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Women have played by the rules for too long: Gillian Triggs

Gillian Triggs

Melbourne’s International Women’s Day gala witnessed powerful speeches by two prominent public sector women. Gillian Triggs urged women to push for change, while Gill Callister argued that men continue to define what’s acceptable in debates about sexual harassment.

The promises of earlier feminist movements have failed to materialise, former Australian human rights commissioner Gillian Triggs told IPAA Victoria’s International Women’s Day gala dinner, in a speech that prompted a standing ovation from the audience of about 1300.

“I always believed as I went to law school in the early 60s here in Melbourne that the future was ours,” she said.

“That once we had education, Australian women could move into the sunshine. That we would have that equality of opportunity that was guaranteed some years later of course in a Sex Discrimination Act.

“Unfortunately that has been probably one of the great disappointments of my life.”

While Australian women are the best educated in the world, pay disparities, harassment and family violence persist.

“We’ve absorbed the values of a male-dominated world, but we’re yet to receive the benefits. I think we’ve played by the rules for far too long. I’ve worn the pearl earrings and the snappy jackets, I’ve done everything that was required, but it isn’t breaking the cycle of disempowerment and poverty that traps so many women,” Triggs said.

“I think it’s time we rethought some of these rules, rather than play by the rules.”

She described the anger many women feel dealing with the structures and attitudes that hold them back in the workplace and elsewhere.

“I imagine psychologists don’t see rage as a positive response to frustration and disappointment. But there are occasions when incandescent rage provides the rocket fuel for action.”

She also emphasised the importance of remembering the suffering of women in places like Myanmar and Syria, as well as Australian women facing deep disadvantage, who were not likely to be sitting in the room at a corporate dinner.

“We simply have to use our power as women across society to take that message to Canberra, or to Spring Street, to be sure that we achieve genuine equality not just at the top, but throughout society for those women. We need to bring our sisters with us, we need to leave no woman behind,” she said.

Witch hunts and harassment

Department of Education and Training Secretary Gill Callister also gave a powerful speech reflecting on the allegations about powerful men that have surfaced in the past year.

“2017 really was a groundbreaking year, not just for individuals speaking up for their own safety, but for women everywhere being able to stand up and say, we are one,” she said.

“Throughout the years, out of fear for our jobs, and for our reputations, many women have made the conscious decision to say nothing if they were ever harassed or treated inappropriately at work, for fear of negative consequences.

“Some of the criticism of the #metoo movement has centred around women not lodging complaints in the moment, waiting for months or years or decades to come forward. But is it any wonder that so many women — so many women — have been reluctant to speak out when time and time again those brave enough to say something have their credibility attacked?”

“Can it really be that hard to fathom that women would be afraid to rock the boat when those around Harvey Weinstein have been protected for so long by the establishment? When men like Woody Allen who came out in the wake of the Weinstein allegations paying what some call lip service to the victims’ experiences, but also cautioning against a witch hunt atmosphere, where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself. Seriously.

“If only we knew that witch hunts were actually instigated by all-male inquisitions in the Middle Ages to burn women to death for defying men. We’ve had some of the most famous historical witch hunts that involve men burning women alive for alerting other women to avoid, for example, a particular farmer who kept exposing himself, or for coming out and saying they’d been abused by men in the village.

“Witch hunts have been used historically to silence women, protect men, and while it isn’t the 1600s anymore, it used to be like that and with poor-taste comments like Allen’s it’s not hard to see why women haven’t felt comfortable to come forward sooner.

“Closer to home, we only have to see the case of a woman who made a confidential complaint, only to see her name plastered across the morning papers almost immediately afterwards. Or when, in response to the Weinstein and more local identity allegations, a member of the Australian entertainment industry proclaimed in a public speech that he missed the 60s and 70s, when life was so simple, you could slap a woman on the butt and it was seen as a compliment, not sexual harassment. I’m not sure we all miss that.

“Or just recently when a man came to the defence of another prominent man accused of sexual harassment, claiming again he’d been the victim of a political witch hunt, that some of the claims are very light, that it’s about a hand on the knee, a kiss, a pat on the back. And insinuating that we have a responsibility to forget that sort of friendliness. And here’s the clincher, of course, it takes two to tango. And it does — when you’re dancing.

“Of course there’s never a power imbalance, or a large age gap, or a status difference that makes many women feel that they have no other option than to put up with the occasional hand on the thigh or pat on the backside. The issue I think with all these reactions from some very prominent men in the community in a range of industries is that they are defining what is okay.

“They all condemn extreme behaviour, yes, yet minimise the experience of the complainant. They’re defining where the line should be, not women. And they are implicitly critical of those of us speaking out. And maybe as women we have some different views about where that line is, and where that line should be drawn, but the point is it would be nice to be asked, not told.”

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.