Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Still much to do on sexism at work

On International Women’s Day women and men around the world take a look at the equality of the sexes ‘to do’ list. It is an annual milestone to review what has been ticked off the list and what still needs to be done.

Sexism at work is still on the list.

From comments that can be shrugged off like being called a ‘good girl’ when I was well into my 30s, or the expectation I should be more able/willing to take minutes or make the tea as a female manager in a managers’ meeting, to lewd remarks and unwanted physical attention.

To say I have experienced a degree of sexism in almost every workplace would not be an exaggeration.

However, there are a couple of exceptions. Working in the office of Australian prime minister Julia Gillard is one of the exceptions.

Political debate and the record of the then leader of the opposition (now prime minister) Tony Abbott meant sexism was a hot topic in the office. Never more so than the moments after Julia walked back from the parliamentary chamber having delivered ‘the misogyny speech’.

To anyone who has not seen it yet, believe me, you should. It is one of the finest examples of parliamentary prowess I have ever seen. Watching it also gives an idea of what the prime minister was having to endure on a daily basis from the man who wanted her job. I won’t spoil it for you but ‘bitch’ and ‘witch’ feature.

Julia faced extreme sexism in her job. As in so many cases of workplace discrimination, bullying and sexism this spoke volumes of the perpetrators, not their target.

There were those who would not accept Gillard deserved the job. Even though she proved time and time again she had merit by the bucketload, they refused to acknowledge her as their prime minister. Their tactics were often despicable and should have had no place in any workplace.

I am openly biased, but in my view Julia Gillard as Australian prime minister possessed a set of skills held by none of the men who preceded or followed her. These are not skills that define her as a woman; they are simply the mark of a consummate professional.

Julia had a vision to make the country fairer and the foresight to change education and disability policy accordingly. She showed leadership, executing her plans in such a way as to bring about a groundswell of support behind her reforms. And in the face of all the distractions of high office and under a permanent spotlight, Julia proved she had the steely determination to get on with the job. She is also incredibly smart.

For all the talk of sexism in our office conversations, we operated with equality. Merit, intelligence and hard work were the currency, not gender, race, sexual orientation, age or religion. Not who you are, it is what you can do.

The misogyny speech makes the same point as Julia practised with her own staff. No one should be defined by gender. Women and men ought to be judged as equals and treated with the same respect at work. It will, perhaps, be interesting to see whether Gillard’s experience is mirrored in the United States, or if, come 2016, America may actually be, as the slogan reads, ‘Ready for Hillary’.

Julia Gillard blazed a trail that will no doubt make it easier for the next woman who becomes prime minister of Australia to follow.

This International Women’s Day is a chance for us all to think about blazing our own trails to get sexism at work crossed off that ‘to do’ list.


Rachel Maycock has worked in and out of politics in the European Union, United Kingdom and, most recently, Australia

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Rachel Maycock

was an adviser to the former prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard

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