The unofficial title of yesterday’s All About Women festival could have been ‘Be Seen and Be Heard’ – a stark reminder of the dark times feminism has found itself in only one quarter of the way through 2017. Of the five talks Time Out attended, in every session women were reminded to speak up regardless of the impact it may have on them; from Geena Davis’s talk on gender representation on screen to the aftermath of gendered violence in the home and the workplace. Yes, being seen and heard sounds outdated and it's certainly not as galvanising a message as we might need right now, but perhaps it's a useful starting point. We're regrouping, sharing tactics and getting our energy back to keep fighting for equality in a world that would rather women kept their mouths shut.
Here are five snippets of advice that we took from this year's All About Women:
1. Use data to keep the conversation going on gender representation
The day began with a Hollywood actor preaching to the converted, and happily so. Geena Davis, best known for her roles in Thelma and Louise, A League of Their Own and Beetlejuice, is the founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. She’s also a member of Mensa, special envoy to the UN and she qualified as a semi-finalist for the Sydney 2000 Olympics… in archery. Davis spoke of her mission to increase and diversify roles for women on screen, calling out that only 17 per cent of characters in a crowd, in the fictional worlds watched by children in the US, are made up of women. “Hollywood thinks women don’t gather,” she said, gesturing to the packed Joan Sutherland Theatre. Davis told us her wish as a child had been to take up less space. Nowadays, she spends her time meeting with TV and film execs to present data showing their gender bias – or blind spots – especially within children’s programmes. As she said, “Girls’ participation in archery rose 105 per cent in the year the Hunger Games and Brave were released, so representation on screen matters.” She called out her own privilege and joked that if you see her playing the wife of Sean Connery in a movie you’ll know she’s broke. In one story of how orchestras within the US achieved parity Davis explained that even within blind auditions it was the sound of the women’s shoes that gave them away and it wasn’t until they asked musicians to remove their shoes before auditioning that they achieved a 50/50 split in players. “See, we can achieve parity: you just have to not see or hear us.” But, of course, the solution to media representation is to have more women and girls seen and heard, in more diverse roles. One field in which women are well represented on screen is in forensic science, says Davis, and the number of women in that career in the US has skyrocketed. “If we increase women on screen at the rate we’ve been going it’ll take 700 years to reach parity. I’d like to at least halve that,” she says, half laughing.
2. Give a platform to perpetrators in order to lift the blame and shame from victims
Icelandic Woman of the Year Thordis Elva has received a lot of press attention of late thanks to the video of her TED talk. Elva has written a book called South of Forgiveness with her rapist and former boyfriend Tom Stranger. “I don’t want to focus on forgiveness today,” said Elva who was positioned on the opposite side of the stage to her collaborator. “I want to focus on responsibility.” The Drama Theatre was respectfully silent during the talk between Elva and Australian youth worker Stranger. Elva said their topic was the subject of a 20-year-long professional process between the two of them and by giving her perpetrator a platform to take on that responsibility it shed some self-blame she had carried since the rape. Stranger was both vulnerable and relatable, which was an uncomfortable position for the audience. He said, “What is clear is that she did not give me consent and I did not ask for it.” Elva replied with “Even polite, well mannered boys can rape you in your sleep.” The pair were asked if they could now call themselves ‘friends’ to which Elva replied without pause: “No.” They think of themselves as collaborators in a troubling and emotionally challenging aftermath of rape. However, the main takeaway from the talk was that staying silent – either as the survivor or as the perpetrator – was not the answer. “In the public discourse we only hear from the survivors and this blindsides us,” says Elva. “My story is shared in the hope that… Life after violence is a messy ordeal. Facing the truth is overwhelming. There is not a right way to react; as individuals we have the right to heal.” Elva and Stranger agreed that having a rapist speak publicly could serve as a lesson to others about the pain they had inflicted. “The resolution is that more men take part in the conversation, without taking over,” said Stranger, who was clear that he had not been charged for the crime nor had he served a sentence for it. “I’ve had my actions minimised and this is about entitlement. Me benefiting from this in any way would be wrong.”
