Why We Won’t Go Back: A Snapshot Of Workplace Sexism In Australia

“If the kind of things that get said in Australian boardrooms were said in the US, that meeting would be shut down and that person would be sent straight to HR.”

It was the first evening of product manager Katrina’s company conference and the CEO had just started the presentation.

“It began with a woman’s naked silhouette and went downhill from there,” she says. “The company had paid an actress and filmed her sucking on a lollipop and talking about having sex with a piece of equipment our company distributed.”

Katrina had just returned from a week-long work trip to the U.S., feeling positive about work for the first time in years.

“On my last day in the States I’d looked around the room and realized there were all these women in senior positions, something I’d never experienced in Australia,” she says.

“Not only were there more women but they were also quite different — it was OK for them to be who they are, they didn’t have to adhere to any stereotype.”

And it’s not only women who were ‘allowed’ to be themselves in the States, says Katrina.

“The expectations on men to be masculine are very different. In the States men are allowed to be more effeminate than they are here.”

Susan Ainsworth, an internationally recognized expert in gender within organizations and a professor at The University of Melbourne, agrees that gender roles for men are too narrow within Australian corporate culture.

“This is important — we need to make it OK for men to behave in ways that might be considered traditionally ‘feminine’, like taking time off to care for children and sharing the household responsibilities. Change for women also means change for men.”

As she sat in the conference with her colleagues watching the trainwreck on screen, Katrina started mentally sending her CV out to U.S. recruiters.

“In Australia you get the sense that what you look like matters. Managers would talk about hiring only attractive women because ‘they worked better with clients,’” Katrina says. “It was openly discussed what the women on the team looked like and they were ranked among other people who worked in the company.”

The last straw was when the CEO put up a mock Aston Martin ad of a woman in a G-string. “She was bending over with one leg up on a bench with the tagline, ‘You know it’s been used before but do you really care?’”

When Katrina confronted her boss later that evening, he was confused as to how anyone might find the presentation offensive.

“If the kind of things that get said in Australian boardrooms were said in the U.S.,” says Katrina, “that meeting would be shut down and that person would be sent straight to HR.”

In Australia, however, Katrina’s HR rep was part of the problem.

“The HR representative enjoyed being part of the whole boys’ club. She aspired to be [like them] and the CEO was her mentor.”

Professor Ainsworth says it’s not unusual for women to take part in sexist behavior at work as a survival strategy. “Women may have less power and try to fit in to an existing corporate culture or risk being marginalized and stereotyped themselves.”

Katrina adds: “It would be one thing if it was unusual for that workplace, but I think it’s pretty reflective of Australian culture.”

Too often, says Professor Ainsworth, senior managers fall into the trap of ‘The Boss’s Illusion’ – “They think everything is OK because, from their perspective, it is.”

Personally speaking, I’ll never forget being a fledgling yoga teacher years ago at a Fitness First induction. The facilitator showed us pictures of the board members and explained that the only woman on the board had just gone on maternity leave. “So I guess that’s the trouble with having women on boards,” he said.

To my shame, I said nothing.

“Sexism can be subtle. You’re not always sure how to vocalize it, or recognize how you might even be contributing,” says Katrina.

After Katrina confronted her CEO, several others also complained. “They eventually made some very poor efforts to deal with it, but you could tell they were only doing it because there was so much evidence of systematic sexism that if they didn’t appear to be doing something, that they would have a bigger issue to deal with.”

Alice Williams is a Melbourne-based writer and teacher. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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