Aussie women take on the new dinosaurs

By Alison Rourke

Alan Jones. Photo / Getty Images
Alan Jones. Photo / Getty Images

Until last week, many Australians thought they had shed the Crocodile Dundee image of their menfolk as unreconstructed sexists stuck in a 1950s timewarp.

But then came comments by the country's best-known radio host, who announced that women in positions of power were "destroying the joint".

His words started a furious debate on sexual equality; and the latest twist in the saga has been the emergence of an ironic campaign by women to take him at his word.

Alan Jones' outburst followed the announcement that Australia would be spending A$320 million ($409 million) promoting Pacific Islander women in business and politics.

"[Prime Minister Julia Gillard] said that we know societies only reach their full potential if women are politically participating," scoffed Jones, who has previously suggested Gillard be put in a sack and dropped out to sea.

"Women are destroying the joint. [Former Victoria state chief police commissioner] Christine Nixon in Melbourne, [Sydney lord mayor] Clover Moore here.

Honestly."

Days of heated debate - including a vigorous social media campaign against him - on the extent of sexism in the country have followed.

Professor Paula McDonald of Queensland University of Technology, who specialises in workplace discrimination and gender harassment, said Jones' comments were indicative of mainstream sexism in Australia.

"The pendulum has swung towards highly derogatory and hostile language against women," she said.

"The fact that we have a woman Prime Minister has exacerbated the hostility that's already there, because she's the most powerful political player in the country and is very much in the face of men who are hostile towards women."

Psychologist Suzi Skinner, whose company, Roar People, specialises in women's leadership, said Gillard was a target because she challenged leadership norms.

"Leadership in Australia is still predominantly male. The political system is better than the corporate world, where less than 10 per cent of senior executives are women, but fundamentally Gillard is challenging a dominant male status quo."

A Twitter campaign against the comments of Jones, 71, was started by author and social commentator Jane Caro. "Got time on my hands tonight so thought I'd spend it coming up with new ways of 'destroying the joint' being a woman & all," she tweeted.

Caro said the public response was immediate. "Suddenly there were all these women tweeting about how they could destroy the joint. It worked because it was about turning outrage into humour, which had the effect of disarming and engaging people."

A "Destroy the Joint" Facebook page, T-shirts, two theme songs and a petition for advertisers to withdraw from Jones' radio programme followed.

This is not the first time Gillard has been embroiled in debate about equality.

"For many, many months now, I have been the subject of a very sexist smear campaign from people for whom I have no respect," she told a press conference, hitting out at "the misogynists and the nut jobs on the internet" who have targeted her.

Gillard's ire was aimed at cartoonist Larry Pickering, whose drawings (published on his blog) have repeatedly depicted her naked, wearing a strap-on dildo. She said she expected Pickering to propagate "sexist and vicious stuff about me until the end of time".

Feminist Germaine Greer also weighed in, accusing Gillard on ABC TV of wearing unflattering jackets and having a "big arse".

Greer later suggested that she wasn't condemning Gillard but lauding her.

"You don't understand how tough it is for little girls who think that having a fat arse is to be dead, is to be finished," Greer said.

Derogatory descriptions of Gillard have been a feature of her tenure as Prime Minister. Last year "Ditch the Witch" placards began appearing at anti-government rallies. She was also criticised for being "deliberately barren", a reference to her not having children.

It's not just Gillard who has come under fire. A prominent journalist and television presenter, Leigh Sales, was publicly called a "cow" by a senior conservative party strategist, Grahame Morris, for conducting a tough interview with conservative leader Tony Abbott. Sales responded by saying she'd rather "be a cow than a dinosaur".

Morris apologised, but described those who complained about his remark as "poor little sensitive souls". Others defended his comments as little more than "old-fashioned Australian slang".

Roar People's Suzi Skinner says Morris' comments reflect the lack of sophistication in the debate in Australia.

"It's a privileged male view of the world, often held by the dominant group of white men in their 50s in positions of power. They don't see anything wrong with that sort of language because that's how they all talk to one another, but what it doesn't recognise is that when you're not part of that dominant group, it's about discrimination."

Despite the tone of the debate, Skinner is optimistic about what it might produce. "At least this sort of discussion is making the barriers to women more explicit and instead of hiding the problem it may actually encourage society to address them more proactively."

- Observer

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