• Audiences react to 'Is Australia Sexist?' documentary. (SBS)Source: SBS
"This is horrifying but important."
Samuel Leighton-Dore

4 Dec 2018 - 9:50 PM  UPDATED 5 Dec 2018 - 9:51 AM

It might be a prickly topic of conversation, but tonight there are plenty of Australians having important discussions about sexism - thanks in no small part to the SBS documentary Is Australia Sexist?

"In Australia, our society is built around a simple, but powerful idea: that everyone, gets a fair go," the doco's host, Yumi Stynes, says as she walks through Sydney's CBD.

"But is life in the lucky country actually harder for a woman than it is for a man?"

It's this question which motivated SBS to partner with Macquarie University, commissioning the largest ever survey on the issue of sexism in Australia. Now, as the results are shared for the first time, audiences have been invited to witness sexism through the eyes of those who endure the worst of it.

"I think sexism is really complicated," Stynes, a fierce advocate for gender equality in Australia, says to camera. "It's so ingrained in our culture and our learning. It's something that we pick up from the moment we're born."

She continues: "I think we've all inherited sexism from our parents and our family and friends - and it's something we have to unlearn."

Pointing to the The 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, Stynes highlights that Australia has dropped to 35th in the world for gender equality - tumbling 20 positions since the report first began.

"What does that mean? It means that we're not improving, we're actually getting worse," says Yolanda Vega from Swinburne University.

Overseen by Macquarie University's Professor Catherine Lumby, the documentary's comprehensive survey includes the views of Australians of all ages, from all backgrounds. Prof. Lumby likens it to "taking the temperature" of present-day Australian culture on the issue of sexism.

40 per cent of young Australian women have experienced street harassment

One of the first alarming statistics from the survey reveals that 40 per cent of women aged 18 to 25 have experienced sexual harassment in a public place, known as street harassment, in the last 12 months.

In order to unpack the cultural dynamics behind the statistic, Stynes informs viewers that she will be enlisting the comedic talents of Tegan Higginbotham to temporarily reverse gender roles, observing how men would react when catcalled by a women - and capturing every moment on hidden cameras.

While the results make for uncomfortable viewing, it's not without purpose. Tegan quickly surmises that the experiment isn't really viable. This, she says, is due to the lack of the all-important intimidation factor. Men simply didn't feel afraid of her.

Putting the shoe on the other foot, we're introduced to Tyler, a young Perth-based woman who has experienced street harassment since before she was a teenager.

Going undercover, we watch as Tyler stands on a street  in Perth’s northern suburbs. To compare the experience, a young man named Nathan stands further up the same road. The results are telling, if predictable.

There were eight interactions (either honks, whistles or catcalls) for Tyler and none for Nathan.

Later that day, as Tyler walks the streets of Perth's CBD, she's made visibly uncomfortable when a man goes out of his way to tell her that she has “nice long legs”. Confronting the man over the comment, Tyler is told that it was intended as a compliment - something the documentary's survey suggests 22% of Australian men agree with.

80 per cent of Australians will stand up for someone being sexually harassed at work

Set in a city bar, the next experiment is designed to put members of the public to the test. With two actors on the scene (one playing a seedy male manager, the other a young female bartender), we watch on from hidden cameras to see whether or not everyday Australian patrons would feel comfortable intercepting harassment in a work environment.

Under the guise of teaching his young staff member the ropes on her first day, the manager makes the woman visibly uncomfortable; making sexually suggestive remarks and touching her inappropriately.

While some of the customers leave, pretend not to notice, or simply laugh it off, a clear majority take issue with the behaviour and stand up for the bartender.

43 per cent of Australians believe that harassment is a bigger problem online than in public

Next, host Yumi Stynes puts her hand up to experience firsthand the harassment faced by women who embrace internet dating.

Making a profile on a popular dating app, it doesn't take long for Stynes to receive a number of disturbing and sexually explicit messages. The presenter soon gets emotional, reflecting on what it might be like for her kids as they grow up and pursue relationships.

"It just scares me that my kids will grow up and this will be part of what they have to deal with," Stynes says, wiping away tears.

So what does she do? Well, she decides to track down and confront one of the men who messaged her. 

Later in the episode, we watch as Stynes arranges to catch up for a coffee with one of the suitors who had previously sent her inappropriate messages. Several minutes after meeting, she confronts the clearly shocked man with his own messages and asks what thousands of other Australian women want to know: "How can you say that to someone?" 

“That opening line,” Yumi says to the man, named Gary.

“I didn’t like it.”

“Really?” Gary asks dismissively. “Well that’s okay.”

The gender pay gap

Next up, audiences are invited to tackle the elephant in the room - the gender pay gap. It's a big, increasingly relevant topic. In Australia, the gender pay gay persistently stands at 14.6 per cent. Given the likelihood that this issue will impact future generations, we're introduced to a group of kids and young people, each of whom has agreed to participate in a unique experiment.

The kids are asked to partner up into pairs of boys and girls, working together to sort pink and blue balloons into separate containers. At the end, each participant is rewarded with a cup of lollies. However, it doesn't take long for some, er, discrepancies to be pointed out.

“I don’t think it’s right,” one girl says, pointing to her partner's larger cup of lollies.

“I don’t understand why we wouldn’t be paid the same.”

In a possible glimmer of hope for the future leaders of this country, each pair of kids, without being prompted or guided by production, found a way of splitting the lollies evenly. Now, if only grown-ups could work it out.

Watching the experiment unfold, Dr Catherine Lumby explains that a big part of unequal pay is due to Australia having a 'gendered workforce'.

“Women are persistently in lower paid roles because we gender our workforce,” she says. “So childcare, for instance, is not the same as being paid in a merchant bank.”

The reality is shocking for some, but not for others. Using official ATO figures to calculate the average pay of men and women in various professions, viewers are shown a staggering side-by-side comparison. One example shows that male paediatricians can earn up to 76 per cent more than women, while another suggests that male pilots are earning almost 100  per cent more than their female counterparts.

Australians support gender equality

So - is Australia sexist? Well, the jury's out. Perhaps the main takeaway of the confronting documentary is that a majority of Australians are in favour of gender equality (86 per cent of women and 79 per cent of men). Furthermore, despite the damning results of the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, it seems that a majority of Australians believe things are improving.

A significant 72 per cent of men and 76 per cent of women believe that gender equality is significantly better today than it was in their parent’s generation - with 62 per cent of Australians agreeing that gender equality is improving.

Whether this improvement is reflected in everyday attitudes or is simply indicative of a growing awareness remains to be seen. But one thing appears certain: there is a real, pressing need for both politicians and everyday Australians to continue engaging in challenging, complex conversations about sexism.

You can watch Is Australia Sexist? now on SBS On Demand.

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