This article was written by Catherine Irving Bowman
Recently, I began a Bachelor of Laws. I have wanted to be a lawyer for a long time, and have put in an enormous amount of work just to get accepted into the program. And man, I was thrilled. I burst into tears as I read the email and immediately told everyone I knew to relax, I was going to be a lawyer.
The timing of the email coincided with the release of a survey by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, undertaken amongst more than 400 female lawyers. This survey found almost one in four female lawyers have been sexually harassed within the workplace. It found female lawyers earned between 3.8-7.8% less than their male counterparts, particularly if they are working as a specialised consultant – a position that requires more years of study, higher qualifications, more experience and a penis. It also found more than two-thirds of the women who were harassed chose not to report the harassment, for fear that speaking out would see them ostracised in the office or adversely impact their career.
I haven’t started my degree yet, much less begun a career, and already I’m being told I’ll earn less, being leered at in the office, treated not like an educated professional but like some old bloke’s secretary, and if I speak out against it I’m more or less on my own. And that’s assuming I play by the rules of this boy’s club and don’t make the fatal mistake of having a baby and taking maternity leave. Because – surprise, surprise – the survey also found the biggest impediment to women remaining in the legal profession beyond five years was the absence of inflexible work arrangements and the difficulties of returning to work after taking time off. I’d like to take this moment to point out in 1980, Australia became a signatory to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which described maternity leave as a universal human right.
So how are we still in a space where the workplace is a hostile environment for women, more than 30 years after the Discrimination Act came into effect? The fact is things aren’t changing for professional women, despite all the laws and legislation our politicians continue to pass. Australia’s Prime Minister is called a “witch” and a “bitch” by the Opposition Leader, thus I can’t say there have been any changes in the respect given to women in the workplace, regardless of the job they do. How can we expect women and girls who are at school or at university to want to take ownership of their lives and careers when they’re being visually assaulted every day with a barrage of information saying no matter how good they are at their job, there’s always going to be a middle-aged white bloke in a suit calling them “love” and asking them to bring their coffee? While I certainly don’t think than men have the monopoly on corporate asshole-ism –see Gina Rinehart for a case in point-, short of blanket-banning men from the boardroom until they learn how to behave themselves, there doesn’t seem to be any real solution. Particularly in Melbourne, your job prospects and ability to climb the greasy totem pole are determined by what school you went to (for the record, mine was as poor and public as they come). The old boy’s club doesn’t look like it will be relinquishing its significance any time soon.
And let me assure you, this attitude to women in the workplace doesn’t begin with a graduate position. I work in hospitality, a field well-known for its somewhat unique treatment of staff like waitresses. And while I felt like I had to expect a certain amount of “Hey babe, give us your number!” from the Saturday night drunks that frequent my workplace, I certainly didn’t expect to get it from my co-workers as well. Sorry, but when I go to work I try my hardest to be professional. As far as I’m concerned, that means I was not expecting to be accosted in the staff room every shift and hit on. It means I wasn’t expecting to be referred to as “the girl with the huge tits” – their words, not mine – by co-workers whose names I didn’t even know yet. I go to work in good faith, to do my work and get paid at the end and treat my co-workers professionally. I don’t want to come home feeling uncomfortable, and harassed, and sometimes even violated, because even in a crappy entry-level hospitality job, I’m still not treated like an equal but as an object.
I hope by the time I finish my degree, the hurt that comes with being a woman in the workplace will have diminished for everyone. For now, I will hold my head up when a stranger at work comments on my body, and I’ll remember my body is mine, and is nothing to do with them.