MONEY WAS FINALLY paid. But in the end, and as usual, there were no real winners arising from the sexual harassment case in which one of the nation’s highest profile CEOs fell on – or should I say because of – his sword. The woman who made the claims was painted as greedy. After scrutinising her every move, the media declared her ‘demonised’ and ‘potentially unemployable’. She won a payment but lost the PR war. Word had gone out effectively and early on that she had prior experience of this type of thing.
Don’t we all.
On the eve of the March 2011 Centenary of International Women’s Day, I sit down to record some of my personal recollections, from a thirty year career, about the world of work for women in modern day Australia. These are claims I’ve never made.
I started my career as a cadet journalist in 1980 on a now defunct Melbourne newspaper where women were forbidden from wearing pants, female cadet candidates might be quizzed about whether they were on the pill, editorial policy banned the use of the title ‘Ms’ and ‘Women’s’ was actually an editorial department with a separate office accessed through a frosted glass door. Older men on the paper still wore hats.
A year or so into my ‘training’, I endured a mind numbing ten months as a caption writer, sitting in ‘Pictorial’ down the end of the ink-smog laden, grey and black lino-tiled newsroom corridor in a boys’ own zone with grey lockers, camera gear, footy paraphernalia and more girly pics than you could poke a dick at.
When there wasn’t a decent news picture of a fire or car crash, which was often, the paper ran a Page Three Girl. It was my job to write three or four paragraphs to explain the ‘who, what, when, where and why’ of the scantily clad model whose surname always seemed to be Green. Thus, the caption might say: Lovely Lisa Green soaks up lashings of sun at St Kilda Beach after… What followed might be a summary of Melbourne’s recent inclement weather and how it had kept people away from the beach, or perhaps a segue to the charity fundraising skills that accompanied the model’s looks. Who cared? Not the readership, whose numbers dwindled further by the week until the paper finally ceased to exist, a victim of its own anachronism.
The nadir of my caption writing career came one day, shortly after my twentieth birthday. The testosterone-charged photographers were more boisterous and uncontrollable than usual this particular afternoon and I was their sitting duck. Soon my attention drew to an image stuck at my eye level on to a locker less than a metre from the desk at which I sat. It was a picture of a large and bare breasted bikini clad model sun baking. A photo of an erect penis had been superimposed between the model’s breasts. The blokes could barely contain themselves as their hungry, rodent eyes darted between each other, their tit-fucking photographic collage and me.
An amygdala hijack is how I have since heard what happened next described by human resources professionals. Overcome with a rush of anger after months of similar though less extreme ‘jokes’, I stared at the ringleader of the group and said, pointing to the penis, ‘What you really want is one of those in your mouth.’ The room went silent and the group dispersed as amateur pornographers became born-again prudes and a lasting enmity between my target – a married father – and me was sealed for the rest of my time on that newspaper.
Thirty plus years later, this incident and the atmospherics of that workplace fill me with disbelief and rage when I think about them. The energy we young women reporters spent dealing with such a hostile culture weighed us down in our early working lives but to admit it would have been career death. Most of us just got on with it. Some were in denial about it. But we still bear the scars.
I try to unpack the specific psychological dynamics at play that day and on others like it. I reflect on the following: the relationship between journalists and photographers was always vexed. Unofficially, the power was with the journalist. But historically and overwhelmingly, newspapers were a man’s world. Of course there were celebrated exceptions – smart, derring-do, if slightly ‘masculine’ women who braved the newspaper world but were affectionately seen as curiosities. They were a bit like honorary guests at a men’s club. I interviewed one of them once in an effort to unlock the secret of her success for a journalism project. The answer, I now conclude, lay as much in her rarity as her rarefied talent. She was adamant she was no feminist. She didn’t need to be. No pornographic pranks would have been played out by photographers in her very proper presence. She would have been on tennis playing terms with the executives. The photographers were of a ‘lower’ social rank and this counted in Melbourne in the fifties, sixties and even the seventies. They wouldn’t have dared expose her to their porn.
But by 1980, Australian society was more fluid. Class, gender, ethnic and religious barriers were breaking down. Women were joining the workforce wanting careers in numbers greater than ones and twos. No longer exotic, with our brains, confidence, choices and belief, albeit fragile, in our rights, we were a challenge in an ancient newspaper pecking order where issues of pay parity or who drove the car to the job (always the photographer) were great signifiers. I remember several years into my career, working by this time on another newspaper, an encounter with a tough and very talented female photographer with whom I’d been assigned to do an ANZAC Day job.
‘Are you my photographer?’ I said.
‘I’m not your photographer,’ she replied.
AFTER MY SPELL at captions, I returned to the newsroom and a desk next to a charming and polite gentleman and veteran reporter whom I’ll call D. We talked of politics, news, international affairs and his days as a foreign correspondent, which was a relief from the animal cage of Pictorial. One day this man in his late forties, who wore impeccable three piece suits and spoke with an authoritative and educated voice, asked me to join him for coffee across the road. As I sipped my morning tea with D whom I’d come to see as a mentor, he told me how he loved his wife and had never been unfaithful to her but that he felt an overwhelming attraction to me. Did I, he asked, feel the same?
