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Sexism

The best man for the job?

Over fifteen years ago, when I was an awkward year seven student, I was elected to be the gold faction sports captain. This wasn’t a result that went unquestioned: I wasn’t remotely sporty (one of the less-charitable mothers had even commented on my awkward ‘ballerina-esque’ running style) and the girl I had beaten was undeniably far more athletic. But despite the odd looks and the suggestion from some that maybe the other girl would’ve been a more appropriate choice, I never considered standing down. I believed that I was the best person for the job: I was organised, knew how to use a clipboard, could purchase lollies and had a voice loud enough to cheer a team on single handedly. And, importantly, I was the one who was elected for the position, proving that the majority of my peers believed that I could do the job well.

While insignificant in the scheme of things, I was recently reminded of this period while reading articles about James Ritchie, the male student elected to be the Women’s Officer for the University of Tasmania. The headline that particularly caught my attention was one in Daily Life: ‘Update on the election of a male Women’s Officer at UTAS: James Ritchie has done the right thing and resigned.’

But was resigning the right thing for James Ritchie to do? And should he have been pressured to do so?

I have had trouble deciding which side of this debate to support, which I think reveals something about its complexity. Yes, in a perfect world a Women’s Officer would be a woman, just like a sports captain should ideally be good at sport. However, a female Women’s Officer should be elected because she is the best candidate for the job, not simply because of her sex. Voting a woman into a position on the basis of her sex alone seems to me like positive discrimination gone mad.

In the case of James Ritchie, it appears that he was an appropriate (if not the best) candidate for the job. In his own words, running for Women’s Officer was ‘not a publicity stunt and I’m genuinely interested in helping women whatever issues or feedback they give me, I want to help them do that and I think that’s good for women and good for men and that’s good for the community.’ He also had reasonable policies, including consulting with women about their concerns, addressing campus safety at night and the raising awareness of the HeForShe campaign. And, tellingly, he had the support of his peers, winning the election 112 votes to 88. If James Ritchie was the best candidate who put his hand up for the job, why shouldn’t he be allowed to fill the position? Don’t feminists like myself strive for equal rights for both men and women?

Interestingly, the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Robin Banks was of a similar opinion. While acknowledging the existence of cases where a man would have difficulties providing adequate representation for women (such as when it may be culturally inappropriate), she also stated that ‘I think it’s potentially really exciting that a man is concerned about women’s issues and wants to help women to represent those issues to the powers that be.’

I can certainly understand why a fuss was made. Historically it has been the patriarchy that have decided what was best for women, and for many women having a male Women’s Officer alludes to that time. But, once again, assuming that a person will be good at that role simply because they are a woman (or conversely, that a person is inappropriate for that position because they are a man) is ridiculous. The ideal Women’s Officer candidate (while preferably female) is someone who would do the best job possible, and in the absence of a suitable female candidate why shouldn’t a man fill the position? James Ritchie may never truly understand what it is to be a woman, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe in gender equality or have good ideas to help promote it.

The story of James Ritchie has drawn parallels with that of Tony Abbott electing himself Minister for Women, but I believe there are some key differences. Firstly, Tony Abbott has no qualifications or beliefs that would make him the most appropriate choice, and secondly, our community did not elect him for this role. James Ritchie may have been able to make a positive difference if given the chance. Tony Abbott simply cannot. It was Abbott who once famously said that

I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons.

He could never be considered the best choice as Minister for Women.

I realise as I’m writing this piece that I perhaps have double standards. I don’t believe having a non-indigenous student as Indigenous Officer would necessarily be appropriate, and I’m not sure how I would feel about a non-queer person representing the queer community, or people without disabilities representing those with them. Perhaps this is because I am a woman that I feel free to comment on who can represent women’s issues. People generally want to be represented by those with a similar lived experience as them, and on the whole I agree with this. However, if there is a candidate who can do the best for a group, even if they are not a part of that group themselves, then I don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to try and do their part.

