and upper-class women asking for their own freedom of responsibility, assuming that what all women needed was the same.
Unmarried mothers lived as social pariahs in destitution. Indigenous women had largely been murdered or forcibly displaced by Europeans before Adelaide was created, but those who did live there were almost all living in poverty. None of these women owned land. Many had come from the poorest parts of London and famine-stricken Ireland and their fortunes had not improved. While men widely and predictably objected to women’s suffrage, the women were campaigning unmaliciously for their own socioeconomic group, failing to consider the value of those who fell outside it. White women standing on stolen land, demanding equality without irony.
Almost 60,000 women enrolled to vote in South Australia in 1896, of a total population of about 150,000. What a progressive society! What exciting, permanent and profound change for women.
* * *
But we’ve made great strides, haven’t we? Doctor Who is a woman. Women prime ministers can Brexit. We have the Wonder Woman movie. We have AFLW. We have pink biros just for women and whisky glasses for our tiny lady hands.
And yet: 96 women were discovered in a Bangkok ‘sex den’ in January, forced into sex slavery from their homes in Myanmar.
And yet: in February Boko Haram kidnapped 110 girls from their school in Nigeria (although fortunately the Nigerian government announced in mid March that 104 of them had been returned home).
And yet: Indigenous women are 34 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of domestic violence than non-Indigenous women.6
And yet: one woman is killed in Australia every week by a partner or former partner. 7
And yet: violence against women and their children cost the Australian economy $22 billion in 2015–16.
Progress. Equal, lasting progress.
* * *
When Julia Gillard ‘[would] not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by [that] man’ in 2012, didn’t we all feel a little something in the wind? Didn’t we? A tiny, furious salve? Maybe, but between then and 2016 sexual harassment against women increased from 15 to 17 per cent. In a piece for the Guardian in 2017, Ruby Hamad and Celeste Liddle wrote: ‘Representation and diversity, for instance, can be important indicators of social progress. In feminist discourse however, they are increasingly served as substitutes for such progress’ (emphasis mine).
Understanding that intersectionality exists—that is, we are aware of the fact that some women also deal with oppression based on their race, sexuality, gender, ability, socioeconomic status and other factors—is not absolution. The ongoing, repeating lack of change for all women—not just the landowning, Christian white ones—is a failure of the law. Creating legislation to promote ‘equality’ instead widens the gap between those who already have it and those who never will under this system. Formal equality—creating rules and laws that ‘treat everyone the same’—fails to account for the diverse needs of different groups of women, and women who belong to multiple marginalised groups.
When the Equal Opportunity Act was created, it outlawed ‘discrimination’ as a concept. It didn’t legislate for the promotion and uplifting of women whose oppression was and is multiplied by intersecting oppressions. Proactivity is still missing in our top-down sociopolitical culture. There are no women of colour heading ASX 200 companies. Disabled women are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment at work. Queer women are still subject to three times the rate of violence of their non-queer counterparts. Indigenous women are overrepresented as victims of interpersonal violence. The Victorian government’s Equal Opportunity Act 2010, as the name suggests, is designed to protect people of binary genders from sexual harassment at work,
What is sexual harassment?
(1) For the purpose of this Act, a person sexually harasses another person if he or she—
(a) makes an unwelcome sexual advance, or an unwelcome request for sexual favours, to the other person;
That men are the main perpetrators of this kind of unlawful act, that men are almost exclusively responsible for intimate partner violence and criminal violence, is not a factor. That women of colour and disabled women are overrepresented in sexual harassment reports, for example, is not explicitly supported.
The argument for equity instead of equality is an old one, but it is equality that’s written into our legislation. It’s cries for equality that we hear from the men who say, ‘When’s International Men’s Day?’ It was the focus of the women who brought about women’s suffrage in 1894, and it’s still the call from white women, like me, today. Law and society both fail to account for the different distances women have to travel just to arrive in the same postcode of equality with other women, let alone the mountains they must traverse to reach the white dudes.
‘We’ change and celebrate that change, and we leave women behind. Quotas are put in place to create diversity in organisations, but they reach for the bare minimum. A white, abled, cis woman fulfils the quota without challenging the prejudices of the people in the other seats, almost all of whom are similarly white, abled, cis men.
These laws are reflected in wider society. While we push for everyone to be ‘equal’, the numbers are warped by women in top jobs, who are almost all white and straight. In 2017, the average income for a woman in Australia was $1388.70 per week, an increase of 3.2 per cent from the previous year. But if we break it down further, we find that Indigenous women earn only two-thirds as much as non-Indigenous women,8 and that refugee women find it more difficult to gain employment and housing.9
Of all marginalised demographic groups, it is women of colour who experience the greatest disparity in income, promotion opportunities, harassment rates, life expectancy, access to support services and education. Where these women are members of multiple groups, they will be at even greater disadvantage. This is not because a black woman should have less capacity to learn or work, but because we have made it so by sitting on our privilege pillars and considering ‘women’ as one homogenous group. The historical nature of feminism has been to lift up those women who need it the least. It is easier to shift ‘women’s rights’ forward one step and reflect on how clever we’ve been than to use the advantage we already have to work towards a more equitable future.
