Natalie Barr doesn't speak for all women

Sunrise co-hosts Samantha Armytage and Natalie Barr at the Perpetual Loyal Ladies Lunch, Guillame at Bennelong, Opera House.

Sunrise co-hosts Samantha Armytage and Natalie Barr at the Perpetual Loyal Ladies Lunch, Guillame at Bennelong, Opera House. Photo: BELINDA ROLLAND PHOTOGRAPHY

COMMENT

So you read the article by Natalie Barr yesterday where she asks working women to stop blaming men for their troubles and you want to tell her a few things. How she doesn’t have the first clue what feminism means (man bashing, really?). How her high heels, her white skin, her slim frame — all of it suggests a kind of compatibility with gender ideals that might at least warrant a moment’s reflection upon exclusion. Or how her industry has been notorious for dumping talented female colleagues five to ten years her senior, so just you wait.

But we should be cautious taking part in that conversation with Barr because it is yet another article focusing on the individual experience.

Natalie Barr reads The Age and has hair and make-up done at the Channel 7 studios in Docklands, Melbourne.

Natalie Barr reads The Age and has hair and make-up done at the Channel 7 studios in Docklands, Melbourne.

Often when we talk about sexism in the media we concentrate on the individual level at the expense of other levels of discussion. Maybe because individual cases of  sexism make for more compelling reading than long-winded reports. Deeply personal stories are increasingly popular on the Internet as ways of exploring adversity, redemption and self.

These essays make sense of the world for us. As Chris Maisano noted, such essays are all about the writer’s unique journey working through what are seen to be personal limits rather than broader social problems. Barr’s article is typical of these stories, though hers is a particularly triumphant story for the marketplace with not just hard work but individually negotiated contracts being among her unlikely solutions to sexism. But there is a very big problem with these stories - they prevent us from seeing structural barriers.

Barr’s piece thinks of sexism as an individual experience. Her article sifts through the progressions of her life to evaluate whether she’s encountered specific acts against her. Barr then ultimately uses her own story of a woman transcending sexism to prove that this form of discrimination no longer exists.

Natalie Barr at the Channel 7 Christmas Party 2012.

Natalie Barr at the Channel 7 Christmas Party 2012.

You are intended to conclude from articles like these that if you aren’t progressing similarly in your career then personal shortcomings must explain those differences.  The story of individual success, like a first female prime minister or a well positioned female television journalist, is meant to provide unquestionable proof that sexism is pretty much over.

Reading this you feel defensive, naturally. Your life hasn’t been exactly like these success stories. It is tempting then to continue this conversation of individualism and to describe the specifics of your own life as counter-argument. But unless we’re very thoughtful about it, this kind of discussion tends to be dominated by a lot of very similar voices (ie. those with access to the media), tends to over-generalise, and tends to limit definitions of sexism to intentional acts by one person against another. This capacity to recognise sexism rarely and only on an individual level means we seek to fix sexism simply by shaming offenders. Preferably in public. Sexism is therefore corrected by correcting the individual.

That kind of analysis is one of the reasons why men like our prime minister take such offence at being labeled sexist, despite numerous instances where his own words have marked him such. The failure to acknowledge how entrenched and universal various sexist attitudes are means being identified as sexist marks you as particularly repugnant. We ignore the reality that sexism can be perpetuated as much by inaction as by aggressive design.

But now viewed through the lens of individualism the sexist, too, can have a deeply personal story. He made a mistake, he broke a rule, he’s sorry if what he did offended you. He’s actually a kind of victim here, too, he wants you to know. Accusations of sexism, you see, are graded on the steepest of curves so virtually no-one, except the least sympathetic of villains, qualifies as an actual sexist. All other instances of sexism, watered down by individualism, are thus eventually transformed into reasonable actions and understandable views and your inability as a woman to overcome them is simply a character flaw of yours.

This conversation, hopelessly stalled around individual experience, prevents us from progressing faster to real solutions. The gross differences in outcomes between women and men in terms of income, violence and safety, workplace opportunity, political representation, divisions of household labour and social status affects us on a personal level, but their wider social context is masked by the distraction of individualism.

This is not to say that there isn’t value in sharing personal stories. There’s a rich feminist history that shouldn’t be lost in women telling their stories as a way of building community, initiating political awakening and demystifying our lives. But when the discussion of sexism is dominated by individual experience rather than a focus on institutional sexism, we fail to connect our personal difficulties to social issues. And in doing this, we endlessly explore individual solutions while the collective action that is required lies dormant.

88 comments

  • Natalie’s story may be individual but that doesn't mean it doesn't apply to plenty of other people as well. If you want a pay rise or promotion because you think you deserve it then go to the boss and explain why. If you take an extended perood of time off from work for whatever reason, including having a baby, then yes your career will probably suffer as a result. If you want to work part time and don't stay back when there is extra work to be done then yes you probably won't do as well at work as those who do make those sacrifices. Those things aren't unique to being a woman though, they apply to everyone.

    The lesson to take away from Natalie’s story is that it is up to you to take personal responsibility for your own life rather than blaming everything on other people.