An example of this is at my university, where the doctor who teaches us the Aboriginal Health Curriculum is a non-Indigenous person. However, as a doctor who has worked with Indigenous communities for decades, he may in fact be more qualified to teach us about this field than an Indigenous person who has not worked in medicine. Ideally the best candidate for this position would be an Indigenous doctor who has worked in Indigenous communities, but in the absence of such a candidate what choice do we have?

The world can be a very difficult place for women, and there is still abundant sexism experienced by women on a daily basis. But I think it’s time that we accept that men should also be part of the solution, and that maybe, if there are times where men are the best candidates, they could represent women in an effective way.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Matilda Whitworth is a final year medical student who would like to combine a career in writing and community medicine. She has previously written for the Big Issue magazine about her work with Perth's homeless population.

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Comments

  1. This article skips over the primary motivations as to WHY positions such as Women’s Officer, Indigenous Officer and Queer Officer exist.

    It is to combat the erasure and silencing of these communities. giving positions of power to people outside of the community is a continuation of this silencing.

    This article also goes to imply that there are no capable people within these communities to fill these positions. This is a tiring argument.

    Your example of the non-Indigenous academic ignores the fact that Indigenous and other non-white aspiring and establish academics struggle to attain these positions. not being employed does not equal there not being qualified academics in these fields from Indigenous and other non-white, non-cis and female communities.

    • Samira, our society has a deeply ingrained privilege bias that favours the incumbent and the majority primarily thanks to the majority representation system in place and the general dislike for rocking the status quo (casual racial remarks that are considered “ok” for instance). I agree with both your and Matilda’s stance that ideally the group represented would ideally be by one of its members, however if the person who is selected based on their merit fits the role required by those that it’s meant to represent, then what does it say about our own personal biases if we attack them instead of the underlying issues that resulted in the situation. The very issues of inequitable opportunities that you’ve highlighted. If the person elected fights the inequality that the people they represent face, what difference does it make? I guess justice is blind, but our human capacity to overcome or own inherent bias is not.

      • Men can never represent women based on merit. Not even all women have the experience and skills to represent other women. A women’s officer should ideally be part of the women’s collective, organise and develop the skills and experience to do a good job. A women’s collective is a political, personal and autonomous space for women. Men stay in your own spaces – even in spaces where women can dominate in numbers, men take over – and respect that women have our own voices, need our own spaces to organise and seek support and realise we live in a patriarchy that enables you to think you are so entitled to represent and speak for us.

        • I think Matilda’s argument has a lot of holes in it. And at the risk of clumsily mansplaining things, I’d like to respectfully stand behind Claire.

          First, Matilda’s post avoids asking the question as to who the other candidates were, and why the position wasn’t specified as a woman-only position. It seems unlikely to me that a woman is going to want to confide in a male representative about her concerns about violence, harassment or assault, especially if they affect her personally.

          2nd, the entire ‘merit-based’ argument is one that conservatives are very fond of in order to prevent meaningful change. That’s very nice that James Ritchie was committed to the HeForShe campaign and everything, but that’s hardly radical politics.
          At the Feminist Current blog Meghan Murphy wrote:
          I’m sick of man after man after man claiming to be “on our side” and to be “helping women,” but then refusing to actually listen to women, expecting cookies and pats on the head for being “good men,” then striking back when they don’t receive what they believe they are entitled to as self-proclaimed allies. This is precisely why men cannot be leaders in this movement. They can (and should) certainly support feminism and work against patriarchy and male violence, but they can’t do this without or outside of the feminist movement.

          3rd, Matilda wrote: “Don’t feminists like myself strive for equal rights for both men and women?” Well, at the risk of mansplaining things I’d argue that feminism can be a lot more radical than that, and that to remain within that definition opens a lot of doors to a lot of very reactionary positions.

          4th Matilda wrote; [Robin Banks] stated that ‘I think it’s potentially really exciting that a man is concerned about women’s issues and wants to help women to represent those issues to the powers that be.’

          That’s a heart-rending statement. There are many ways men could ‘help’ women if they are committed to feminism. For example, we could take responsibility for our own privilege and find ways to work against male violence without occupying the positions that women have created with great struggle. A man volunteering to be a women’s rep isn’t something to cheer about.

