Making sure that Sheila can have a fair go

The Aussies I’ve met are generally good natured enough to lightheartedly laugh at a foreigner putting on an Australian accent and asking for another shrimp to be put on the barbie. It is generous of them given that they actually call them prawns, not shrimps, and what us foreigners are parroting is a tourism advert aimed at Americans who do use the word shrimp.

My grandfather would often call women “hen”, a particularly Glasgow term of endearment. He may also have used lassie, and you may still hear people talking about lassies even though, nowadays, it would be rare to hear a specific woman being addressed as “lassie”. Similarly, I’ve never heard a woman in Australia be called “Sheila” who isn’t called Sheila – and in fact I’ve never met a Sheila.

Maybe the time has passed when it would be appropriate to call women “hen” or “sheila”, and as my mother says “she” has a name, implying that it may be polite to use it rather than a pronoun, and better than using a name given generally to all women.


Rosie Batty, Australian of the Year 2015

The prominence of gender equality as an issue has surprised me since I arrived in Australia, aided by Rosie Batty being named Australian of the Year at the same time. Australian of the Year is not an award for deeds done in the past year but more a title given for the year ahead to promote the issue(s) that the person is most closely associated with. Rosie Batty had become a famous campaigner regarding family violence and women’s equality after experiencing sexual, physical and mental abuse from an ex-partner who also killed their son.

The public debate and consciousness of women’s inequality and its link to violence against women had already developed but with Rosie Batty as Australian of the Year, politics and media focussed on it even more. Prime Ministers Tony Abbott and then Malcolm Turnbull both identified inequality and violence against women as important issues and in the State of Victoria, where Melbourne is, the State Government established a Royal Commission into Family Violence.

Rosie Batty is not an isolated case. On average, at least one woman a week is killed by a partner or former partner in Australia and one in three Australian women has experienced physical violence since the age of 15. You may find these statistics shocking but you shouldn’t find them surprising even if you live in a different country to Australia. The World Health Organisation estimates that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence in their lives. In the UK, an average of two women every week are killed due to domestic violence.

My job involves me in this issue and my organisation runs programs to prevent violence against women and support those who have experienced violence so I’m am certainly more aware of it as an issue than when working in the UK. There, I don’t remember violence against women ever being talked about to the same extent and I didn’t expect it to be more prominent in Australia where there is a celebration of mateship and blokiness. Despite the celebration of these and other masculine characteristics, such as directness and ruggedness, gender equality and its relationship to violence against women is part of the national social and political discourse.

This conversation has been spurred by campaigners such as Rosie Batty but also events that have provoked discussion and highlighted inequality, sexism and violence. Cricket is Australia’s national game and the Big Bash league attracts top international cricketers like Chris Gayle. Being interviewed on live TV after having just batted, Gayle asked the interviewer out for a drink after the game, saying he wanted to interview her and then told her not to blush “baby”. The TV channel initially tweeted that this was a “smooth” approach despite the interviewer being visibly uncomfortable.


Smooth? Maybe condescending and belittling. You can tell who the joke was meant to make laugh – him and his teammates right behind, at the expense of the interviewer.

Next, the President of Collingwood AFC and media presenter, Eddie McGuire, joked that he would pay $50k to see a particular female journalist stay under a pool of iced water and an extra $10k for somebody to bomb her (jump in near her). And the epitome of Australian blokiness, Sam Newman, who presents The Footy Show, has asked his female co-presenter at various times if her dress was see-through; if she would be under him; to get down on her knees; to lie naked on the table; and other comments designed to make her feel uncomfortable and derided.

This could all be brushed off as blokes being blokes on a show for blokes, but the effect of this blokiness on women is inferred by the recurring question put to Rebecca Maddern (the co-presenter). Will she will continue working on the show because of the ridicule that she is subject to? That it is a reasonable question to ask, and one that elicits surprise when Maddern says she will, illustrates how women can be pushed out of jobs that they may otherwise want to do.

There are some in the Australian Football League who are serious about promoting the game as a game open to all, and games generally are family-friendly with opposing fans sitting among each other without harm. Except, if you are a woman in Perth who asks a man to tone his language down and you end up being punched in the face. Hopefully, a more significant influence will be the success of the new Australian Football League for Women which has kicked off this year with thousands of spectators and good TV coverage. My neighbour has said his daughter is already talking about a new career path opening up for her.


Unfortunately, Government often lags behind changes in social attitudes and the Australian government, whilst supporting people who have experienced family violence, do not seem intent on creating gender equality, which may help create a culture where women are respected in the first place. The Abbott government charged mothers as being “double dippers” who were “rorting the system”. Mothers were cheats because parents who received a parental leave payment from their employer could also receive a parental leave payment from the government, which is available to all. The cheat was accepting something that the Government had told them they should receive. The attack on mothers also revealed the Government’s assumption that they expect women to always be the main parent caring – the benefit is actually open to fathers too if they are the main parent caring.

The government’s change in policy was despite parental leave and parental leave payments in Australia being among the lowest of all wealthy countries. Other countries recognise that women are more likely to be affected by the loss of earnings, promotion opportunity, and pension contributions that comes with parenting. Prime Minister Turnbull has compromised a little but when woman are absent from decision making roles, the biases can cause attacks like the above and bizarre policies such as tampons being taxed as luxury items.

The clash between Australian blokiness and a changing understanding of what men and women should be able to do had a lightning rod when Julia Gillard became the first female Australian Prime Minister. Gillard was subjected to pretty vitriolic comment that often went beyond her professional role to attack her personal life, culminating in her being asked live on radio if her partner was gay because he was a hairdresser. A male prime minister would not have been asked that question nor treated more generally in the same way, and the question itself would not be asked of a female hairdresser.

Australian blokiness will continue to clash with a growing understanding of gender equality unless it begins to redefine what it means to be an Australian bloke – what should an Australian bloke be able to do? But considering the role of men is only half the story, or even less when we consider transgender people as well as women. What women and transgender people should be able to do needs to be redefined in Australia; and the redefinition could start by considering another Australian value – giving everyone a fair go.



This entry was posted in culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Making sure that Sheila can have a fair go

  1. Pingback: Mateship and diggers: will ANZAC values survive as Australian values? | Stories of Australia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s