The highs and lows of Q&A's first all-women panel

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Clementine Ford

The all-women panel on Q&A including Germain Greer (second from left) and Julie Bishop (third from left)

The all-women panel on Q&A including Germain Greer (second from left) and Julie Bishop (third from left) Photo: ABC

It's difficult to summarise my feelings about last night's Q&A panel. On the plus side, it was the first all woman panel in the show's almost seven year history. And on the negative, it was the first all woman panel in the show's almost seven year history. The fact that it's taken this long to prioritise the expertise of women's voices is shameful - but the fact that it's happened now is a positive first step. 

These contradictions are a pretty succinct way to sum up some of the many issues thrown up in last night's show. Yes, there were important, typically ignored topics that were aired on a respected political discussion show with a national reach. It matters that we broadcast conversations about the reality of reporting sexual assault in a culture which teaches shame. It matters too that issues around child-care and women's unpaid labour are openly raised, alongside questions about the insidious silencing of women's voices. These are conversations that we need to have, and to have unapologetically. But there were problems with the panel too, and we would be remiss in ignoring them just because the dual cocktail of gratitude and fear makes us wary of rocking the boat.

Let's be honest - when reference is made to the celebration of women's voices in a mainstream context, we can be reasonably assured that what's actually meant is the celebration of white women's voices. Is it really an unqualified win for women that the privilege of Q&A's platform was still predominantly gifted to the white, middle class ones who seem to measure equality as success in a corporate sphere? Where was the concern for exploring issues of disability, of queerness, of poverty and of sovereignty? Why is the inclusion of Aboriginal women, for example, not considered to be essential to public feminist discourse in this country?

Germaine Greer on the Q&A panel.

Germaine Greer on the Q&A panel.

Of course the sheer breadth of diversity makes it impossible to include every expression of female identity on a six person panel, but concern for intersectionality isn't a new concept and nor should it be dismissed as a niche consideration. Australian audiences must be hungry for something more challenging than the stock standard view of feminism we are surely all too familiar with by now. We've had conversations ad nauseum about the importance of getting women on to boards and into senior positions of leadership. Is it too much to ask that we start having conversations about the fact Aboriginal women are 31 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of violence, or that disabled women are 90% more likely to have people sexually assault them with no consequences - and that these conversations be led by the women most likely to be targeted by these forms of intersectional oppression?

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Also lacking was the analysis of how impoverished women of colour are supposed to fit into the Australian corporate feminist utopia. Holly Kramer laid out a fairly detailed vision of how equality for women can be achieved in her workplace - but awkwardly for the CEO of Best & Less, the discount clothing company she heads up last year refused to sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord, an initiative spearheaded after the collapse of the Rena Plaza building killed more than 1130 people. As Crikey points out, the garment industry in Bangladesh employs mainly young women and accounts for roughly 80% of Bangladesh's foreign earnings. If we truly care about all women, why should it be a cause for celebration that pursuing gender equality in the workplace doesn't extend to the female labourers whose work makes everyone wealthy but themselves?

It wasn't all sighs and weariness though. There were moments of brilliance, not least of which was when Roxane Gay declared emphatically that she doesn't care about how we engage men and that they need to 'get over it'. Too much time and energy is devoted to figuring out how to 'engage' men. It's a waste of time and it's boring. Power has never been shared because oppressed people have behaved in an appropriately polite manner - it has been taken by people who have fought for it, sometimes at great detriment to their own safety and sanity.

But this urge to placate and soothe runs so deep that we even had a 'not all male surgeons' moment when discussion moved to the comments made by senior surgeon Gabrielle McMullin in regards to workplace sexual assault and harassment in the medical field. In exposing the abhorrent practice of cajoling and threatening subordinate colleagues into sex, why must the immediate concern be reassuring the surgical fraternity that of course, we don't mean all of them, only the very naughty ones?

In fact, why are mainstream discussions of feminism always conducted in such a way as to reassure men that they're not really part of the problem? They are, as all groups who enjoy institutionalised privilege over others surely must be. It's time we stopped pussyfooting around that. As Yassmin Abdel-Magied said, we are all furnished with our own unconscious biases. True allegiance to social justice movements has to mean that everyone is willing and eager to constantly address and unpack them.

If we want feminism to succeed - and I certainly do - then we need to stop recreating the same patterns and conversations that reduce it to something which really only addresses the concerns of a minority. It's a great first step that Q&A has hosted its first women-only panel. Hopefully it will be the first of many. But if Q&A really is the broad church that we like to claim it as, then we need to stop singing all the same old songs from the same old hymn book.