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Mia Freedman: "I feel optimistic about sexism today."

Three women are trying to do their jobs. Three high profile, powerful men make wildly inappropriate comments to them.

Sexism. Sexual harassment. Name-calling. Three women unwillingly thrown into the public eye because three men they worked with behaved badly.

Happy New Year.

I’m not outraged though. I’m optimistic, despite an avalanche of media coverage about these three crappy incidents. In fact, I’m optimistic because of it.

Maybe it’s because I’m at the beach. On holidays. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been trying to channel Malcolm Turnbull’s unshakeably optimistic world view.

But I can’t help feeling like the past three days worth of stories about the sleazy cricketer trying to pick up a female sports reporter mid-interview, the MP who made inappropriate sexual comments to a female public servant and his stupid MP mate who called a female journalist a “mad f**ing witch” are good for women.

Jamie Briggs
MP Jamie Briggs has stepped down from Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet. Image via Twitter.

Stay with me. I promise I’m neither drunk nor stoned as I write this. I don’t think I have heatstroke. It’s raining.

And yet my mood is not one of outrage or despair. I’m enormously heartened and encouraged; not by the dumb actions of the men in question but by the overwhelming condemnation of them.

I won’t go over the details of coalition MPs Jamie Briggs and Peter Dutton’s behaviour here. The coverage has been pretty wall-to-wall over the past few days and if you’ve missed it, you can catch up on it here.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has apologised to journalist Samantha Maiden, after he sent her a text message labelling her a “mad f*cking witch”.

But overnight, another example of casual sexism or, as some are calling it, sexual harassment, has poked through our holiday chill.

Cricketer Chris Gayle is facing disciplinary action after he propositioned a female sports journalist from Channel Ten during a live interview as he came off the pitch.

While Mel McLaughlin tried to ask Gayle about the game, he flicked the switch to sleaze.

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“I just wanted to have an interview with you as well, that’s why I batted so well,” he said before adding, “Your eyes are beautiful, hopefully we can win this game and then we can have a drink after as well. Don’t blush baby.”

The female sports reporter looked intensely uncomfortable about being hit on at work in front of a national TV audience. As you would.

It’s what happened next that makes me feel optimistic.

Watch the interview here. Post continues below.

According to my cricket-mad husband (I’d fallen asleep), Channel 10 addressed the situation quickly and definitively.

This morning, when I asked him how it went down, he said: “The reporter was being well supported behind the scenes, you could see she was very shaken. The network did everything possible to get her back in front of the cameras as quickly as possible to show she was a professional and that she wasn’t some shrinking violet. It was unbelievable to watch. Like being back in the 80s.”

Apparently, Chris Gayle should have been named man of the match and he pointedly wasn’t. He has been widely condemned by the cricket world and the media. He was forced to front the media this morning where he sort of apologised but unfortunately seemed to have not a single clue about why he was being slammed, insisting it was a joke.

But his press conference was swiftly followed by the CEO of Cricket Australia who said pointedly that anyone who thought Gayle’s behaviour was a joke (presumably including, in fact especially, Gayle) was “delusional”. He was unequivocal in his condemnation of Gayle’s behaviour.

While Mel McLaughlin tried to ask Gayle about the game, he seemed to forget they were both at work and tried to pick her up. Screengrab via Channel 10.

Head of the Big Bash League, Anthony Everard tweeted: “I heard Chris’s comments and they’re disrespectful and simply inappropriate. We’ll certainly be talking to him and the Renegades about it. This league is all about it’s appeal to kids, families and females. There’s just no place in the BBL – or for that matter cricket anywhere – for that sort of behaviour.”

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It’s the lead story on all the news outlets I’ve seen this morning, near blanket coverage.

Just as Peter Dutton and Jamie Briggs were over the past two days.

Once upon a time, once a upon a RECENT time in living memory, all three of these incidents would have been so everyday bog standard that the women at the receiving end of these comments and actions would have simply internalised them. There would have been no way to complain. There would have been no news coverage. There would have been no consequences for the men involved, no calls for them to apologise or face sanctions. No support for the women.

I’m 44 and both young enough and old enough to remember what that time was like because I lived through it.

I was sexually harassed at work by a boss who thought it was OK to grope me in the kitchen where I worked as a waitress and describe all the things he’d like to do to me in front of the other restaurant staff.

As recently as the early ’90s, I had no name for this behaviour other than “sleazy”. Sexual harassment was not yet a term anyone had heard of. I told nobody, not because I was ashamed but because it seemed reasonably unremarkable, just something you had to navigate as a woman. My fellow waitresses shrugged when I expressed my distress. They were used to dodging his hands and ignoring his comments.

I was 18 years old and I didn’t want my parents to worry so after becoming genuinely afraid for my safety, I just quit my job. I didn’t feel angry or resentful or even bitter. Just accepting the fact that this was life. This was the lot of a woman.

Well, it’s not anymore. This morning I awoke to unanimous public condemnation of Chris Gayle. Gayle’s clueless press conference aside, I’ve not seen any evidence of a media “debate” about whether sports journalist Mel McLaughlin should have just brushed off Gayle’s wildly inappropriate comments as a “joke” or a “compliment”.

We’ve spent the holidays watching the Big Bash most nights as a family and this morning there has been much talk in our house about what happened and why it wasn’t OK. The kids are interested. They’ve seen the news coverage. It’s a teaching moment in households, workplaces and dinosaur minds around the country.

Melanie McLaughlin
Sports journalist Melanie McLaughlin. Image via Twitter.
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Ditto Briggs and Dutton. Those men — and anyone who dares try support them by leaking photos of the victim to the media — have been condemned as categorically as Chris Gayle.

All the way to the top.

Our Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has today slammed the leaking of a photo (presumably by a Briggs supporter trying to undermine the validity of the woman’s complaint), and made some definitive points about the insidious nature of sexual harassment. In a statement, he said:

“Publishing the identity of a complainant in a case like this not only infringes their privacy, it serves actively to discourage other women who are concerned about the conduct of a superior from raising a complaint in the future. I urge all parties to respect the public servant’s privacy.”

Imagine Tony Abbott making a similar statement to Malcolm Turnbull.

Hell yes. Imagine Tony Abbott making a similar statement? I can’t. Because he never would have.

Nor can I think of a better indication that our country has finally shifted into this century, led by a man who abhors sexism, understands the nuances of sexual harassment and appreciates the vulnerability of women who are victims of it.

Malcolm Turnbull speaks for all of us.

Social attitudes are forever changing. We are constantly evolving in our understanding and definition of what constitutes acceptable behaviour.

There will always be individuals who do stupid, sexist things. As social attitudes change, however, these people are far fewer in number. And their condemnation serves to recalibrate what is seen as acceptable.

So today, I don’t feel outraged about the behaviour of three men. I feel optimistic at the way they’ve been shamed for it and that new lines of public decency, respect and legality are being constantly drawn and re-drawn by the overwhelming majority of people who understand the meaning of sexism.

It’s a reminder of how far we have come while also reminding us that we still have even further to go.

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