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Just ‘harmless fun’?

September 2012

  • Victor Sojo & Robert Wood

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Julia Gillard repeatedly made the news on the same theme. First, David Farley, CEO of Australian Agricultural Company, spoke about his plans to build an abattoir that would specialise in killing old cows for cheap meat. “So it’s designed for non-productive old cows – Julia Gillard’s got to watch out.” When challenged, Mr Farley replied that he had been taken out of context and his comments had been “tongue-in-cheek”.

More recently, questions were raised in a national newspaper about her actions as a lawyer almost two decades ago. In responding to those allegations, she slammed the “misogynists and nut jobs” who perpetuated these stories.

This chain of events unleashed the well-worn reactions – “Misogyny rules”; “PM cops sexist spray”. It was the subject of sustained debate with some commentators agreeing that this was directed to the prime minister precisely because of her gender.

This raises the interesting question of what is acceptable behaviour when it comes to making jokes which involve the target’s gender. Are ‘low level’ jokes really harmless? Were those who expressed their disgust being a bit too precious?

The Centre for Ethical Leadership at Melbourne Business School has completed research into resilience of women in the workplace and it has found that even ‘low level’ sexual comments have a major impact on women’s work performance and are a critical factor in whether they survive and prosper in organisations or leave. 

Resilience examines the factors that determine whether women fit in, function well and are able to grow in their workplace. It is accepted that if an employee fits in, performs well, stays healthy and involved with the organisation and is able to progress through the ranks, he or she is more likely to remain.

For female employees, positive factors that promote their fit, performance and health include opportunities for development, job network and support, organisational climate, transparency of HR practices and job satisfaction.

However, the negative factors that detract from this are sexual harassment and a sexist climate. If an organisation values men more than women and allows for overt and covert discrimination and harassment of women, then this has a negative impact on a woman’s ability to thrive. Covert discrimination includes crude behaviour and low level jokes made under the cover of humour.

So what happens when a woman has already risen through the ranks of the organisation? Doesn’t this prove that the organisation has been supportive or that she is tough enough to be treated as “one of the boys”? Shouldn’t someone as experienced as the Prime Minister be able to brush off these sorts of comments?

Sadly, the effect of these comments does not end with the reaction of the target. The Centre’s research also details the phenomenon of ‘stereotype threat’. 

While the perpetrators might not believe that they are being sexist, and will often respond that they are “just joking” when challenged, the effects for women are insidious because they create a reaction referred to as ‘stereotype threat’ in which the targeted individuals will often ruminate on the implications and be distracted from the task at hand.  

The effects are not limited to the women who are targeted – other women who hear the remarks can also experience stereotype threat as a member of the group whose status is challenged. 

When a sexist remark is challenged and the perpetrator responds that they are “just joking”, it presents two challenges – first, women are diminished by their gender and second, about their sense of humour and social competence. Women who experience this, even second-hand, are less likely to remain in the organisation or feel a sense of commitment to its success.

In the next research report to be released later this year, we will explore the theme of unconscious bias which is an inclination to hold a biased perspective at the expense of other valid alternatives, and without our conscious awareness. This has important implications for the success of any gender initiatives which organisations seek to introduce. If its management team and employees hold views which are inconsistent with the idea of gender equality, whether conscious or otherwise, then this makes the introduction of equality programs less likely to succeed.

Perhaps Mr Farley and the “misogynists” referred to by the Prime Minister will agree to have their attitudes examined to see whether they holds any biases in relation to women in senior executive roles.


Victor Sojo is Research Associate and Professor Robert Wood is Director, Centre for Ethical Leadership, Melbourne Business School.



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