Politics Analysis

JENNIFER WILSON: Christine Holgate's status no protection against PM's bullying

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(Cartoon by Ned Toons)

Christine Holgate's level of power or privilege is not relevant to the fact that Scott Morrison bullied her out of her job, except to show that no woman is immune, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

THE MISOGYNISTIC BULLYING of former Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, last week, presented some on the Left with a considerable moral challenge.

Holgate is a privileged woman and, like many male high achievers in the business world, has a history of decisions and actions that some find questionable. Janine Perrett in this article in Crikey pointed out imperfections, including the ordering of cheese sandwiches at 9 pm when staying in a hotel on a work trip — a criticism unlikely to ever be levelled at a male CEO, but somehow considered a relevant indicator of a flawed female character.

In the same publication, Stephen Mayne examined Holgate’s performance during her five years on the board of Ten Network Holdings and found it wanting.

Author and analyst Ketan Joshi posted the following on Twitter, expressing sentiments shared by others:

What is remarkable is that these negative reports of Holgate’s business practices and dietary preferences suddenly became relevant when she was very publicly bullied by the Prime Minister in question time, and subsequently vigorously complained about it in Senate Estimates.

It is difficult to present negative aspects of an alleged victim’s character without creating the impression that the goal is to in some way diminish that victim and in so doing, invalidate the authenticity of her claims. Indeed, destroying the victim’s character is the cornerstone of the defence in many criminal trials.

While it would be wrong to assume that this was the intention of the cited authors, the optics, together with the timing of the posts, do imply such intention.

The use of Holgate’s apparent flaws to discredit her claims seems to play into the dangerous trope that only pure women can be harmed, everybody else just gets what’s coming to us.

This is not to say the observations are incorrect or to claim that Holgate is without flaws in her business practices and beliefs. It’s not to say that questions shouldn’t be asked. It is simply to note the timing of these queries and in Perrett and Joshi's case, their apparent hostility.

It is to ask, what does any of this have to do with Holgate’s claims of bullying?

Holgate’s appalling treatment was public and witnessed by many. It should not be diminished or dismissed because Holgate is imperfect — unless we are of the opinion that a woman must be without flaws before she can authentically claim to have been the victim of misogyny. The use of Holgate’s apparent flaws to discredit her claims seems to play into the dangerous trope that only pure women can be harmed, everybody else just gets what’s coming to us. This is not a standard generally applied to men.

The argument that women who play with the big boys should expect to be treated badly is also misguided. The majority of women who are bullied by men are not highflyers. Male bullying knows no economic or class boundaries. The difference between most women and Holgate is her privilege and the opportunity it gives her to both find a platform to express her complaint, and survive and recover from the psychological and emotional assault that complaint delivered.

As always, the inequality inevitably caused by privilege is the problem here, as well as the misogyny. That inequality is systemic and structural. Hostility towards Holgate and the negation of her claims because of her status will not resolve it.

Focusing on privilege in this instance distracts from the endemic nature of misogyny. It lets the Prime Minister off the hook by redirecting the argument away from him to the victim’s behaviour and circumstances.

It supports the bizarre belief that misogyny doesn’t matter if it’s directed towards privileged women.

However, the realisation that even a woman of Holgate’s status can be subjected to male bullying resulting in humiliation and the loss of her job, ought to emphasise how tough the situation is for the rest of us who lack her privilege. If it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone. And it does.

Morrison’s confected outrage in Parliament against Holgate and his demand that she leave her Australia Post position was delivered in a snarling, hateful manner that many of us who have been on the receiving end of male contempt and fury recognise, often with distress. It was a performance designed to humiliate, shame and banish, and it is difficult to imagine Morrison acting in a similar manner towards a male CEO.

It’s never easy to concede that those we don’t like and those who have it a whole lot better than we do can also suffer. CEOs are frequently not our friends and they are an integral part of a system that exploits and destroys many of us. The idea of already well-paid executives being gifted Cartier watches for doing their jobs does not sit well. Holgate may be a wealthy member of a wealthy elite. She will likely survive a lot better than the majority of us who have endured bullying and humiliation in all its forms.

What is notable, though, is that the same tactics of diminishment and invalidation have been used against her as are being used against the rest of us. Misogyny rules. It rules absolutely. And the moral dilemma presented by her status and privilege only enables that misogyny if we refuse to acknowledge that she and women like her can be – and are – its victims.

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and an academic. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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