By Bre Shanahan
Declaration: Bre Shanahan was the 2020 Guild President. She ran as a STAR candidate in Guild Elections from 2017 to 2020.
For you, Guild elections may be the subject of ridicule and mockery; for me, they have been traumatic. Sometimes, things aren’t just annoying. Sometimes, this conceals something worse which is reduced and rationalised as something easier to digest; something that can be dismissed.
Attitudes towards women that we have seen demonstrated in the media over the past year or more portray a damning view of Australian politics. We have seen rape allegations against our Attorney-General – the highest law officer in this country – met with his ‘demotion’ to a lesser Ministerial position. We have seen allegations of inappropriate photos taken of a woman by an MP met with ‘empathy training’. We have seen our own Prime Minister respond to this endemic cultural issue by suggesting women should be happy that we are not being shot in the streets.
Hordes of women, from both sides of Parliament, have come forward with their stories. From weaponised gossip behind closed doors, to sexualised insults hurled across the chamber; these instances are shocking, yes, but they are not surprising. As women leaders, we experience violence along a spectrum, from physical intrusion to verbal slaps, designed to beat us down over time.
Canberra culture doesn’t start in Canberra.
The men that lead our country don’t stroll into Parliament House and develop a men’s club from scratch; an invisible shield of privilege both emboldens their behaviour and protects them from the consequences of it. This is culture that is recognisable in our homes and in our schools.
Importantly, it is recognisable on our campus.
It plays out in the cut-and-thrust of Guild politics. I have been told by men on this Guild Council that I am too emotional. I have been questioned every step of the way on my integrity and competence. I have had men on this Guild Council that will not follow my directions because they ‘know better’. Men have shirt-fronted me in my office, screamed at me in public, spread vicious rumours, and tried to pass themselves off as progressive along the way.
These are not harmless comments.
These are calculated assaults designed to send a message: you do not belong; this is not your place; we will not respect you.
There have been times when I have been afraid to come into work because of the treatment I have experienced in this place. I know I am not the only woman that has felt this way. I have seen multiple women pushed into leaving their positions; positions they have worked hard for – positions they deserve – because they no longer felt safe.
Is it any wonder that we don’t see women engaging in politics, when at every step of the way we are gaslighted, demeaned, and undermined? Is it any wonder that nothing happens when we speak out through the ‘appropriate channels’?
These are instances that may sound small or as if they go hand-in-hand with stepping into the political arena. But I refuse to accept that these should be the norm. The expectation of silence in these circumstances, for women like me and the women we have seen come forward over the past months, is violent. It allows these unacceptable comments and attitudes to be dismissed as just politics; as boys will be boys.
I refuse to accept a life of silence. It is hard to put into words the depth of despair I feel about these circumstances. I feel tired to my core at the thought having the same conversations, over and over, to justify my place at the table, or why these kinds of things are wrong. I am tired already in anticipation of the response of men to this recount of my own experiences.
I am also deeply angry. I am angry that one in five women over the age of fifteen will be sexually assaulted. I am angry that one woman dies every week at the hands of her partner. I am angry that the pay gap in Western Australia remains at 21.9%. I am angry at the lie of equality and meritocracy that we’ve been told, as if there simply aren’t enough talented women at UWA to make up more than 15% of Guild Councillors.
Mostly, I am angry that it feels no matter how much we yell, nothing seems to change. The news cycle moves on, the same men stay in power, and the only people that our institutions are actually protecting are the people we need protection from.
It is only by breaking silence and challenging these attitudes that things can get better. That means critiquing your own behaviour, and the behaviour of those you associate with. It means calling people out when they’re acting inappropriately, and even withdrawing support from those who refuse to change.
The past few years, I have been looking for a lifeline in the form of some validation, some acknowledgement of the wrong – this isn’t enough for me anymore. I know it’s wrong. The country knows it’s wrong.
Now is the time for consequences.