In the Weekend Australian magazine 17-18 November, 2018, were three stories about females, reflecting how parental, cultural and socio-political norms affect people differently. Australian author Nikki Gemmell, aged 52, penned a column in the magazine narrating that she has recently realised how socially conditioned she was as a female, similarly to others, to “make ourselves smaller, quieter, less disruptive and less threatening, more compliant and attuned to what the world wants us to be. We’re socialised into self-doubt and self-censorship.” Featured a few pages later in the magazine was Pakistani Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai, who was just 13-years-old when she was shot in the head by the Taliban in October 2012 for being an outspoken advocate of female education. Compared to Nikki, she apparently experienced such a different social milieu in her home that she was resolute and resilient to transcend the Taliban dictates of female destiny which proscribed education for girls. The following article was on ACTU general secretary, Sally McManus, aged 47, who was headlined as a “Straight talker…(who is) combative and uncompromising…”; maybe more akin to Malala than Nicki despite like Nikki, growing up in Australia.

My ignorance about Nikki’s family attitudes and Sally’s too, which the articles didn’t write about, manifest Malala’s young life as somewhat contrary having a father “who did not stop me…(from raising my voice”) McManus also acknowledged she was “used to standing up and being straight with people”, albeit about union issues without any detail as to how she became a confident and articulate woman to raise her own voice. So why, I’m contemplating, has it taken Nikki until her early 50s to understand how conditioned she’s been as a “second sex” female? Has she lived in a vacuum of female change, oblivious to the 70s second wave feminism and subsequent efforts to embolden women to be independent and liberated? Just where has she been living and what did her parents espouse in her young life? What were her passions, interests and ambitions as an adolescent?

Obviously, I can’t answer these questions but it seems females who ascend in a male dominated arena such as politics, business and even technology, are the ones who attract attention and media focus leaving me wondering about all the other millions of women in this country who, as Nikki wrote, are still apparently trapped in socially conditioned roles as passive and docile and without self-belief. The women who make the headlines and who have surpassed the subservient status are the exception, rather than the rule. So why is that? What hasn’t happened in more than four decades and/or why is change so slow?

Moreover, what Nikki doesn’t consider are the consequences when a woman does “raise her voice” to threaten the status quo. Malala was shot, Sally McManus is oft criticised as a errant “leftie” while my personal experience for standing up for myself all my life has engendered abuse, persecution and put downs. In one perspective females who evince assertive and confident behaviour can be perceived as delusional and grandiose, secondly, also abnormal and aberrant and thirdly, that there is something “wrong” with them if they don’t succumb to traditional stereotypes of the helpless woman on her own who must have a man to validate her self-worth, normalcy and of course, sanity. Those were the attitudes towards me; sadly more from females, family members, friends and work colleagues than from males, though there were some of them too. That has depressingly been my experience and reading other articles in a publication Deal by The Australian which covered women “at the top” in business, they were mostly all married with children and had supportive husbands and presumably as CEO’s earned good money to “look the part”.

Indeed, the editor of the publication, Helen Trinca, wrote “The dress code is just one factor that continues to divide the way our society judges men and women at work.” She goes on to assert “Earlier generations of women faced a level of unconscious bias that often frustrated their hopes early in their lives,”  as I know only too well. McManus’s photo accompanying her story sees her dressed in what appears to be a black jacket, skinny black jeans, black lace-up boots and a dark grey T-shirt. She is sitting more typically masculine with one leg crossed over the top of another and has short-cropped hair and appears not to be wearing any make-up. Of course, the issue is raised as to her sexuality as she says that “She is not in a relationship and describes herself as ‘married to the union movement.” She continues that she grew up “Non-gender conforming” since primary school when she wanted to play soccer with the boys “but as a girl was not allowed to.” Growing up with two brothers, “I was always hanging out with the boys so I didn’t really fit into the traditional box that a girl does.” Going on, she elucidates that “clothes and all of those things aren’t important to me… If people think you’re a lesbian, it’s hardly something terrible. You know, so what? Who cares what my sexuality may or may not be? I am (straight) but I feel like it’s…saying to all the lesbians out there, ‘Well, don’t worry. I’m not one of you’ I sort of always feel a bit like that. Like (people say) ’You should just declare that you’re straight or this or that. I say, ‘Why does this matter?’” I relate to her sentiments as I’ve oft pondered why people need to “come out” or even mention sexuality in a context such as hers and of course I copped it all forty years ago in England and since because I’m on my own too. Maybe as I once told a girlfriend “I married myself” because I was my own best friend.

