Peter Smith

Loud, low and thoroughly loathsome

I hadn’t seen Julia Gillard’s “misogyny” speech, just read about it. I thought I better see it for myself. You have to actually see it to understand the bile that she spewed out. It was vituperative; it personified the ugliest face of human nature. I felt strangely diminished and degraded when it was finished. It was beyond disgraceful, even taking into account the grossest of insults and invective that have been hurled in the past across the parliamentary chambers. It had no redeeming feature, no moment of common humanity. She demeaned the high office of prime minister.

Personally, I would not have had the strength of character that Tony Abbott showed by sitting there stoically and calmly – at least in appearance — directly opposite Gillard with her cheer squad behind her as she delivered her hate-filled diatribe. Previously I had seen nothing in him that was not thoroughly decent, but this has elevated Abbott in my estimation of the man.

Truth never matters to demagogues. For example, Gillard accused Abbott of saying that abortion was “the easy way out”, but this is what Abbott actually said:

To a pregnant 14 year old struggling to grasp what’s happening, for example, a senior student with a whole life mapped out or a mother already failing to cope under difficult circumstances, abortion is the easy way out. It’s hardly surprising that people should choose the most convenient exit from awkward situations.

Of course, Abbott is guilty of the odd sexist statement. Find me a man (or woman for that matter) who isn’t. Find me a Labor Party man who isn’t. But we should be clear, he has done nothing to deserve being singled out, and has certainly done nothing to deserve Gillard. But then none of us have.

Ignoring the mindless international Twitter brigade, the balance of commentary appeared to be critical of the speech, even if it was in the wishy-washy, weak-kneed, way (the SMH‘s Paul Sheehan apart) we have come to expect from the mainstream media. However, inexplicably, some people found inspiration in dross.

Let me pick on Jessica Irvine, writing in the Sunday Telegraph. I hadn’t read Ms Irvine before. It’s moot whether I will again. Please don’t construe this as sexism or something worse. I have the highest regard for Ms Irvine in principle, etc, etc. I just think, as a purely personal non-gender specific view, that her column was plain silly.

Ms Irvine thought that Gillard “gave voice to the silent rage of generations of Australian women”. Among other things, she drew attention to the silent rage of grandmothers who wondered whether “they could have been chief financial officer of a major firm”. In being “offended” fourteen times in the space of about 700 words, she pointed out that women are under-represented as CEOs of Australia’s top 200 companies and are paid (on average) less than men.

Women are under-represented on company boards and earn less on average than men. But why stop at company boards. I haven’t done a scientific survey but common observation tells me that women are under-represented as bus, train and truck drivers, and as airline pilots, and as brain surgeons, and as builders and carpenters, and as electricians and plumbers, and as miners, engineers and motor mechanics.

Maybe women are making choices that suit them, and maybe their choice of occupations has something to do with their earnings falling below men’s on average. Just a logical thought. There I go, in a sexist way, suggesting women aren’t logical. And let’s face it, protesting that no such imputation was meant would seem lame and make matters worse.

So, let’s get this straight, I am against all forms of sexist thinking which prevents women realising their potential. I am confident that Tony Abbott feels exactly the same way. I believe that men and women are equal before God. It is therefore plainly wrong for any man, of any religion, of any culture, of any race, to think otherwise. At the same time, it is patently obvious that men and women are not the same.

In a conversation, Tony Abbott apparently agreed that he wanted his daughters to have as much opportunity as men but pondered whether men “by physiology or temperament were more adapted to exercise authority”. Harvard president, Laurence Summers, at a conference about women in science in 2005, queried whether their might be innate differences between men and women in their aptitude for the hard sciences. Some women were wounded. Summers beat a hasty exit from the presidency.

Were both Abbott and Summers sexist male pigs, intent on dissing women, or were they simply pondering over legitimate questions in trying to make sense of the unbalanced representation of men and women in various fields of endeavour? I know why we all want to be highly paid corporate executives and board members. Why do fewer women than men want to be plumbers? Why do fewer men want to be social workers?

Maybe men and women have different aptitudes and want different things. Is that a bad thing to ask questions about? We are not all the same. We differ individually, but also broadly across gender and race.

Should we apply affirmative action to ensure that half of those in the Olympics 100 metres final are white? No, if you are white and want to get into the final you just have to run faster.

If you are a women and want to get onto a company board, well you just have to go to a posh school, climb and climb and climb the corporate ladder, be extroverted and personable while giving the distinct impression of gravitas, dress conservatively (applies equally to men – no pink socks against black shoes), say the right things, mix in the right circles. I was going to say “put yourself about in the right circles” and realised this would be misconstrued and changed it to "mix in the right circles". See how hard non-sexist speaking is for unreconstructed males.

And, finally, remember discrimination abounds in all walks of life; not only women suffer from it. The undeniable proof of this is that I, too, have never been a CEO of a top 200 company.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics

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