We need only look at the statistics that came out of the aforementioned study to understand how this happens. The lead stat is ‘one in 10 women are still sexually harassed at work’ but it doesn’t take much to uncover the fact that CALD women and disabled women are propping up this shocking figure. About 6 per cent of white, non-disabled women are sexually harassed at work. White women are closer to reaching pay equality with men than ever before, but the gap isn’t closing as fast for non-white women.
Sexual harassment of white, straight women without disability is decreasing. That means the Equal Opportunity Act is working. Doesn’t it?
* * *
In a recent interview on Helen Razer’s podcast Knackers & the Vadge, Melbourne academic Dr Shakira Hussein said, ‘I had not thought that feminism’s agenda was to empower women at the very top of the heap. I thought that feminism … was about attentiveness to women who were further towards the bottom of the heap and being trampled on.’
‘Trickle-down feminism’ has been unsuccessful for the same reasons as trickle-down economics—the women at the top become ‘more equal’ (to butcher George Orwell) and those further down the champagne pyramid get nothing. Our role as white women is not to fight ‘on behalf’ of further marginalised women, but to create space for their movements. Maybe not to write thousands of words in literary magazines but to support those women and their ideas and experiences and movements.
We have legislated against inequality but made no allowances for the perpetuation of the social structures that support it. Sure, it’s against the law to sexually harass someone at work. But it’s not against the law to continue to reinforce the structures that oppress her so that she’s too disempowered to report your sexual harassment to someone who can do something about it (and not just tell her ‘you’re the one who’ll lose your job, not him’). Yes, it’s illegal not to hire a woman because of her age but not to cut the government benefits that keep her in her home. Yes, it is illegal to make a decision about a woman’s body without consent but not to remove her access to a safe medical abortion. Yes, it is illegal to stalk a woman in her home but not to make her feel like she should be flattered, like it’s because you love her, like she deserved it.
Yes, it is illegal to murder a woman on the street but not to raise a son to believe it is her fault thanks to the way she chose to dress. Yes, it is illegal to discriminate against a woman because of the colour of her skin but not to live in a country where mainstream media vilifies non-existent African gangs. The law says you can’t ask an interviewee if they are pregnant. The law says you can’t attack a trans woman for choosing to use the bathroom labelled for her gender. The law says women should be treated equally in the workplace in a document literally called the Equal Opportunity Act.
‘We’ve made sexual harassment against the law’ has not prevented it from still being a problem for ten per cent of Australian women. We have substituted the law for social reform. That’s what keeps an 18-year-old woman in her first job from understanding what is sexual harassment, well before she even gets to report it.
When #MeToo, a movement created not by Alyssa Milano but by black woman Tarana Burke, gained traction in 2017, it wasn’t because there had previously been no legal recourse. It’s not legal to show your dick to a woman you work with, or to talk about her tits, or to fire her because she won’t have sex with you. But the law will only protect women from this behaviour insofar as they are a) empowered to use it and b) supported by it when they do. I have multiple friends who have spoken about their experiences of dealing with police after a sexual assault: doubt, disbelief, blame. The law was technically on their side, but only if they endured a character assessment apparently designed to make sure they would leave the station wondering if they had brought it upon themselves. That’s the law: you must not sexually assault a woman, but probably don’t worry about it if you do because she’s been socialised not to tell the authorities about it.
In the wake of #MeToo, in the months following loud and public proclamation of inequitable rights for women, Tasmania closed its only abortion facility. In the wake of #MeToo, after watching the most visible women in the world shout their experience in global television broadcasts, the Trump administration enacted an executive order enabling employers and insurers to object to women’s contraceptive coverage. In the wake of #MeToo, when women said ‘this time it will be different’, it wasn’t.
I thought a lot about whether my experience with my lecherous boss and his disgusting red frog gave me perspective to write about this. I’m a white, disabled, queer, middle-class, tertiary-educated woman. My voice is of the kind most frequently heard in this conversation. I have a platform for putting words into people’s brains.
But then I reckoned, I want to avoid being a woman going around in 2030 shouting, ‘Everything is good now!’ if it isn’t. I want to understand why people keep saying things are different when they’re not. We can critique our own ideas to understand how we benefit from these systems of oppression. Or we can keep repeating change.
Anna Spargo-Ryan has written The Gulf and The Paper House, and won the 2016 Horne Prize. Her writing has appeared in Meanjin, The Big Issue, Island and The Lifted Brow. She appreciates the support of the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria for this research.
- See <http://sydney.edu.au/business/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/348371/Women-and-the-Future-of-Work-Report_Final_060318.pdf>
- See <https://aifs.gov.au/publications/sexual-violence-and-gay-lesbian-bisexual-trans-intersex-and-queer-community>
- Helen Jones, In Her Own Name, South Australia: Cowandilla, 1986, p. 310 (emphasis mine)
- Susan Magarey, Passions of the First Wave Feminists, Sydney: UNSW Press, 2001, p. 31
- See <http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/latenightlive/crisis-of-domestic-abuse-of-indigenous-women/6442954>
- http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/latenightlive/crisis-of-domestic-abuse-of-rtner.See< http://www.domesticviolence.com.au/pages/domestic-violence-statistics.php>
- See <https://theconversation.com/census-2016-whats-changed-for-indigenous-australians-79836>
- See <https://www.ssi.org.au/images/stories/documents/publications/Final-SSI-Report-Women-at-risk.pdf>