          5th, Matilda wrote: “ Historically it has been the patriarchy that have decided what was best for women, and for many women having a male Women’s Officer alludes to that time”.

          ‘That time’ ? I don’t think that time has passed. It’s now.

          6th, Matilda wrote: “But, once again, assuming that a person will be good at that role simply because they are a woman (or conversely, that a person is inappropriate for that position because they are a man) is ridiculous”.

          I don’t think it is. That is why women’s refuges are staffed by women. And rape crisis centres.

          7th, Matilda wrote: “James Ritchie may never truly understand what it is to be a woman, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe in gender equality or have good ideas to help promote it”.

          No, really it does. Men don’t ‘understand’ women because (a) we live inside a bubble of privilege and entitlement, and (b) The feminine is positioned as the fearful Other from babyhood. If James Ritchie has good ideas to counter partriarchy, go and tell them to other men and help to radicalise them.

          8th, Matilda wrote: “I don’t believe having a non-indigenous student as Indigenous Officer would necessarily be appropriate, and I’m not sure how I would feel about a non-queer person representing the queer community, or people without disabilities representing those with them”.

          I imagine that a cis person representing the LGBTI community would be a very problematic idea. As is non-Indigenous people speaking on behalf of Indigenous people. And men speaking on behalf of women.

          9th, Matilda wrote: “An example of this is at my university, where the doctor who teaches us the Aboriginal Health Curriculum is a non-Indigenous person. However, as a doctor who has worked with Indigenous communities for decades, he may in fact be more qualified…, but in the absence of such a candidate what choice do we have?”

          Well, we could say that it is not ok. We could look at the structural practices that prevent suitable Indigenous candidates being employed etc etc.

          10th Matilda wrote: “But I think it’s time that we accept that men should also be part of the solution, and that maybe, if there are times where men are the best candidates, they could represent women in an effective way”.

          Of course men meed to be part of the solution in regard to gender inequality, male violence; By stepping up and taking responsibility, not by occupying territory women are mapping out.

          • Sorry, that 2nd sentence should have read ‘respectfully stand behind Claire and Samira’.

    • Sorry Samira, Matilda made some good points and is pretty bang on. Is it really silencing if James were to listen to women and his actions as a whole gave women voice and visibility? If that’s silencing then just end it all now and be done with it, what’s the point?

      • What like James would listen to women like you are listening to Samira now? Why do men have to take up positions reserved for women when we can try to represent women as a group on campus? The whole world is reserved for men. Stay in your lane.

      • We do not need men to give us visibility – you overinflated your sense of importance and capabilities. Go away patriarchical, daddy wannabes.

      • Oh and really so end feminism or the fight against the oppression of women because men can’t get in on the action…wow, you have no respect for the history of feminism and women’s liberation and how powerful women can be in a group.

  2. “It is to combat the erasure and silencing of these communities. giving positions of power to people outside of the community is a continuation of this silencing.”

    Please provide primary evidence to support this statement.

  3. A couple of my ex-girlfriends have been severely humiliated and traumatised, as have I, as a result of the absurd notion that it is somehow sexist for a woman or her boyfriend to not want her to have to show her body to another man in the hospital. The God damn RHH even appointed a f’n MAN to do rape-victim forensic kits on women!

  4. It’s amazing seeing passionate people committing quite a few logical fallacies in their arguements for or against ‘who’ represents the disenfranchised instead of focusing on what and how to empower those without a voice are achieved via representation / advocacy. Please educate yourselves with copies of these free posters: https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/poster

    Committing logical fallacies gets us nowhere and it often results in petty squabbling. There are plenty of people that are not members of the disenfranchised that want to contribute to meaningful change, sure you do have the misguided as with all causes, but why deny the genuine just because of genetics? Look at the WHO and other similar organisations, their makeup and how they don’t focus on the ‘who’ represents, advocates or helps, but what they can do to help or effect change.

    Representation and advocacy is different from taking on a role that requires very particular sensitivities to assist the vulnerable.

