Don't be too polite, and show a little fight


(Content warning: This post and links discusses sexual violence and harassment.)

Don’t be too polite, and show a little fight. So says the clarion call in one of the top songs from trade union women’s group Choir Choir Pants On Fire.

It’s a good reminder of the fact that lasting social change doesn’t generally happen when we ask politely. Or as a poster on my wall says, ‘never in history did the rich and powerful give up their privileges voluntarily.’

Social change is a dynamic process, it involves pushing and pulling, and a contest. A metaphor I heard the other week on a campaigning podcast is apt: pressure should be painful, and if not, it’s [just] a massage.

I was reflecting a lot over the summer about what it will take for more men to be willing to stand up and be counted in challenging a system of patriarchy. A system which has awful consequences for women and gender minorities, and ultimately is bad for men as well , in terms of the harm from the rigid, and at times toxic, masculine roles it can deliver.

2018 was an important year for pushing for rights for women. As the Herald’s Kirsty Johnston said, in her article for the newspaper naming ‘women of NZ’ their New Zealander of the year, “from campaigning against sexual harassment in the media, to arguing for equal pay through the courts, to addressing our shameful domestic violence record at the United Nations, women stood up and were counted. They raised their voices when others didn't want to hear.”

2019 however has not started well. Just in the first few weeks of the year we have seen story after story of the consequence of the lack of justice for women in New Zealand.

Whether it was New Zealand Cricket, instead of choosing to part of the solution to addressing rape culture in New Zealand, opting to hide away behind spin and weak deference to a legal system that fails women regularly, or the heartbreaking lack of justice for Mariya Taylor who had to pay thousands of dollars of costs to the man who repeatedly sexually assaulted her, after a time lapse technicality in legal proceedings, or the extraordinary lack of judgement from Newshub in giving a platform for a ‘Roast Busters’ sex offender on the 6 o’clock news last week.

What an awful start to the year. And I am well mindful that I am afforded the ability and privilege to just turn the TV off, walk away, and change the topic – not so survivors of sexual assault who were heartlessly reminded in the last few weeks of the injustice they face.

We won’t address men’s abuse of power by being polite and tip toeing around the issue. I’m impatient, as when people’s lives depend on it, literally – there is a police callout to domestic violence every four minutes in this country – we haven’t got time to wait around ask politely for change.

And so I spent a lot of summer thinking about if this system of oppressive gender relations is one I don’t support, then what am I doing about it?

In my home life, there’s modelling and expectations I can make as a co-parent of two children, there’s being present with unpaid work and emotional labour, there’s organisations I choose to financially support and contribute in other ways to, and there’s calling out behaviour when I see it.

And in my paid work – there is plenty to be done. I work in unions, and after faith organisations, unions are the second largest group of organised people in the world. So I reckon we ought to have a pretty big stake and responsibility to do everything we can to fight for the rights of women to be safe and to have economic security.

We’re keen to pick up on the excellent legislation Jan Logie ushered through last year around paid domestic violence leave and make sure it’s a right that is well understood among working people. There’s a really important opportunity here as we do this, to not just make sure this new right is a real right in practise and demonstrate support for women experiencing violence, but also the workplace conversations we want to have are really important opportunities in setting out clear community views against domestic violence and confronting perpetrator attitudes.

Unions are also working on addressing on sexual harassment on the job itself, some of which is linked to here. And on the global stage we are prioritising our work within the international body of workers, employers and governments (the ILO) to get good global standards on gender based violence at work approved later this year.

And on economic security and wage justice our work on fighting for equal pay for women is continuing apace as mental health support workers, social workers, teachers, nurses, midwives and admin and clerical staff and others have followed the historic Kristine Bartlett care and support workers case, with pay equity processes completed or underway to recognise their full worth.

All of this work – and much, much more – is important. Almost entirely, it is led by the women of our movements in society. If 2018, New Zealand women were the Herald’s NZ’er of the Year, I’d like to think 2019 might see men increasingly their advocacy and activism on advancing women’s rights. It’s time for men, as Clementine Ford has called, to pick our side.

There’s another Choir Choir Pants On Fire song I love – Anne Else’s Half The Sky– a play on the Chinese proverb Women Hold Up Half The Sky, the song makes visible women in low paid service sector jobs.

Women may hold up half the sky, but on the issue sexism and rape culture, and other issues like pay inequity, women are holding up well more than their half of the public pressure and activism, and response work. As in nearly all of it. And when we listen to women, they are telling us this is exhausting work. Men, (I’m including me here), please step up and carry some more of this load.