Australia still has a long way to go when it comes to sexism

The Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act came into being in 1984. It is worth reflecting on that because over 30 years later women are still grappling with many of the same forms of discrimination.

The Sex Discrimination Act was introduced with the aim to promote gender equality; eliminate discrimination on the basis of sex; and eliminate “discrimination involving sexual harassment in the workplace, in educational institutions and other areas of public activity”.

Progress has been made. But as Dr Amira Aftab and I discovered when we analysed a survey commissioned by SBS on the question of whether Australia is sexist, there is still a long way to go.

The resulting documentary, Is Australia Sexist?, includes social experiments using hidden cameras to film street harassment, people’s reaction to sexual harassment in the workplace and what happens when we flip the gender roles.

My favourite part is when a wonderful young comedian, Tegan Higginbotham, hits the streets of Melbourne to throw the kind of comments at men that young women are often subject to. At one point, she asks a bearded gentleman: “Does the carpet match the curtains?”. The responses of the men are instructive. They laugh or look puzzled. No one looks scared.

But in another hidden camera experiment the impact of street harassment on young women becomes clear. As one young woman put it, there is always the threat of rape in the back of women’s minds.

So what do we know about what Australians have to say about gender discrimination? Well, 44% of women indicated that they have experienced gender inequality which rises to 60% for young women. And a third say they have experienced discrimination by the age of 12.

A majority of women and men say women should not have to be the primary carers. But 86% of women say they still do the majority of the housework and 76% of men say they are the primary breadwinners.

40% of young women have experienced sexual harassment in a public place. It’s a statistic that should send a wake-up call to Australians, given that young women also report they feel scared when men make random sexual remarks. Why are we still living in a world where young women feel they have to cover up or take precautions to be safe?

Online sexual harassment is also rife with young women particularly reporting they were trolled and harassed. There is, however, some good news. And boy, do we need it after some of the revelations of #metoo.

80% of Australians said they would stand up for someone who was being sexually harassed in the workplace and the documentary presents powerful anecdotal evidence of just that. It appears the “fair go” ethic of Australians is still alive.

An interesting, if side issue is what Australians think of feminism around five decades since the first second-wave feminist marches. Just over a quarter of women identify as feminist, a statistic I found high given the bad press some of us feminists get. At the same time, over a third of women and around half of men think feminism has “gone too far”. Which makes me wonder – was feminism heading for Brisbane and ended up in Darwin?

Inevitably, there will be controversy about research suggesting gender discrimination is a daily fact of life for women. Certainly, three quarters of men and women believe men suffer sexism too. It would be very interesting to know more about why.

What discrimination looks like and what people think the term means is slippery. Clearly identifying as a feminist is different to being able to identify gender discrimination and support change.

I have no stake in whether someone calls themselves a feminist or not. I have wonderful conservative friends who get out the crosses and garlic at the mention of the term. But we share this: we certainly believe that men and women should have the opportunity to live their lives as fully as possible.

Ultimately, 83% of Australians support gender equality. And I wonder what’s stopping the small percentage who don’t? Now there’s a subject I’d like to see some research on.

This article was first published in The Guardian