A Prime Minister and Gender Equality

by Dr Stephen Spence

The response to the Prime Minister’s speech on Tuesday (transcript here) has been divided into two distinct camps: the professional political analysts and the public users of social media. The analysts want to dissect the content and calculate the political consequences – they seek to provide a thoughtful response. Many of those who took to twitter and facebook and youtube to respond did so from a totally different place – they wanted to express their emotional responses to what they feel is a under-acknowledged reality. And it is their responses that, I believe, give us a better reading of our culture.

Let’s set aside for the moment any discussion of politicians and definitions of terms (is Tony Abbott a “misogynist”? is Julia Gillard a “hypocrite”?). Such a discussion would assume, incorrectly, that words and speeches are mostly about information rather than about communicating feelings and ideas. This is a rookie mistake. The kind of mistake made by a newly-wed who responds to an emotional outburst by their spouse with a hyper-rational response to their words and a tin-ear to their feelings. (Been there; done that!) People want their heart to be heard more than they want their words to be understood. The social response to the Prime Minister’s speech heard her heart more faithfully than many tin-eared analysts heard her words.

The response suggests that Julia has given a voice to the feelings and frustrations of many women. Yes, they have succeeded in previously male-dominated areas but they have done so at a personal cost and by keeping silent in the face of unintentional and intentional prejudice. The success of women like our Prime Minister does not mean that we have achieved a level playing field in our culture. Her success might make a good debating point for those with a tin-ear; but her heart-felt speech, and the resonance it has found among other women, says that those who have not walked a mile in her heels need to reassess their confidence that we are a society that rewards and celebrates ability fairly and without gender bias.

My interest in this issue is not unconnected with my role of educator of the next generation of church leaders. Some churches claim the right to prejudice, despite the teaching of Jesus (e.g., Luke 10:38-42) and the practice of the early church. Other churches that claim to acknowledge and celebrate the gifts of the Spirit, irrespective of the gender of the person on whom they are bestowed, still treat females in a way that causes frustrations and hurts. Our female leaders don’t talk about it often. They have learnt to “keep silent.” But what if those like me – white, middle-aged, middle-class, over-educated males, with institutional power – were to “welcome” those unlike us, “not for the purpose of disputation” (echoing Rom 14:1-15:12) but so that we might truly experience “unity in the one who welcomes us all.” But to do that we would need to stop defending our practices and claiming to be unfairly misunderstood when our insensitivities are exposed. We would need to stop listening with our tin-ears and start listening with our hearts.