The gender card, so we’re told, has been played by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. In the context of contemporary debate about sexism in public life, I’ve had a few interesting conversations lately about issues concerning women. These conversations have been with educated men with whom I usually enjoy excellent interaction. I have to say though that their thoughts about sexism and women in the context of the discussions we have had, did surprise me. Mostly, it seems to me that not just in the public sphere but also more broadly, so many men (and some women) can’t (or won’t) see the issues as so many women experience them.
I have asked myself whether, perhaps, I misunderstand my own experiences. That the current public debate about sexism has it seems captured the imagination of so many women indicates that I am not alone. In addition, there is a lot of evidence, including scholarly study, that would back me up. Why is it then, that the way that women experience sexism is not acknowledged?
The first example I offer is that of feeling invisible. This is notable in my industry of higher education, where the lack of women in senior positions remains an issue for Universities Australia. In my profession of law, women are likewise under-represented in senior positions despite comprising at least half the annual cohort of graduates.
I feel alien from the sports coverage in the mainstream media, where based on the lack of coverage of women’s sport it seems that women don’t engage in sporting activities at all. All we seem to see are reports of men’s sporting achievements. (Women’s sport makes up only 9% of sports coverage on television news and current affairs, while men’s sport makes up 81%.)
I feel invisible in so much of the language we use. In Man Made Language Dale Spender articulates clearly the way in which women are rendered invisible through linguistic devices such as the use of ‘he’ to include ‘she’. While in academia and indeed in many legal style guides gender-neutral language is the standard, I was surprised to learn of lawyers who continue to use ‘he’ in this way, saying that they do not see the word as implying exclusion.
I accept that there will be many for whom there is indeed no sense of exclusion – because they are men, and are not excluded. What puzzles me is why there is not a more widespread appreciation of how women and girls feel or might feel – namely, that use of language in this way perpetuates the understanding that this world is for and about men.
Employment on merit?
The second example I offer is the question of women’s employment based on ‘merit’. I will talk about employment and progression in the legal profession. I participated in a discussion following the publication of comments by Caroline Counsel, past president of the Law Institute of Victoria, suggesting quotas as a means by which to address gender inequality. A view was put forcefully that employment must be based on merit alone, the implication being that quotas would result in less qualified people (women) being appointed.
Without entering a debate about whether quotas are the correct policy to deal with gender inequality, I am rather more interested in learning about perceptions of what is a ‘merit-based appointment’. The implication in my discussions seems to be that either you can do a job, or you cannot. If you can do it, then you will be appointed regardless of your sex.
I am sure that there are many many women employed in a great variety of circumstances, having been considered on their ‘merits’. Many women however have not had this experience. This suggests that there are a few issues with using this standard.
First, just what merits are being measured? Applicants may have the same achievements on their resume, but ultimately, there may well be other attributes that are deemed attractive in a man, and not in a woman: assertiveness for example.
Secondly, what is the culture of the workplace in terms of its treatment of women who are employed there? Is the work women do devalued? Are women criticized for speaking their minds? Is there support for parental leave and a return to career afterwards? Are women paid the same as men for equivalent work? Are women harassed at work? Terry Hutchinson and Heather Skousgaard’s 2008 paper confirms the extent of discrimination experienced by women lawyers in the workplace in all these guises. The New South Wales Law Society’s 2011 project on the advancement of women in the profession indicates that women continue to experience their profession differently from their male colleagues. Merit does not seem to come into the equation – but being a woman certainly does.
In a similar vein, it seems that women lawyers are not offered the same opportunities as their male colleagues, presenting a further barrier to advancement. This is a story that is reported annually. As Caroline Counsel said, change is happening too slowly.
Finally, what is the representation of women in the upper ranks of the legal profession? And please do not tell me that we now have three women on the High Court of Australia… While this is fabulous news, and indicates that relevantly qualified women can, of course, successfully reach the highest office, it does not diminish the dearth of senior positions for women elsewhere in the profession.
So what does all this say about merit? Is it really possible that in spite of representing half or more of law graduates in Australia, that the majority of women lawyers have less merit than their male colleagues? That they are incapable of doing the same work?
I just find this impossible to believe.
What I find so disappointing though, is the attitude of those who seem not to listen to the voices of women who, because they are women, experience discrimination, harassment and worse. Perhaps if we spent more time listening to these stories with compassion, we could start to unravel the culture that promotes and rewards sexism – whether intentional or not.
What is your experience as a woman lawyer or law student?