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#MeToo takes "two steps forward, one step back"

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Despite the rise of movements including #MeToo and #TimesUp, social commentator Jane Caro warns women still have a long way to go to fight the “great, heavy, oily, sticky, obnoxious, toxic beast” of misogyny.

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For example, what chance does a young woman starting out in journalism have of not experiencing gender-based discrimination in their career?

“Zero chance,” Caro says.

The prominent feminist, television guest speaker and publisher of 10 books – including novels Just a Girl and Just a Queen – is a key speaker at this year’s Adelaide Festival of Ideas, which started last night.

Caro will join journalist Nina Funnell for what’s plugged to be a “gloves-off discussion” on the future of the #MeToo movement.

“I’m sensing there is an improvement in making the workplace safer for women and for the vulnerable and there is an improvement in making the workplace less safe for those who would exploit power or be predators, if they got half a chance,” Caro says.

“I may also be seeing an increase in the desire to discriminate on the basis of gender with some male employers – not only male but predominately male – saying, ‘Well I’m much less likely to hire a female now because it’s all just too difficult and I worry too much about her taking something the wrong way.’”

It’s a situation Caro describes as a “two steps forward, one step back” approach to achieving gender equality. Despite optimism about the #MeToo movement, Caro says there isn’t a magic wand to make sexism disappear overnight.

“You just have to keep pushing that great, heavy, oily, sticky, obnoxious, toxic beast back and back and back and as you push back in one place there will be a leak somewhere else. That’s just the way it is.

“As women make gains, such as the gains they’ve made in Ireland very recently with abortion and in New Zealand with the safe inclusion zones around abortion clinics, the backlash has grown in intensity and ruthlessness.

“I fear the closer women get to actually wielding half the power, the dirtier and the nastier the fight will get and I think we have to be prepared for a real fight for our rights, to hold onto them.”

Walkley award-winning journalist Funnell, who has written extensively on sexual assault and abuse in Australia, says such a fight is already playing out in the media.

She says she has faced multiple defamation lawsuits and at one point was close to facing prison for reporting on university staff members who had allegedly raped students.

“What we’re seeing in Australia with the #MeToo movement is that even just by threatening to sue for defamation, what that’s doing is it’s scaring off other women from coming forward and telling their stories because they know that they could also be named in an action,” she said.

“Ordinarily in defamation cases, an individual might go for the deep pocket – the media outlet – but I’m certainly familiar with cases now where the individuals that have been accused of sexual harassment, sexual assault or cover-up of those things have now also included within their defamation claims the specific whistleblower.

“Of course it’s stressful and frankly it makes me really angry because I think it compromises the capacity of journalists to do their job as speaking truth to power and holding institutions and others to account.”

So, where is the media industry headed with the #MeToo movement given its influence over public discourse and debate?

“It’s a domain in which men are under less scrutiny,” Caro replies.

“Like all domains, men are allowed to make mistakes and be forgiven for them. You don’t have to be perfect to get ahead as a man, in fact, you can be Donald Trump, you can be the biggest fuckwit on earth to get ahead if you’re a male.

“In contrast, women have to be virtually perfect because any mistake will be blown out of all proportion and held against them and used as an awful warning that women don’t cut it.”

Caro mentions the recent furore over SBS television presenter and host of The World Game Lucy Zelic’s insistence on pronouncing the players’ names correctly during the network’s World Cup coverage.

“There’s no right way to be a woman. If you’re a woman and you’re bad at your job you’ll be slammed – Catherine Brenner and the female board members of the AMP are the ones who are sent to the high jump when all that scandal hit the airwaves.

“But if you’re a woman and you’re good at your job you get slammed as well because Lucy Zelic’s crime was that she was too conscientious and adept at navigating foreign surnames. She was too accurate and she did her research too well.

“It illustrates the point that merit has nothing to do with women getting jobs or not getting jobs.”

Funnell says the #MeToo movement has been successful in creating what she describes as a “groundswell” of momentum online around sexual assault, but says the future of the movement lies in its ability to make an impact politically and socially.

“If you actually go and look at the data of the Human Rights Commission Sex Discrimination complaints, those complaint numbers are exactly stable with what they were prior to October last year (when #MeToo emerged).

“Yes, there is this groundswell of public momentum online and on social media but is that translating and converting to reform at a policy and procedural level and is it translating into an increase in the number of complaints through the official channels?

“The thing for me that’s been missing in the #MeToo movement is that conversion step – how do we take this massive amount of energy and actually convert it into tangible outcomes?”

Predicting where the future lies, Caro says feminists are about to enter “quite a difficult time”.

Caro describes a looming “nasty” battle between the patriarchy and the feminist movement – one which she says has the power to threaten women’s freedom and safety.

“I think it will look like what’s happening in Trump’s America,” she says.

“It will look like we’re in this room with men signing executive orders about women’s reproductive rights, about women’s health, about women’s access to the things that allow them to be free.

“I think it’s about religion and patriarchy and I think for some men that’s exactly what they want.”

But who will win this battle?

“Those things are beyond my power of prediction but I do think we need to be prepared psychologically and not think it’s all going to be rosy.”

Jane Caro and Nina Funnell will speak at a free panel discussion this Sunday morning at the Adelaide Health & Medical Sciences Building, room GO30, as part of the Adelaide Festival of Ideas

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