"The standard you walk past is the standard you accept"

What standards will the PM set?

Dr Diann Rodgers-Healey

“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept” said former Australian Army Chief, Lieutenant General David Morrison in 2013 in his address at the United Nations International Women’s Day Conference.

Recent and ongoing shocking revelations of the misogynist sexist treatment and sexual abuse of women in Parliament House including Brittany Higgins’ rape allegations and the revelations of male coalition staffers circulating videos of themselves masturbating, show behaviour and attitudes to be  imbued with standards of utter disrespect and sexual objectification of women.

Such behaviour does not emerge in environments where espoused values conducive to respecting the agency and autonomy of women are upheld. Environments where leaders sustain and validate behaviours aligned to these values, prevail with cultures that uphold norms of appropriate conduct in mindset and engagement, making such workplaces authentically inclusive, catalysing power that is equal and shared between women and men.  The Australian parliament is apparently not such an environment.

For any fraction of such behaviours to manifest in any workplace, it would point to the degradation of many critical aspects. Firstly, and more obviously, it highlights a breakdown of leadership that is aligned to principles of integrity and accountability as toxic behaviours against women have not just remained unchecked, but have flourished. The extent and scope of the revelations of sexism and misconduct in Parliament testify to an undercurrent of norms that dictate what standards have been unchecked and endorsed indirectly or directly.

Secondly, given that culture takes time to evolve, it highlights that the misconduct and criminal behaviour that we are hearing about now, has taken shape over many years. In any organisation, over time, what is endorsed to support the vision of the organisation shapes what behaviour is desired and admissible. If that which subverts espoused norms covertly and overtly, remains unchecked by the leaders, these undercurrents over time gain momentum and overtly become the established norms.

Sexism has remained unchecked in the Australian Parliament for many years. The sexism that Australia’s first woman prime minister, Julia Gillard endured in parliament from 2010 to 2013, and  that women politicians in 2018 revealed, cumulatively point to a long history of sexist standards of conduct, privilege and career advancement, that have become the norm, despite women protesting. This attests to Parliament having a male-dominated hierarchical culture of power that protects those who practice sexism and misogyny overtly and covertly. Against this entrenched culture, women in parliament continue to fear the consequences of disclosing perpetrators and bullies necessitating laws being recently passed ensuring witnesses who come forward with evidence to the inquiry led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins to be allowed confidentiality. Against this backdrop, no action has been taken to address either the findings of a 2018 national survey revealing how common sexual harassment in Australia is, or the 55 Recommendations of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ Respect@Work report released in 2020. One of the report’s recommendations is to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to ensure “the objects include to achieve substantive equality between women and men,” that “sex-based harassment is expressly prohibited and “creating or facilitating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating or offensive environment on the basis of sex is expressly prohibited.”

Thirdly, as Parliament is the highest office in the nation for some of the brightest of women and men, the sordid revelations reveal that in this workplace there are gendered tiers of agency and autonomy that frame ethical governance of processes and conduct in favour of masculine norms and power as domination.  Having no independent complaints mechanism, no parliamentarian code of conduct for staffers, and no HR department has advantaged those in power while the critical focus remains on “political considerations above everything else.” A culture of silence and obfuscation has become the norm to tactfully sideline allegations and disclosures of sexism, to confuse and to evade addressing questions seeking the truth.

The Prime Minister and senior government ministers did not publicly address the women in Canberra who rallied outside Parliament House and were part of the thousands of women who marched for justice across Australia. Nor did they address the March4Justice petition signed by 22,000 people demanding action on gendered violence. These are potential momentous turning points for gender equality and the fair and equal treatment of all women in all workplaces. The government is now leading the enculturation of stereotypes and attitudes about women as it hails that women can speak up freely about sexism, but whether their verbal and written demands for change to do with this, will be listened to and addressed, is a judgement made by those in power.

With every new sexist revelation, the PM has started walking past the standards that he is willing to accept. Will he heed the uproar that is challenging what our parliament should not stand for under his watch? Will he, as the current head of the government in Australia, lead substantive structural and cultural change for a gender equal workplace and address the sexist allegations and misconduct that have been raised during his term?

The time for action is now.

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