It seems women such as McManus still experience a lot of sexual slurs and innuendoes compared to the women CEO’s who were all pictured in fashionable gear wearing make-up with their hair all neat and coiffured. They’re also very conservatively dressed in jackets and suits in mostly dark colours such as black and deep grey. Despite the women’s success, “the top job in the top 200 Australian companies is still being taken, 93 per cent of the time, by a man. The statistics for women in board positions are more encouraging: women now occupy 28 per cent of board positions up from 8 per cent in 2008. Curiously, it’s the non-traditional sectors-mining, construction and petrochemicals-where women seem to be doing the best.”

So where does a woman like Nikki fit in? She’s older than those female CEOs but it seems her lack of knowledge about the social norms of conditioning has set her back. It’s as if she’s been in a cocoon oblivious to what’s gone on around her so that she’s only now emerging from that cocoon to realise a new agenda is possible. Why has it taken her so long and what of other women like her? I’ve written before that maybe most females simply enjoy being docile, passive and “compliant” – to use Nikki’s word – as rocking the boat can be disadvantageous and downright depressing when others perceive you as frightening, dangerous or a threat. They often don’t want to know you so you can be isolated and alone a lot of the time. I know that too as I’ve paid that price. For many women, staying protected in their secure cocoon is far more favourable than risking being persecuted and pilloried for not fitting in to the “traditional box”.

It’s a complex issue but there are now many younger women being assertive, establishing their own businesses and endeavouring to carve out a life for themselves beyond the old conditioning. Somehow Nikki missed the boat but then, she has her own column in a prestigious newspaper, has published 14 books and is regarded as a very successful writer. The issue for me is that she writes so often about how she’s still coming out of the cocoon but I daresay the fact she has her own column reflects that her situation resonates with many, many women.; young and around her own age too. It’s as if change for most people is so slow and/or they don’t even know what’s best for them, with the unknown too frightening to experience or even to risk finding out about. It is certainly less difficult, fraught and confusing to stay within the traditional stereotypes unless you have already established some semblance of normalcy with a husband and children to achieve beyond the home front. I’m unsure whether anything will change much more over the course of my life as at nearly 69, not that much has really changed  in many ways. Attitudes still seem entrenched in past eras.

Malala’s father, Zia, sums up the issue on one level when he says: “It was scary to speak against the Taliban, but it was scarier not to speak against them. Because when you imagine that my daughter will be without education or my wife will not be allowed to walk in the marketplace, that was scarier. Our courage was greater than our fear.” Maybe many women here are sadly not that brave; though the threats are not anywhere near the same as that of the Taliban, but Zia’s words can refer to the situation many women accept instead of speaking out and raising their voice and I’m not talking about issues such as #MeToo but issues relating to what behaviours and attitudes are deemed acceptable and approved of in this country; at work, at home and at play. The gender divide seems alive and well and thriving but I’m glad that comedian and TV host Mikey Robins, 56, featured in The Age Sunday Life magazine just a week before the Australian articles said: “What women and men have in common- the needs, wants, desires and aspirations- is far greater than our perceived gender differences. We all want the same thing…”

If more people recognised their common humanity maybe more men and women would stop playing the gender card and women like Nikki would have realised decades ago what she now confronts. I’m confused as to why that gender divide is still extant, why the traditional box exists for males and females and why gender cannot be relegated to the past to become irrelevant. Maybe one day it will be!