Just to be clear, D wasn’t suggesting we should run away together. What he had in mind was an affair. Perhaps he thought it was a win-win for me. I could have benefited from his old world experience without having to stay with him for life. He probably assumed I was safely on the pill, which I was. None of the historical roadblocks there.
Contracepted or not, I was shocked by D’s proposition and quickly told him of my boyfriend with whom I lived and about whom I’d been discreet to date because he too worked on the paper – inter-office relationships being discouraged by management. I also told D that I was flattered and liked him very much as a person. I walked back to the office in a daze. My relationship with D never recovered. I worried that he would use his seniority and influence against me (although he never did). I further worried: had I done something to encourage this? Small in stature, the opposite of voluptuous, without make-up or high heels, I did not regard myself as a siren but nor did I lack personal confidence. Perhaps that’s why D selected this junior cadet for his inaugural, late-grab for a bit on the side in those more permissive of times. I’ll never know.
There were other more work-a-day brushes with sexual harassment: an unwanted hand on the knee here, an arm around the back there, tit jokes aplenty. Although my experience amongst the photographers was damaging, I sometimes think I got off more lightly than some of my female colleagues. A senior male crime reporter, who has since died, famously kept a photograph of a much younger female colleague whose nipples could reportedly be seen through the dress she was wearing in the shot. ‘Nipples like bullets mate,’ was how he described her to a young male journalist with whom he also shared that he’d ‘barred up’ over the photograph.
It’s likely that not all the stories were true although I trusted my source, the guy I lived with, on that last one. The effect of them reinforced the culture making women nervous about the fact that we were being sexually evaluated all the time by the men around us.
Here’s a joke a photographer told at work once.
Q. ‘How do you know that the Board of Works designed women?’
A. ‘Who else would put a playground next to a sewer?’
This was the environment that framed and hampered my early years in journalism. While my young male journalistic peers enjoyed the privileges of manhood, the more sensitive and intelligent among them were also tortured by the pressure they were put under, whether implicit or explicit, to join in this vilification of women. After a rocky start, my career in that workplace looked promising. But I fled from it as soon as I could get a job elsewhere.
Life was more genteel across town at my next employer. The women had authority, some staff were openly gay and the photographers were more like artists. The atmosphere was a seductive mix of hip intellectualism and genuine social inquiry. The old, women’s pages were transformed into a channel for edgy feminist debate. Early on, the editor of that revamped section invited me to a women’s lunch, along with a friend who’d also recently joined. As newcomers we smirked at each other while these well meaning women whirled from discussions on feminist consciousness to the existence or not of the G-Spot. It’s not that we scorned their interests. We shared many of them. But so toughened were we to the hard core blokiness of the world we’d just come from, this earnest politically correct gathering felt to us like another planet. It was, to be sure, a planet I preferred.
Not that this more enlightened workplace was free of sexism. I can’t say I ever experienced harmful harassment there, although there were some moments: like the several times one of the cartoonists asked why it was that I was wearing a particular top, which happened to be more (although not very) revealing than my usual clothes. The answer, which never satisfied him, was that I liked it. He’d smile cynically, as if at a faux feminist, and walk off.
Although they were exceptions among the men in my experience, there were also the ‘jokey’ harassers.
‘I suppose a fuck’s out of the question,’ my then immediate boss once said in the mid 1980s.
‘With that fat gut it is,’ I replied.
Just a bit of banter between a couple of journo colleagues on the political hustings. Hardly too damaging. I could handle it. I’d been through plenty worse. ‘Spunk buckets’ was how another of the paper’s top journalists (and a genuinely nice guy) referred to two attractive young blondes on his team. Everyone, including the blondes themselves, laughed about that. It was so anti-politically correct.
LIKE ALL GREAT survivors do, sexism has learned to change with the times. It and its more sinister stable mates enjoyed a renaissance with the arrival of the internet. Explicit or offensive material that had been removed from office walls, doors and desks in the previous decades proliferated again in offices where I worked in the nineties through screen savers, websites and games. Sexist, billboard advertising too made a horny reappearance.
In 2000 I was working for a multi-media entertainment company when some dunda-head sales guy emailed the whole company an explicit photograph of a tattooed vagina. Being the only prude in the whole place, I complained. Other women to whom I spoke said they saw the funny side of it. They felt sorry for the guy who sent it and the trouble he would be in. I, meanwhile, was earnestly, kid-glove counseled as if I were a rather-too-fragile flower. Different people were offended by different things. The HR woman actually said that.
Over the last decade working in corporate Australia, I’ve completed many staff education modules on appropriate workplace behavior. I’m not sure the same can be said of a lot of senior men in the workforce where many still think it’s OK to place their uninvited hand on a pregnant employee’s belly; for a probing hand to wander over the knees or back of an underling or to denigrate women, homosexuals or non-Anglo Saxons in professional company. You’ve come a long way baby. Not.
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