The wave of the movement against harassment and assault was collective action gathering women from a variety of industries, including technology, computer, filmmaking, television, businesswomen, and female politicians around the world. The surprising part of those events is a significant number of women making claims, most of them for the first time, regarding their abuse, harassment, and assault cases. Experiences of harassment, especially among low-income women belonging to a racial minority, have been historically outcasted and ignored. The issue of harassment is only more publicly discussed and raised.
Harassment is often associated with unwanted attention or physical intervention from management at work. However, harassment is a violation of an individual’s boundaries, which can manifest itself in different ways. Particularly, sexual harassment can manifest itself both physically, such as unwanted touching, kissing, hugging, and pinching, and verbally such as vulgar or offensive compliments, and ambiguous hints of sexual intercourse (Goh et al., 2021). Other than sexual harassment, harassment also includes unwanted calls, vulgar gestures, insults, coercion into intimacy, stalking, whistling, and shouting in the street.
Unfortunately, the sources reporting sexual harassment, intimidation, and physical attacks against females in politics or female activists are only increasing. Such activities, which reflect attempts to limit women’s political contributions, discourage women from voting and promote established gender stereotypes, severely threatening the democracy and raising issues about worldwide progress toward incorporating women as full political participants. Hence, there is a need to put a spotlight on the issue of harassment in politics toward women. The paper focuses on sexual harassment and assault in the political field of Australia specifically. The Australian situation is compared to sexual harassment in the politics of the United Kingdom.
Evolution of women’s role in Australian politics
Examples of sexual harassment in politics
Since Australia was the first democratic legislature that gave women the right to vote and to run for office in 1902, the country was perceived as a pioneer in political rights for women. Despite such advances, the first woman was elected as a member of parliament only forty-one years later, in 1943, and the federal House was still women free and remained so for the next three and a half decades. The women’s part in the legislature took only 6 percent by 1990, which was significantly behind the advances of other Westminster parliament systems in Canada and the United Kingdom. By 2018, the number of seats held female members of parliament in the House is 29 percent, which is higher than the record value of 27 percent in 2007 (Sawer, 2013). It indicates the fairly steady but stagnated progress at approximately a quarter of the House seats held by female politicians.
The experience of female parliament members in the Australian government was far from ideal. For women in the 1980s, political campaigning was not an easy sphere of work since political parties encouraged female politicians to work with the duties of “male escort (preferably a campaign manager) to fend off drunks [and] provide general protection from unwanted attention” (Sawer, & Simms, 1984, p. 102). In the early 1980s, when female representatives in politics increased, public awareness of sexist incidents increased along with women in politics suffering from offensive and unwanted attention.
Jennifer Adamson, who was a Minister of Health from 1979 to 1982, after being twice “pinched in the bottom” by another male politician in the dining room, started a campaign for the inclusion of sexual harassment in equal opportunities and anti-discrimination legislation. Roslyn Kelly, when making the Minister of Capital Territory report in the House during the debates, became a subject of sexual jokes in the early 1980s. The Minister was declining her question, arguing that Kelly was in love with him (Collier & Raney 2018). Such cases of sexual harassment in the Australian government, including both federal and state levels, and all political parties, have been appearing in the XXI century.
Victim-blaming is one of the ways that an established gendered political system suppresses social awareness regarding harassment. One of the recent cases is when Jamie Briggs, who was Liberal Minister of Cities, was pushed to leave his position after the incident of sexual harassment with a female staff member of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in November of 2015. Initially, Briggs denied the case and was forced to resign after the official complaint came forward by the victim. Even though Prime Minister Turnbull was willing to push for Briggs’s resignation, a lot of office colleagues supported Briggs, attempting to understate the incident (Bourke, 2015). It clearly illustrates the broad trend of victim-blaming at those times. Later, it was known that Briggs had several actions around female workers, which could have been considered sexual harassment, but had not been formally reported. All the abovementioned incidents reveal evidence for reinforcement of male norms of behavior and decreased concern for reprisals during the debates. In some cases, female concerns regarding equality issues are declined as unimportant (Krook, 2017). Also, it shows how men come together to protect their guilty colleagues and silence the female victims of sexual harassment, who try to bring attention to such men’s unfair behavior.