    If the disenfranchised chose a representative or advocate outside of their community (UT only), by arguing that their choice is wrong based on genetics is you disrespecting their choice and in effect, silencing their voice just so you can have your two cents. In the end what are you trying to achieve? Political correctness at what cost? Choose your battles more carefully next time.

  5. Also as another point, discrimination (human bias) is defined as “the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.”

    • This is becoming increasingly strange.
      Alex, you are in the wrong ball park playing a completely different game, and probably in the wrong century. The issue of women’s representation of women’s issues is not an issue of ‘genetics’ as you call it. It is about politics; about power and control and how that gets codified and naturalised. That ‘naturalising’ enables scoffing arguments such as yours to ignore how gender politics actually work. Pretty soon you’ll be arguing for ‘female chauvinism’ and that excluding men from working in women’s refuges is sexist. This is what you seem to be saying about the issue raised in Matilda’s article anyway; that arguments against Ritchie’s appointment are discrimination on the basis of gender.
      Positive discrimination, affirmative action etc etc acknowledges that misogyny is calcified into many arenas of public life.
      And discrimination is not ‘human bias’. It is political bias.

      • I scoff at pettiness and shortsightedness. To clarify your confusion that you’ve based your response on personal incredulity that’s lead you to commit ad hominem to try and undermine my character based on very flawed and presumptuous stereotypes, and resulted in your next fallacy, the slippery slope, that being: https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/slippery-slope

        I’ll refer you to the genetic logical fallacy that’s been committed originally, please educate yourself via this link instead of just assuming: https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/genetic

        The point that’s been muddied is the purpose of the position, purely symbolic and discriminatory, or one with the intent of effecting the greatest change in the shortest amount of time regardless of symbolism (e.g. it must be a woman, or it must be an aboriginal or minority etc) but not without moral (& note I’ve made it clear previously that the two are not mutually exclusive).

        You discredit all those people that have the awareness of the human condition and our inherent biases, and been able look beyond their skin colour and gender (genetics) in the pursuit of equity for the common good.

        You also confuse the different roles that people assisting in women refuges and representation / advocates play and have avoided the point that to discount someone based on genetics (a.k.a. appearance) is discriminatory.

        Calling it political bias (a human construct like language) is to distance the fact it’s the human condition that’s created it in the first place and to deny that humans are inherently biased. You can test for your own implicit & very human biases via this link and help the researchers at Harvard whilst your at it: https://www.projectimplicit.net/index.html

        The current status quo of what is considered favourable characteristics (e.g. white Anglo Saxon male) and what isn’t (e.g. skin whitening cream that’s being favoured by subcontinent Indians) is abhorrent. To apply that favourable characteristics logic to a person in representing / advocating for equity is also lunacy. Representing / advocacy is not the same role as women assisting other women, due to compassionate sensitivities to the vulnerable, in their time of need.

        No significant and effectual change comes about from nit picking and squabbling about the finer details, and sacrificing effort in focusing on the common goal. Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Ghandi and other notable effectors of change understood that. It’s the idea that has power, and their very ideals make them symbols and effectors of change. For Nelson Mandela and Ghandi, it was and added bonus to their cause that they were from the disenfranchised.

        Polliticians understand that to ensure the status quo, you divide the populace and sow confusion and fear. Look at those that are in power, they know how to stay in power and further their stupidity and short sighted policies. Fear is the single biggest driver in how we humans behave, and marketers and politicians know how to use it against us. Your viewpoint like many others is based on fear. Fear that the symbol cannot be different is nonsensical. Look at the symbolism of the role (it exists to give a voice, regardless of appearance, to the disenfranchised and effect positive change for them), its intent and how it can effect change. I’d happily nominate an extraterrestrial as long as they fullfil the role of effecting the change the disenfranchised are looking for. And before you attack my character again because of your personal incredulity, I am of an ethnic minority whose very familiar and aware of casual and structural discrimination (hint hint, the casual racist remarks I mentioned before). I.e. your conduct in your critique is poor and so very narrow minded. Shame on you.

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