When David Bushby meowed at Penny Wong in Parliament, she quickly called it for what it was – a sexist slur and completely unacceptable. I bet that behind the scenes were men with boyish giggles and women with indulgently raised eyebrows and forgiving smiles as the sheepish shrugged off unnecessary sensitivity.
Clearly it was not a heinous offence because less than a month later, childish, sexist, Labor copy cat, Joel Fitzgibbon meowed at Julie Bishop.
Fitzgibbon’s sexist mockery of the deputy leader of the opposition was addressed with stern words by the Prime Minister, but it was given barely any coverage. We were implicitly encouraged to accept it as nothing more than thoughtlessness and ‘just’ another example of what we’ve learned to accept from the school yard nature of Parliament. There are, it was implied, far more important things to worry about.
It’s no wonder that most Australian men and women are blind to sexism. It gets smoothed over, or dismissed as not important, despite its impact on women, men, our communities, workplaces and institutions.
Sexism affects family dynamics, career expectations and opportunities for all. It also limits Australia’s ability to achieve its collective potential, increase national economic prosperity, and be globally competitive.
It’s unlikely to change when we reward men who remain boy-like for most of their lives.
I live, work and socialise with many great Australian anglo, and wanna be anglo blokes (like those who dominate senior positions and board rooms in public and corporate Australia). They range in age from their early twenties to their early eighties. They include the employed and unemployed in a variety of fields and at different stages of their working lives. They include professionals in senior leadership positions, academics, uni students, labourers, economists, lawyers, sales reps, public servants, builders, plumbers, doctors, retirees, teachers, consultants and artists.
These blokes all share an Australian larrikinism that is affable, light hearted and fun. I enjoy their company, am used to indulging and participating in their banter and teasing and find their playfulness fun and easy to be around. But the change agent in me is becoming deeply disturbed by it. The playfulness camouflages and subtly reinforces racism, sexism, and homophobia. When the behaviour or banter gets unruly or out of line, the offender is scolded, but because it’s inherently light-hearted, it’s accepted as nothing too serious.
But what chance do guys have to grow up and mature into men in this country?
As a nation, we idolise sportsmen of all types and badly behaved footballers. We revere rugged bush jocks (Steve Irwin and the Grylls guy who eats spiders and drinks his own urine) and go foot thumping mad over rock stars past their use by date.
We’re suspicious of intellectuals, scientists and entrepreneurs, and we dismiss artists as wankers.
We watch the aggressive intellect-free political debate that relies on one liners and one upmanship.
We’re fed pages about the sexual exploits of philandering and model attracting European Prime Ministers, written to invite envy and macho respect.
It’s no wonder our men don’t grow up. But while they remain in this perpetual state of immaturity, while we all accept it as the status quo, our nation won’t grow up either. Sexism and discrimination will continue, males will be over-represented in politics, boardrooms and executive suites and we’ll continue to watch nothing much change.