3. When faced with discrimination, put yourself in the spotlight – no matter how vulnerable that makes you
Jess Thom’s performance in Backstage at Biscuitland was an example of how positive action can come from being told not to be seen or heard within a public space. Thom has Tourette syndrome; in 2011 she was in the audience of a show she’d gone to see and, after complaints from others in the audience, she was asked to sit in a sound booth. On Sunday, she performed in the “only seat they wouldn’t ask me to leave” – front and centre stage in the Studio of the Opera House. We were told we were in “safe but unpredictable hands” as Jess’s Tourette’s provided opportunity for the audience to laugh – as we were encouraged to do. The show included a mix of serious-ish monologues, game show buzzards (yes, the bird) and puppetry by the super talented improv actor Jess Mabel Jones. There were also obscene songs: “There’s a little bit of light between your eye and your piss”. And there were biscuits. But, importantly, those “explosive ejaculations of playfulness” were about making sure Jess was seen and not silenced.
4. Don’t be silenced by the trolls, catcallers, or societal norms
“Growing up fat I had this feeling that I had failed at being a girl,” said Lindy West, writer and activist. “As a young fat girl you don’t have many role models, except Ursula – who I love.” West addressed how important it became for her to demand space in a world that criticised her daily for not conforming to the male gaze. “It’s your job to be small, thin, quiet and helpful,” says West. Once she woke up to the realisation that being submissive (and small) was about the normalisation of misogyny, she decided that by being a happy fat woman she was upsetting the fantasy that fat women should be sad and alone. Happily married, West spoke about how she drunkenly told her partner to propose publicly, as a protest to the behaviour of men showing off or showcasing their female trophies. “We frame women as a status symbol.” But the most powerful moment of West’s talk was when she expanded on the emotions behind her hugely popular This American Life segment, wherein she confronted her “meanest” troll, and received an apology from him. She said she felt very conflicted about it. “I was really proud of him. He was the one who hurt me the most but he was also the only one who apologised.” She said women shouldn’t give into the impulse to soothe men and make them feel better, but “Sometimes if feels good to be like ‘Fuck off!’” On Trump and her book Shrill, she apologised for telling people to be hopeful, but added there are millions of us and “yelling and yelling is effective.” She ended her talk on intersectionality – calling for white women, like herself, to fight for the most marginalised people. “The job of white people is to police people within your community” for being racist or sexist.
5. Call out misogyny in the workplace
In a panel titled ‘Stop Fixing Women’, author Catherine Fox, Carnival Australia executive chairman Ann Sherry AO and engineer, radio presenter and recipient of the Westpac 100 Women of Influence award, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, talked about what it takes to be successful in business as a woman. Chair Fauziah Ibrahim pointed out this was one of the first talks to sell out ahead of the event, showing there were still plenty of barriers for women in the workplace. The difference today, said Sherry, is that women expect equality, they expect better. But it’s still not equal. Author Fox, whose book inspired the title of the talk, argued that it’s because we’re still advising women to act like men, when that advice doesn’t seem to be working. She said, “We’re treating the symptoms not the cause. Telling women to negotiate [better salary, etc] is whistling in the wind.” Abdel-Magied, as “the only woman on the oil rig” – said she had acted as one of the boys to survive but “Australia is incredibly misogynist” and “mateship culture” is a very masculine concept. When she challenged her own pay gap at work, Abdel-Magied was told not to talk about salary with her colleagues. Fox argued that you have to collect the data on company hiring and promotions and stop telling women it’s their fault. “There’s systemic bias in the workplace,” says Sherry, who said CEOs should be accountable for equality in their KPIs. The inevitable discussion of women supporting other women was raised: Fox suggested we need to stop holding women to different standards; Sherry thinks “We have a responsibility to reach back and pull ten women through with us.” It was clear that there is a lot of internalised misogyny when it comes to how women should behave in the workplace, but there was resounding support for a Sydney Opera House employee who took to the mic to say she had been sexually harassed in the workplace, and that speaking up about it resulted in the manager being fired. It’s clear we’ve got some way to go, but speaking up is the first step.
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