What it means to ‘demean’ in the workplace: ex MPs come clean on sexism in parliament

By Virginia Haussegger

Friday July 9, 2021

Julia Banks-sexism
Julia Banks in parliament. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

What does it mean to ‘seriously demean’ women in the workplace? It’s not a trick question. Rather it’s a new legal mind-bender that employers and lawyers will need to unpack, as it’s set to be included in updated sex discrimination laws.

But what constitutes ‘demeaning’ and at what point is it ‘serious’?

Is it the accumulation of several, small sexual innuendos or slights, that build over time to crack a woman’s confidence and sense of worth? Or is it a single, big, brazen action?

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Professor of Law Beth Gaze supports the new provision, but is worried it might raise the bar too high. “Demeaning is a reasonable test to use for workplace conduct,” she says. “But there is no need to require that the conduct be seriously demeaning. The criteria used in sexual harassment of being insulting, humiliating, or intimidating are actually sufficient.”

Right now gender experts and academics are grappling with more than semantics as they scramble to draft responses to the government’s rapidly moving Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021, tabled just 11 working days before submissions close today, Friday 9 July.

Why the sudden hurry to move this Bill along, when the government sat on Kate Jenkins’ [email protected] Report for an idle year, is hard to fathom.

Unsurprisingly, there are many in the women’s sector with strong but guarded views on the current urgency. However, former politicians are unencumbered by the need to be quite so guarded – about anything.

Despite the list of recommendations in the Jenkins report ‘noted’ and ultimately ignored by the Morrison government, there is one key change universally welcomed: MPs and parliamentary staff, along with judges, will now be subject to the same sexual and sex-based harassment provisions that all other workplaces are governed by.

So, what do we make of this additional protection to stop women being ‘seriously demeaned’?

 It’s pretty clear Julia Banks, who says the prime minister is “like a menacing, controlling wallpaper”, has a view about what sort of behaviour is demeaning, and what’s not. As do the growing number of female former MPs who have used their distance and time away from politics to do some deep reflection on what really goes on in parliament house, and how battle scared women who work there become when ground down by its inherently masculinised and sexist culture.

Thankfully, they are writing books and ripping open some, until now, well-buried truths about the “differential treatment given to women and the brutal sexism that lurks beneath Australian politics,” as Kate Ellis writes in her book, ‘Sex Lies and Question Time”, published in March.

Ellis’s account of the vile “pornographic, vicious and threatening” attacks Julia Gillard received as PM, and how the “hatred and misogyny was brutal, violent and constant,” is shocking in and of itself. But what is particularly interesting is her own reflection on what she and her colleagues failed to do at the time. “The important thing now is surely to reflect with the benefit of hindsight: how could we have prevented it? What should we have done?”

Even more fascinating is Ellis’s raw guilt over her own blindness to the misogynistic slurs and sexual harassment experienced by other women in parliament.

When Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young cries as she tells Ellis how “humiliating” and “demeaning” it was to sit through what felt like a daily Senate sport of slut-shaming, as the “creep” Senator David Leyonhjelm led a chorus of name calling, Ellis admits, “I had been so unaware of the extent of what she had been going through. It shows how hardened those of us in parliament have become.”

Julia Banks also reflects on what women sometimes fail to register, despite the blatant evidence right before their eyes, when they themselves are inculcated in a patriarchal culture mired in sexism.

“Not everyone sees the biases and discrimination that hold them or their colleagues back in their career trajectories, at every stage”, she writes in her book out this week, Power Play. “Sometimes it’s imperceptible. You don’t see it until you reflect back on it, or you subconsciously don’t want to see it.”

Perhaps the starkest example of that is former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Yes, she made one of the greatest feminist speeches ever delivered in a parliament, but some might say… it was a long time coming.

Gillard herself is acutely aware of how throughout most of her time in politics she appeared to play “the boy’s game”. As she writes in her recent book, ‘Women and Leadership’, “I accepted the parliamentary rules and norms rather than trying to change them.”

But her sharp, analytical mind has spent the years since leaving politics reflecting on those very rules and norms, and the powerful patriarchal roots that shape them. She has dedicated her work and research to shedding light on the structural barriers and cultural sexism that she didn’t quite understand when in early office. Now she writes, “I am a better-equipped advocate for women’s leadership than I was when I was prime minister.”

Banks goes on to detail a litany of blatantly sexist behaviours she was forced to endure.

And endure she did! I’m not sure I could remain quite so composed if the pudgy paw of a cabinet minister ran up my thigh while sitting in the PM’s suite. Nor could I contain myself when, as the only woman and single corporate lawyer on the parliamentary Economics Committee, about to enter a public hearing of the Banking Inquiry, one of the MPs fondled my knee as he stood up and announced to the group that he will take over my line of questions, because to have a woman speak would be “a bit too ‘burn the bra’ aggressive-ish”.

For some women that’s the moment we wish we had a thick head, big enough to head butt. (But I digress.)

Despite the jaw-dropping misogyny inherent in these acts and remarks, Banks acknowledges in her book that, “A lot of us have heard women say, ‘I don’t see any sexism’, And that may be a fact of their reality – but it’s not the reality for most women in the workplace.”

Which is precisely why books such as Banks’, Ellis’ and Gillard’s are such critically important contributions to our growing awareness and understanding of the extent of overt and covert sexism, bullying and harassment that women experience daily in all workplaces, including parliament house.

As this body of raw evidence and painful reflection mount, so too does a collective determination to dismantle it. End it. Reform it.

So, while lawyers may soon argue over what is seriously demeaning and what isn’t, it might be worth reflecting on how a simple sexist slight may be one man’s trivia but another woman’s daily trauma. She may forge on, but don’t be fooled.

Sexism sears the soul, of that there is no doubt.  

But, thankfully, the need for silence is over.


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