Having worked in a variety of sectors with many different people, I am acutely aware that many men still judge their female colleagues by how they look. Thankfully for the most part, I have worked with professionals who judge women by their ability, but there remains a sexist minority who not only think it is fine to objectify women in the workplace but who think any woman who complains about personal remarks about their looks must be stuck up or have no sense of humour. This is why Tony Abbott’s comments on Tuesday about the Liberal candidate for Lindsay were so alarming.
When asked to describe the qualities Fiona Scott shared with the last Liberal to hold the West Sydney seat, Jackie Kelly, Abbott replied that, ‘They’re young, they’re feisty,’ and ‘I can probably say they have a bit of sex appeal’. It seemingly never occurred to Abbott that perhaps these women were intelligent or hard working or had any virtues apart from being, to him anyway, sexually appealing.
Abbott has been taken to task for the comment especially through Twitter and other social media but perhaps even more shocking than the comment was Scott’s reaction. Rather than showing any indignation, a delighted Scott giggled like a star stuck child. Defending Abbott from charges of sexism, she insisted being described as sexually appealing by her boss was ‘a lovely compliment’. John Howard even chipped in to say objectors should ‘get a life’.
Any woman who has suffered sexual harassment in the workplace would be truly horrified by this example. What a message to send to young women around the nation! It is fine for a boss to comment on a female employee’s sexual appeal and women should happily accept such comments.
Of course, it is really no surprise to hear Abbott demean women in such a way. He routinely attacked Julia Gillard in sexist terms and never afforded her the respect he shows even to male Labor Prime Ministers. He happily stood in front of a sign describing her as a bitch and was quick to echo Alan Jones’ heinous comment that her late father died of shame. This is why Gillard’s misogyny speech resonated so strongly with women around the world. (All of this has been well documented in Anne Summer’s excellent book, The Misogyny Factor).
Abbott’s comment was no gaffe, it is his genuinely held belief that women are designed by god to occupy a separate sphere to men – a private nurturing sphere. It never occurred to him that anyone other than women would be doing the ironing when tried to attack an ETS back in 2010. As a student in 1979, he made this honest and candid remark about the place of women:
‘I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons’.
Asked on Four Corners if he still felt that way about women, he replied, ‘I don’t want to repudiate what was said, but I don’t want people to think that what I thought as a 21 year old is necessarily what I think as a 52 year old’.
Perhaps even more telling was his Q&A performance in 2009 when he stated that just as men did not have the right to demand sex, women did not have a right to ‘absolutely withhold’ it either. Women have a clear and well defined role in Abbott’s mind. They exist to iron the shirts, provide sex, nurture children and support the men. Yes, a few may rise through the ranks to prominent positions but they are the exception not the rule and it would be ‘folly’ to expect anything else.
As a nation, we are rightly proud that in 1902 we were the first in the world to allow women to not only vote but stand for parliament also. Since then, Australian women have fought hard to create a society where they are judged not by their sex appeal but by their ability and work ethic. Australian women have entered and thrived in many arenas once seen as the domain of men. We have now seen an Australian woman make it all the way to the Lodge. Yes, she was dogged by relentless gendered persecution, the point is she made it and others will follow.
Abbott is entitled to his views but they are out of place in a modern Australia. He claimed, in his defence that he was ‘a little old fashioned’. This is true (albeit a huge understatement) and professional women can only hope their bosses and male colleagues are not similarly old fashioned in the way they act. Abbott’s world view does not include a fair go for women and it would be folly indeed to think it would.