The business of sexism: 'Power Play' by Julia Banks

Everyday sexism was on show for an international audience when Australian Olympic Committee head John Coates recently gave Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszcuk a verbal  rap over the knuckles at a media conference in Tokyo (an exchange he claims was misinterpreted).

Many women felt a sickening thud of recognition at the scenario which is all too familiar from sport to business and, as this year has reminded us, in politics.

The revelations about blatant sexism in Parliament House outlined in Julia Banks’ new book “Power Play” are bad enough, but the appalling behavior she faced during a long corporate career should also be setting off alarm bells.

So far much of the reception to the book has unsurprisingly focused on the sleazy antics and bullying in Canberra during Banks’ career as an MP, first for the LNP and then as an Independent.

But for me, the impact of ‘Power Play’ also lies in its remorseless detailing of the sexism, double standards, and boys’ club at the top of businesses that women deal with in jobs everywhere, just about every day. Even when they are senior professionals.

That’s why the powerful cohort who run our major organisations (and they are just about all men) should stop the diversity box ticking and read “Power Play” instead.

Before her political career, Banks spent decades as a lawyer and corporate counsel for large multinationals, but it was the move into politics which led her to speak out about the shocking behavior towards women.

Entering politics, she explains, did feel like a time warp to the business norms of decades ago.

But what she has written also offers us depressingly clear evidence that the gap between Canberra and the corporate world isn’t as wide as many of us might hope.

In fact the corporate corridors in which she battled for a fair go, and basic safety, hasn’t changed nearly as much as some believe.

Last year’s events at AMP, which promoted an executive who had been fined for sexual harassment, and the list of CEOs and executives who have suddenly left their jobs over recent times shows there is much to be done.

And that’s only at senior levels: the Respect@Work report run by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins collected evidence of sexual harassment from hundreds of women in many different jobs and workplaces around Australia.

There is particular impact as Banks details the relentless sexism she faced in her legal career: snide comments on her clothes and behavior, double standards, judgement of her parenting, invisibility around the meeting table, and more recently, ageism.

It’s sexism which is sometimes subtle or brutally overt, she writes, whether a woman is in a position of power or seen to be challenging forces of power. It’s relentless and makes it clear there’s not

Not that her experience was as bad as many others, Banks adds. And while she came from a migrant background, she ended up in a relatively privileged position.

But she has faced occasional racism and details its lethal intersection with sexism, and the lack of power for women in lower socio-economic cohorts.

The book’s release couldn’t be more timely. This year started with claims of rape in Parliament House by staffer Brittany Higgins, and saw thousands of women around the country hit the streets to March4Justice.

Not to mention the searing testimony from Australian of the Year Grace Tame, a survivor of sexual abuse, whose story helped encourage Higgins to speak out.

While Banks is not the only senior woman in business to talk about her treatment, few have focused on the issue over decades, and been able to compare the private and public sectors.

A really troubling aspect that ‘Power Play’ reveals is how normalized sexism has become, and how effectively that has made women feel they are exaggerating or playing the victim if they speak up.

Meanwhile the criticism Banks has failed to name some of the worst offenders in Parliament House misses the point.

“They’re important stories to tell,” she writes. “I don’t want to reduce a complex and vexed issue to individuals, and I want to demonstrate the breadth and extent of the toxic culture that fosters fear and creates silence”.

And that’s what she delivers with a range of stories from the frontline. Being left out of business events, interrupted or overlooked by passive aggressive colleagues, being mistaken for an assistant – they are detailed, visceral and of course entirely credible.

Although her writing occasionally veers into management-ese, Banks acknowledges that concerted efforts to get more women into leadership have been limited to the boardroom or senior ranks.

For all the diversity and inclusion talk, there is far more that needs to be done, and that includes accountability.

For those who were tempted to think what happened to Higgins and Tame was due to their age or even risky behavior, ‘Power Play’ should make them think again.

Power doesn’t bring protection for women. As Banks points out “the greater the public profile of a successful woman, the deeper and more hostile the sexism can become.”

Hopefully Banks – and others such as former PM Julia Gillard, MP Julie Bishop in ABC TV’s series ‘Ms Represented’ and Christine Holgate, former CEO of Australia Post, who faced remarkable hostility and lost her job – are creating a wave of testimony from experienced women with nothing to lose but plenty of insight to share.

Like many of these women, Banks played by the rules, succeeded in climbing the ladder and having a family, but still had to navigate a career-long obstacle course of sexism and bias.

‘Power Play’ shows it’s not women who have to change or work even harder. It’s the rules and people who run the show that need an overhaul.

This will not be the last account to lay bare the reality of women’s working lives. Our suspiciously quiet corporate leaders should take note.

Power Play Julia Banks, Hardie Grant 2021

 

 

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