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Banishing sexism must come from the top

Opinion

Sexism in all workplaces – yes, also in the professional theatre – needs to be treated with zero tolerance, writes Adelaide lawyer Andrea Michaels.

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When I was at law school, I was told by male classmates I might have a double whammy problem: I was from an ethnic background and I was a girl. How did I expect to succeed as a lawyer? Back then, nobody bothered to pick these men up on their sniggering sexist banter. That’s just humour, right? Back then, they probably didn’t realise they were being so offensive and I guess I believed them too.

But now things have changed and businesses need to start changing too. There’s no room for excuses.

Thanks to the behaviour of a Grade A Hollywood jerk (and the bravery of a few women prepared to go on the record about issues that were well known in the industry), sexual harassment is no longer a laughing matter. And for that, I’m  grateful – not only for myself but for all the women I work with, as well as the younger women I mentor who are about to enter the workforce.

Everyday sexism causes damage

The #MeToo movement demands change in the worldview of many people in our society – and highlights the epidemic of sexism and the damage it causes.

Sexual discrimination is a result of biased attitudes and this is not confined to the workplace. It stems from traditional stereotypes of women fashioned in another age – one in which discrimination, power and belittlement was the order of the day.

Sadly, the threads remain strong: any working woman will tell you she can trace them in tasteless jokes at business events, in innuendo that she tries to ignore, comments about ability and gender or her appearance, in being obviously overlooked for promotion, treated differently when she works part-time or when she’s paid less for the same work.

The traditional solution to all of this for many has been silence and then a hasty exit to a new job. What a waste of valuable talent. What a blow to diversity and all the benefits that can bring to an organisation.

Since establishing my own law firm I’ve worked hard to create a culture where gender is no longer a factor and there is zero tolerance for any kind of sexism. I urge other South Australian boards, CEOs and business owners to do the same.

As a lawyer, I can tell you we’re talking about a serious occupational health and safety issue. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Personal Safety Survey (2017) showed more than 50 per cent of women have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime. It’s a huge problem and one that causes significant distress for the victims.

Bad examples

Yet I’m still amazed at the continuing comments from surprised men who have been picked up for behaviour they thought was entirely acceptable. President Trump comes to mind, but there are others.

Actor Craig McLachlan is facing serious allegations about his behaviour in an earlier production of the stage show Rocky Horror. While he has strenuously denied allegations of sexual misconduct and bullying, he has said that being ‘cheeky and naughty’ is all part of thespian life.

No Craig, it isn’t. Try that line with the promoters or producers of the show, or other cast members, and I doubt they will agree. Especially not now that the lawyers are on speed dial. It’s simply not professional.

Unfortunately, Peter Goers’ opinion on this topic in last week’s Sunday Mail – suggesting the McLachlan allegations could be put down to mere ‘boundary blurring’ or ‘enthusiasm’ – is not helpful. Consider how you would feel if the alleged behaviour was directed at one of your family members.

England’s newly appointed women’s soccer coach is another example of what we’re facing. Sky News reported last week how an embarrassed Phil Neville had to apologise for sexist tweets he posted several years ago that claimed while men might be interested in his morning sports chat, women would be too busy marking beds, preparing breakfast and dropping the kids off at school to tune in. Both men and women were outraged at these comments.

I’m not suggesting we need over the top political correctness in the workplace – just use your brain, show some empathy and comply with the law.

Providing a safe workplace for everyone is good corporate practice and a social duty – and most board members know this. It’s their job to enforce a culture that’s respectful. If an organisation has systemic problems, the culture needs to be examined and actively remodelled. That means encouraging and supporting more bystanders, especially males, to stand up and call out behaviour when they hear sexist comments, or when they notice any kind of sexual harassment taking place.

I’m confident things will change, but there will be a painful evolution. Many may struggle with the need to change their attitudes – or at least keep quiet about them. Decision-makers will also have to consider these factors when hiring new recruits to the C-suite.

Setting the tone – choose leaders carefully

People who lead our businesses need to have a real commitment to the value of diversity and have a strong belief in banishing all kinds of gender and ethnic discrimination within the organisations they manage. This is the only way we can really make a difference. We need to model positive action and equal opportunity from the top down. And make sure others do the same.

Strong role models like Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand prime minister, will help chip away at changing perceptions. Her husband is staying home to look after their baby when she returns to work six weeks after the birth. I’m sure she’ll do everything she can to support other women who want to enter politics and stay there for the longer term – and to eliminate any elements of a workplace culture that would prevent that.  I hope that one day, a man staying home to look after kids will not be front page world news.

Our new Australian of the Year, Professor Michelle Simmons, is another woman making a difference to our worldview. A renowned quantum physics specialist, she’s challenging the biased stereotype that only men can really achieve in STEM fields. This will help to encourage more girls to follow her lead.

So, despite the setbacks, I take comfort in the signs of change.

With effort we should be able to banish notions of sexism in workplaces — if we take the issue seriously enough. This means workplaces will be free to embrace diversity and create a future where success isn’t dependent on your chromosomes. I hope 2018 will be the year when this starts to happen.

Andrea Michaels is the managing director of South Australian commercial law firm NDA Law.

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