The male professoriate in law

A male law professor mentioned to me recently that in his experience, if you just do your work, and do it well, then your career will progress – rewards will flow. I was somewhat taken aback by this statement and pointed out that this certainly was not my own experience, and was unlikely to be the experience of many women in academia. Indeed, I suspect this is not the case in any profession.

It got me thinking about the makeup of Australian law schools. We currently have many women law deans around the country – though I do note that some are punching above their weight, holding the role of dean at a substantive position lower than professor. The law school is a feminised work force in many respects – women are highly visible in so many law schools. However I suspect that this is because women form the bulk of our casualised workforce, teaching sessionally.

I wondered though about the makeup of the professoriate. With so many women – and so many capable women – one might expect that there would be equality in the upper ranks of the law school. Let’s see if the numbers bear this out.

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Plebiscite not within ABS role

The Australian government has, notoriously, decided to run what it calls a plebiscite on the question of marriage equality in Australia. It will put up a bill to set up the running of the plebiscite as a mainstream vote, but this is expected to fail. Its fallback position is to have the Australian Bureau of Statistics (‘ABS’) run a voluntary postal vote.

On a straightforward reading of the relevant statutes, it is unlikely that the ABS is empowered by its legislation to run the vote. The former head of the ABS appears also to hold this view.

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Two former PMs and failure of ‘cultural competency’

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Swans are necessarily white only if you display a lack of critical thinking

I have just spent a stimulating and inspiring two days at ANU College of Law in a consultation workshop as part of an important research project into Indigenous cultural competency for legal academics led by Marcelle Burns of UNE. The project is funded by the (now sadly defunct) Commonwealth Office of Learning and Teaching. This is a project of substance, and of national importance. The standing of the project leaders and those who participated in the workshop is testament to this.

 

I emerged from this overall positive discourse to news that former Prime Minister John Howard found ‘appalling’  the idea of a treaty with Indigenous Australians, and that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott dismissed a treaty out of hand. In the first place, Mr Abbott said, a treaty is entered into between two nations – I suppose he means that as a definitional question this is a logical impossibility, for Indigenous Australians hold no seat at the UN (incidentally an institution of which Mr Abbott does not approve). In the second place, Mr Abbott said that going down the path of treaty would spoil the chance for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

These two comments offer a case study in the very issues that occupied our thinking in the workshop. How could it be that two men could rise to be Prime Minister of Australia, senior lawmakers, with such an abject lack of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that sound in inter-cultural competence – a necessity for all professionals but in particular for lawyers.

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Say no to sexist language in public discourse

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In the week that brought to light television personality Eddie McGuire’s ‘banter’ about sports journalist Caroline Wilson, the voters of Leichhardt, have been treated to campaign signs depicting a witch. The signs have been placed adjacent to campaign signs of the only woman candidate in Leichhardt, ALP candidate Sharryn Howes.

The signs themselves entreat the voter to ‘put Labor last’ because winding back negative gearing is a ‘wicked thing to do’.

The incumbent MP Warren Entsch, who authorised the signs, has ‘angrily denied’ any comparison between his signs and the notorious ‘Ditch the Witch’ signs used in rallies in 2011, attended by former Prime Minister Abbott.  According to reports, Mr Entsch has said

“It has nothing to do with anything else. We think its a wicked and awful thing to do for small time investors.”

“I didn’t select the image and it has nothing to do with anything else. Anyone who knows me knows those claims are absolute bullshit.”

With respect, whatever Mr Entsch’s views, the LNP’s views, or the voter views of negative gearing and small time investors, it is not OK to use the language and imagery of witches about women. The implication of the image of the witch, deliberately positioned adjacent to Ms Howes’ campaign corflutes, is to invoke the comparison.

Today is not the first time I have written about witches. In fact, early this year I offered some advice for parliamentarians that warrants repeating:

‘Witch’ is a term used to denigrate women. It represents a woman who has outgrown her sexual utility, often imagined as a toothless old crone. It might also represent the threat women pose to patriarchy – through the magicke of their sexual wiles and fertility, the witch stands ready to trap unwary men. The vast majority of those burned as witches were women. That is no accident. It was an effective means of keeping women in their place.

Today, ‘witch’ carries its anti-women history even though many who use the term may not be conscious of it. As a word not used against men, and in light of the negative connotations it carries, use of ‘witch’ is sexist.

Advice to parliamentarians: find a different word without the sexist baggage.

The signs themselves go so far as to say ‘unfortunately , unlike the movies we can’t get rid of them by pouring water on them’. They express disappointment at a general inability to keep witches – women – in their place.

I accept that there may be an intent to express a desire to keep the ALP in ‘its place’ ie out of government. Sadly however, the clumsiness of the analogy and the language used instead conveys the time-worn expression of antipathy towards women. Women should not have to face sexist language. Women candidates for political office should not face sexist harassment in the course of doing so. We can be better than this.

Many will reject this interpretation. The metaphor is so deeply ingrained in our sexist culture that we have become immune to it. But let’s aspire to a higher level of discourse, that seeks actively, consciously, to deal with the issues without resorting to historical gendered slurs.

Even if Mr Entsch does not himself see the connection between the sign he authorised and the sexist implications for his opponent, he is now on notice that the posters sexist, and that many perceive them to be sexist. He is therefore in a position to step up, and to have the posters removed. That would be a fine contribution to public discourse.

Fertility tracking: women’s lib?

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 10.34.49 amA recent article in The Guardian profiled the rise of fertility tracking software and devices. It left me uncomfortably attempting to reconcile the obvious benefits with what are likely to be the costs of such technologies.

For some time, apps have been available as a means to record your menstrual cycle. The one I use, Period Tracker, allows you not only to input the date of your period, but to record a variety of symptoms (bloating, headache, night sweats) and moods (‘flirty’, anxious, sad), and even when a woman is sexually active. The app calculates your likely cycle, which for those who menstruate other than on a 28 day cycle, is very handy. The deluxe version, I believe, can be shared with your partner to identify your window of fertility.

Fertility trackers are an updated version of this. Like Fitbit, they can be tuned into your body’s physiology and work with that data to alert you to your fertility. Some suggest that this data might also be able to predict underlying medical conditions. This has implications both personally and population wide – implications that are both potentially liberating and chilling.

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Boundaries

On the first business day after Christmas, the Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, Jamie Briggs MP, resigned from his ministry citing a lapse in ministerial standards. It has been reported that while at a function in Hong Kong, Mr Briggs said to a junior public servant that she had ‘piercing eyes’, that he later put his arm around her, and when she left the function he kissed her on the cheek. A cabinet investigation found that the events were a breach of ministerial standards, prompting Mr Briggs’ resignation.

Discussion online (see eg Jennifer Wilson, and Andrew Elder) and in the mainstream media (see eg Daily Mail and The Australian) vacillates between defence of Mr Briggs’ behaviour and dismay that such behaviour might exist still, in 2015.

As there is no suggestion that Mr Briggs was not afforded due process in cabinet’s investigation of the matter, the difference in opinion between those who think that Mr Briggs’ actions are acceptable and those who do not is a question of the boundaries of sexual behaviour. Indeed the boundaries issue might be one of when behaviour is sexual at all.

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