Tall Poppies and Birds of Paradise: addressing sexual harassment in Australian culture

Back in Toronto, I was friends with an Australian man. While he was a supportive and emotionally expressive friend, much of our daily banter consisted of ribbing each other, and much of that ribbing was of a sexual nature. If I went on a good date, he’d mock my “game.” If I got dressed up and put makeup on, he’d tease me about my looks. At the time, I thought this was strange – it reminded me of middle school gender dynamics, where the boys and girls who are crushing on one another tease each other relentlessly.

While I’ve only been in Sydney for a little over a month, I’m now able to put that relationship into a cultural context. It wasn’t about us – it’s the culture here. Australia suffers en masse from Tall Poppy Syndrome, a compulsion – possibly stemming from jealousy or from a desire to promote equality or camaraderie between different social strata – to put down successful or distinguished people.

We haven’t quite reached a Harry Bergeron dystopia, but I feel that this culture of put-downs and teasing limits all Australians – the mockers and the mockees. In fact, as I write this post, I can hear the critiques, “Don’t be so Canadian, mate…” and see the empathetic but resigned shrugs, “Get used to it, Aussie guys are assholes.” It limits discourse and makes authentic emotional connections difficult to achieve. It also promotes a culture of sexism and negativity. A weaker blogger might scrap the post in the face of this projected criticism but hey, if they want to call me a prudish or overly PC Canadian, so be it. I was raised to be proud of my cultural sensitivity and able to speak out when offended. And here, I am offended on an almost daily basis. I don’t want to be an average poppy or a wallflower. I want to be a bird of paradise!

I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon since I arrived, but today a friend’s facebook page featured a reaction to Sunday’s NY Times op-ed by Katie Roiphe, “In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risqué Remarks.” Down under, the whole Herman Cain story was not on my radar, so I had some catching up to do. The American feminist blogosphere is outraged by Roiphe’s claim that a “smart, competent young professional woman” should laugh and shrug off unwanted sexual advances or inappropriate comments about her appearance, and that a workplace free of the risk of sexual harassment would be drab and quiet (because of course, there’s nothing else to laugh or chat about but your cubicle buddy’s boobs).

Roiphe criticizes the “weakness or blurriness” of the language that defines sexual harassment (uncomfortable, hostile, inappropriate) and prefers to euphemize sexual harassment by calling it “colourful.” As a high school English teacher, the issue of semantics was interesting, and indeed, addressing the “slippery” definition could be a productive exercise in a high school English or Law class. But this quote also piqued my interest:

A study recently released by the American Association of University Women shows that nearly half of students in grades 7 through 12 have experienced sexual harassment. Their definition is “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically.” Which would seem to include anyone who has been called a “whore” or “so hot” on Facebook, or is jokingly or not jokingly propositioned. (In other words, it’s surprising it’s only half.)

So the problem is the overly broad definition of “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically,” not the prevalence of sexual harassment among teenage girls? Roiphe suspects that by this definition, the percentage should be much higher but immediately moves on, failing to address that even though every girl in the class might have been called flat, easy, or doable, the ubiquity of these comments does not make them excusable. Imagine telling my grade nine student whose friend jokingly called her a slut in the middle of English class, “What’s the problem? Just laugh it off. Now back to Merchant of Venice…hey, maybe you should read for Portia – that shallow ho-bag. Lol.”

I wonder what kind of language and behaviour Australian high school teachers allow. Does the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude apply in the classroom? The relentless sexual jokes in professional settings, and the general acceptance of them, seems to indicate that this is something Aussies have tolerated all their lives.

Frankly, I have been shocked by the way male and female colleagues treat one another here. It’s not just the comments about men being “distracted” by short skirts and cleavage. It’s not just the HR woman telling my senior manager friend that his Canadian accent is sexy.  It’s not just the office party binge drinking that often results in messy inter-office hook ups, sometimes with married bosses. It’s not just the female employees playing ‘who would you rather do?’ about their male colleagues over happy hour cocktails.

It’s the fact that, according to an Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade primer on the status of women, despite a relatively equal rate of education and 58% labour force participation, women hold only 12% of private sector management jobs and a mere 9% of board directorships. The Australian Human Rights Commission breaks it down:

Every year, sexual harassment in the workplace is one of the most common types of complaints received by the Commission under the Sex Discrimination Act. In 2009 – 2010, 21% of all complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission were under the Sex Discrimination Act, and 88% of those complaints related to sex discrimination in the workplace. The wide use of new technologies such as mobile phones, email and social networking websites creates new spaces where sexual harassment may occur.