High positioned women in politics
The level of Australian institutional norms’ encouragement and facilitation of sexism can further be seen by considering women subjected to sexual harassment at all levels. Julia Gillard, the first female Prime Minister of Australia, mentioned several quotes by male politicians that offended her as a female politician during her speech in 2012. Julia Gillard said that she was offended when the Leader of the Opposition catcalled her saying, “If the Prime Minister wants to, politically speaking, make an honest woman of herself…”, something that would never be addressed to man Prime Minister (Transcript of Julia Gillard’s speech, 2012). Even though she could achieve the highest political ladder, she was experiencing and feeling the masculine privileged environment.
Moreover, the masculine gendered norms were so deeply engraved that even some female politicians could not recognize sexism. The myth that the political arena of Australia is gender-neutral spread to all members of parliament, including women. For example, before the speech of Gillard, she was blamed for the understatement of existing gender inequality in politics to promote herself further in her political career. During the three years of Gillard’s service as Prime Minister, she was constantly criticized for being childless, calling her “barren,” “a lying cow,” and incompetent (Sawer, 2013, p. 112). During her speech, Julia Gillard concluded that disrespect for Australia’s first woman Prime Minister, and all other women in politics, are discouraging young generation women from running for office.
Comparison to the British case
The situation of the British government in terms of harassment in politics is similar to Australia. In comparison, the British House of Commons had 32 percent of seats held by women in 2018, which is the highest ever results. Even though the British political sphere is also highly masculinized with a significant number of sexism incidences. In the case of the British government, there is harassment beyond sexual characteristics such as race, class, and age-based incidences. For example, in 2008, Black Female House representative, Dawn Butler, was asked by a white male member of parliament what she was doing in the section for members. Then, he turned to another male, white colleague and said that “they are letting anybody in nowadays” (Moosa, 2008). It is a clear indication of sexual harassment within the British political system.
Nowadays, there are significant improvements in women’s role in political life around the world. The presence of female representatives in politics, including national parliaments, has increased along with the recognition of ladies as socially and politically active citizens. It made female citizens take the role of key voting demographics. Most people are positive about such changes, claiming that women in politics bring a new perspective and attention to a wider spectrum of political issues, especially feminine problems. Also, such changes in the role of women in society bring other positive changes, such as inspiring other younger ladies to be interested and engaged in politics. Most importantly, these events push away the stereotypical historical association of politics with men.
To conclude, nowadays, sexual harassment and assault issues are being more frequently discussed and raised by feminists and other social activists. Sexual harassment can be described as the action of violating an individual’s boundaries both physically and verbally. The increased social awareness regarding the existence of such reinforced establishments against women resulted in the revealing of sexual harassment in various aspects of life. Unfortunately, the harassment of women can even be seen in the political life of Australia. Throughout the history of the Australian government, it is seen that the political sphere is highly male-gendered, with women’s roles being highly dismissed as unimportant. Even though the number of women holding seats as members of parliament is increasing, there is still a masculine privileged environment in politics in Australia. The example of Julia Gillard being Prime Minister is a strong demonstration of the unimportant perception of women in politics and the disrespectful attitude of male politicians towards women in politics. The masculine privilege is so deep in the mentality of Australian politicians that even women politicians are unwillingly supporting the fake gender neutrality of politics.
Moreover, the example of Julia Gillard is an indication of how strong the reinforcement of masculine privilege within politics is. Despite the high rank of Julia Gillard, she could experience harassment from her male colleagues, even from a politician who is in a lower position. Also, such incidences discourage other women and especially the younger generation, from participating in the political life of their country.
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Goh, J. X., Bandt-Law, B., Cheek, N. N., Sinclair, S., & Kaiser, C. R. (2021). Narrow prototypes and neglected victims: Understanding perceptions of sexual harassment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Web.
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The Sydney Morning Herald. (2012). Transcript of Julia Gillard’s speech. Web.