Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins, Julia Banks and Christine Holgate have all detailed the sexism they’ve faced. They’re still waiting for a reply.
Former LNP politician Julia Banks’ description of the gender bias she encountered in the Morrison Government was a timely reminder of the crucial impact when women call out the reality of daily sexism.
Before Banks’ released her book, “Power Play”, in July both political staffer Brittany Higgins and Australian of the Year Grace Tame also stood up and publicly detailed deeply painful and traumatising experiences.
And just a few months ago Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate made it clear how she felt about the very public treatment that saw her leave the job.
Their testimony inspired many. And none of these women smiled bravely through the pain, kept a stiff upper lip or remained in stoic silence.
Yet that’s often the pop advice doled out to women who are urged to develop resilience, banish negative thoughts and practice gratitude.
How any of that is meant to help when you are losing your job, or going nuts trying to work from home and supervise your stir-crazy kids’, is unclear.
And that’s the point. Most of this pervasive stuff isn’t backed by anything approaching evidence of success.
In fact, it’s just the opposite. Women have fewer leadership jobs than a few years ago, face a pay gap of 14.7% and are doing an extra hour of unpaid work a day at the moment, thanks to the pandemic.
Yet they are still getting told to shut up and put up, or adjust their mental state, if they struggle to cope.
The lucrative resilience bandwagon is not just missing the mark, however, it props up the status quo.
Telling women to face adversity with a revamped personal attitude and compliance takes away momentum to challenge the circumstances that warranted such silent steeliness in the first place.
Most women, meanwhile, appear to carry on without regularly crumbling into a mess despite the double or triple shift they often face.
Given the pressure of paid and unpaid work in the pandemic, it would be fair to assume many women, by definition, have often been more resilient than their male peers.
The advice reinforces the classic stereotype of the fragile and emotional woman who needs extra help with facing adversity, is partly to blame for making faulty personal choices, and mustn’t grumble.
But this advice isn’t only poorly aimed. It reinforces a classic stereotype of the fragile and emotional woman who needs extra help with facing adversity, is partly to blame for making faulty personal choices, and mustn’t grumble.
Urging women to bounce back in the face of adversity is increasingly disseminated through forums, apps, and popular culture, according to a 2019 study on the topic by UK academics Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill.
“The message in all these contexts is similar: the resilient woman may not be able to avoid tough life situations, be it getting divorced, being made redundant, or having her benefits cut, but she can still ‘spring through’ hard times via a combination of intensive self-management strategies and a positive mental attitude,” they found.
The social media sphere is loaded with motivational and aspirational affirmations – never give up, believe you can do it – that support this idea.
No matter how it’s delivered, the message conforms to classic martyrdom tropes women have encountered for centuries.
Yet plenty of evidence shows that communal efforts, not individual recalibration, are needed to shift social norms, policies and workplace practices if women are to get a fairer go.
A wave of collective protests, through social movements such as #MeToo and our own March4Justice, have seen women join together to loudly express their anger at sexual harassment and sexism.
And the number of networks and groups women maintain would suggest they also find regular support and relief by collectively sharing their challenges and not clamming up to suffer in lonely silence and guilt for not trying hard enough.
Resilience and positive thinking are no panacea. At best, they temporarily address the symptoms and not the cause of these barriers.
It’s a classic case of over-promising and under-delivering while blaming the victims and leaving power structures intact.
And no matter how women mentally adjust, little will change unless male backlash and denial of the problem are addressed.
To be clear, many advocates for gender fairness and change are supporters of sustained effort and not giving up in the face of embedded discrimination.
And many of us have also been inspired by other women – and the occasional quote.
One of my favourites is the 2017 comment by US Senate Leader Mitch O’Connell after a vote to require Senator Elizabeth Warren to stop speaking: “Nevertheless, she persisted”.
Women didn’t win the vote or the right to attend university by thinking positively and keeping a zen-like calm in the face of centuries of discrimination.
They certainly didn’t give up either. They used their voices and strength in numbers to push their cause.
Women like Grace Tame, Christine Holgate, Brittany Higgins and Julia Banks deliberately laid out the details of their experiences, despite the personal cost, because they want to see systemic change and ensure other women don’t go through the same ordeals.
Women already show remarkable levels of resilience. Instead of pouring more resources into self-help, it’s time to address the discrimination and bias that caused the problems in the first place.