Sexual harassment at work is against the law. Sexual harassment can be committed by an employer, workmate or other people in a working relationship with the victim.

Sexual harassment can be a barrier to women participating fully in paid work. It can undermine their equal participation in organisations or business, reduce the quality of their working life and impose costs on organisations[2].

For my part, I will not “get used to it.” I will continue to let people know that I am uncomfortable with inappropriate comments. Last week I filed a complaint against a course facilitator who made derogatory remarks about women, Asians and Eskimos (sic). I will continue to tell my female Aussie friends that they don’t have to laugh, get drunk, or get liposuction to impress their male colleagues. And if I end up in a high school classroom here, I will do my best to encourage my female students to be birds of paradise and to grow tall and bright in a safe – and yes, a colourful – environment.


8 responses to “Tall Poppies and Birds of Paradise: addressing sexual harassment in Australian culture

  1. I’m so glad the message is spreading! I find it especially intriguing, b/c my boyfriend wants to move to Australia, and he and his friends take part in that same tear-each-other-down banter you described in the beginning. They say I need to stop being so sensitive, and I always reply that they’re not being sensitive enough.

  2. Some people are not aware that their remarks are completely offensive.

  3. Hi,

    I played with Packwood a couple of nights ago at the Fitzroy Palace and just read your blog entry on the ‘vicarious’ site which directed me here. This was a really great piece to read. You know us better than I think we know ourselves. I have worked in a high school here and the dynamic that exists between many male and female students disturbed me. We need more teachers who are aware of everything you have described because we do have an attitude of trying to shrug/laugh off problems like this, particularly concerning gender equality. The thing I find the most concerning is that many people don’t even realise that this is unacceptable behaviour and it is taken for granted. Lots more I’d love to say but I’ve got to get to bed. Look forward to reading more of your blog later and really interested in your travels. I am also a bit of a wanderer and have only just returned to Australia myself. Hope you enjoy your stay!

  4. Great to read your post, brilliantly put & very well researched also 🙂

    Especially love it as it’s very validating: I had a very similar reaction to the one you describe, it was such a shock for me to visit Australia! I couldn’t believe the constant sexism & racism I was witnessing (subtle & not-at-all …), and all the put-downs in general.

    I noticed it just arriving at the airport .. it was like stepping back in time, to how I imagine the culture might have been in Europe some 50yrs ago or something..

    Then soon after landing I got hit with it big time on the permaculture course I went to great lengths & expense to attend, in Tasmania. I got treated with horrendous sexism by ‘the father of permaculture’ himself, which would not have been so shocking (he is pretty old, after all, & am all for making allowances for our elders’ cultures) had it not been seen as completely normal by everyone else around, especially the students, which were my age or younger. Yick ! But I guess that’s what happens when some unquestioned authority carries unhealthy memes: they just get adopted alongside all the good stuff, especially if people don’t question anything.

    Deeply unpleasant as it was, it was all very revealing in understanding a lot about some stronger than average misogynist undercurrents I have always felt in the permaculture movement.
    I am part of several other mixed (& some male-dominated, number-wise) international networks that are just as old or older where things don’t feel quite so heavy for me as a woman, & I had never quite understood why the PC movement is so darn primitive when it comes to basic human rights.

    This is as good an hypothesis as I have got to so far…

    Thanks for writing this! Will add link to my design portfolio.. where I have a page on oppression.

    • Thanks Stella,
      This is an interesting insight. As a newbie both to Australia and to the permaculture movement, I have a lot to learn about these cultures. I personally have not noticed the misogyny in the Permaculture community that you point out, but then again, the PC youth program that I just facilitated had a vast majority of females, both as participants and facilitators. I’m sorry you had a negative experience with your course in Tasmania…I hope that the PDC I’m signed up to attend at Milkwood is more inclusive.

  5. Having moved to the country, I have found that the general conversations that I share do not contain the sexual double entendre so universal in the city, and any rare exceptions to this that I have witnessed tend to be unacknowledged. It is very refreshing, mainly because the English language can have itself back.

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