    Commenter
    Hurrow
    Date and time
    March 21, 2014, 7:51AM
    • I think its sad that anybody takes anybody from cinema or television serious when they are talking about important social issues. Reality of the fact is Natalie Barr is a news reader on morning television. She isn't a news maker. Same with the George Cloonies and Bonos of the male world. They are performers who from my knowledge aren't exceptionally well educated except in the excesses of show business.

      Commenter
      kellybellyfonte
      Date and time
      March 21, 2014, 12:10PM
    • Natalie Barr is an over privileged woman whose job is to be pretty and entertain. The men who hired her did so on this basis. She is not earning the obscene amount she does because she is a serious journalist - I never saw anyone who look like Michelle Grattan on breakfast TV. To say that she is not discriminated and never has been, again speaks volumes about the circles in which she moves. However, when she is a few years older or God forbids, puts on a bit of weight, let's see how quickly her story changes,
      The fact is most women in the world are discriminated by men and other women. Women on average earn much less than men, most women in the world do not wake up to someone doing their hair and make up. This is another example of a pampered white woman telling other women: the problem is you and not the men who gift you diamonds on your birthday.
      The danger of such a narrow minded statement, as her op-let was, is that it only reinforces to men and women out there that this is as good as women will have it and that women's positions in work and society are egalitarian with men - a complete falsehood. Tony Abbott might think only one woman is worth his front bench, Natalie Barr might think that if a woman is overweight and stressed and poorer than a man is because she has not taken the time to fit in more sessions with her personal trainer and she has failed to charm her boss with her veneered smile - in the real world, her views are a step backwards for women.

      Commenter
      Mali
      Date and time
      March 21, 2014, 12:30PM
    • You're dead right. Each individual's experience is the lens by which they filter the world. And maybe, Natalie's experiences may assist some young women who are yet to embark on their career journey.
      And in regard to promotion, you are also right. My father in law didn't believe in overtime or doing anything that was outside his narrow view of his position description. Yet, amusingly, he could not understand why he was passed over for promotion. So, his wife worked three part time jobs.
      But there is one commentary I'd like to read about Barr's essay - Catherine Deveny. Now that would be a contrast.

      Commenter
      Mum of three
      Date and time
      March 21, 2014, 12:41PM
    • In applying your views to social issues, you acknowledge that having a baby affects a woman’s career and working part time affects a woman’s career. This is a situation that needs resolving. Aside from the benefits to our community, women who juggle work with raising children do so for financial gain or mental health benefits, and their efforts being at least equal to men are no less deserving of reward on merit. People who do not care for others, currently buy career opportunities with working free hours.

      Commenter
      Rachael
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 21, 2014, 12:43PM
    • I agree with Natalie Barr not Andie Fox. I refuse to live my life as a victim. I will fight sexism where I see it but the only path forward is to work with men not against them.

      Commenter
      Sarah
      Date and time
      March 21, 2014, 12:46PM
    • Except a child is a JOINT responsibility, and in most cases, and voluntary joint choice. When that couple chooses which one (if any) is going to do the unpaid part of the arrangement, then the progress that the person doing the paid part makes, is, in part, due to the fact that someone else is raising their child for part of the day.

      In other words, no parent can do what you suggest - stay back, work full time etc unless someone else is doing the child raising right at that point.

      Making this sound like it's a choice people make is irrelevant. Choosing to not be a primary parent (when it's crucial) should not bring unequal financial rewards in the future, compared with the other parent.

      Commenter
      M
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      March 21, 2014, 12:51PM
  • It is possible to be wronged by male or female, black or white, and not react by blaming or labelling the other person. If serious discrimination, can be dealt with but often forgiveness is best way. Real love does not want to dominate or divide but encourages togetherness and self control.

    Commenter
    Longy
    Date and time
    March 21, 2014, 8:04AM
    • Natalie Barr's experience resonates with me.

      Polls also suggest that most people do not identify as "feminist". As many as 72% of people in America for example, reject the term

      http://www.washingtontimes.com/blog/watercooler/2013/may/1/liberated-72-percent-americans-say-theyre-not-femi/

      So while you say that Natalie does not speak for all women; I'll just put it out there that feminists do not speak for all women either.

      Commenter
      Claire
      Date and time
      March 21, 2014, 8:43AM
      • I wonder if this is part of the problem with the actual words "feminist" and "feminism". I remember growing up we heard about feminism and it seemed to be always focused with being pro-female, and never about being equality for the sexes. There may be good reason for the term mainly being associated with pro-female (overly patriarchal society with more power given to men then women, etc), however this has caused it to become somewhat tainted with connotations that it is the man-hating type of women who is the feminist ideal.
        What I would like to see is what the survey results would have been if the question was 'Do you support equality between men and women?', rather then 'Are you a feminist?'
        Yes, education on what feminism actually is (it can be pro-male in areas dominated by women as much as it can be pro-female) could be part of the solution, but for now I would like a lot more discussion around getting some men promoted in womens areas and label them feminism. If we can't do this, then it's not really feminism, is it?

        Commenter
        Just A Man
        Date and time
        March 21, 2014, 12:38PM

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