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Sexism can have a greater impact when it's compounded by racism.
Sarah Malik

4 Dec 2018 - 4:12 PM  UPDATED 6 Dec 2018 - 9:15 AM

Is Australia Sexist? It’s the controversial question posed by SBS in a documentary exploring sexism in Australia.

For Macquarie University researcher Dr Amira Aftab, a co-author of the report  commissioned for the documentary, it was a no-brainer. The more interesting questions for Dr Aftab was finding out how different kinds of Australian women experience sexism.

The results are startling. The study found minority respondents are 30 per cent more likely to experience sexual harassment on the street, three times more likely to experience sexual harassment at work and 35 per cent more likely to experience online abuse.

The magnified sexism experienced by minorities, Dr Aftab says, can be better understood by the ‘intersection’.

An academic term coined by African- American feminist Kimberle Crenshaw, ‘intersectional feminism’ has been popularised to refer to the way women’s experiences are complicated by intersectional factors like class, race, ethnicity and disability. This ‘double jeopardy’, makes it difficult to know when sexism ends and racism begins for minority women.

“There’s this overlap and it’s really hard to say we can separate them and they can occur separately. They happen together at the same time,” Dr Aftab tells SBS.  

Racial or religious identifiers can make minority women more visible and vulnerable targets of harassment.  

“For Muslim women wearing a hijab it’s very clear they are from a very particular religious group and we have instances, we have examples where they experience people coming up to them and yelling abuse and sometimes that can be sexualised as well,” Dr Aftab says.  

“They can have their headscarves ripped off and in that moment it’s not just about race, religion or ethnicity, it’s about gender as well. They are being targeted. It’s not necessarily Muslim men having things ripped off them, it’s Muslim women.”

Minority women are also more likely to be represented in lower-wage, insecure jobs with less power in the workplace, making them less likely to report harassment. Language and cultural barriers can exacerbate the problem as some women may not understand what behaviour classified as sexual harassment under the law, is in fact illegal and not to be tolerated.

Dr Aftab said sexual harassment can have a shattering impact on the self-esteem of women gaining a foothold in the work force.

“There are high levels of post-traumatic stress; that can really affect someone’s ability to feel confident, that they deserve to be in that job, that they deserve to be employed, that they are able to make choices. It really impacts their agency in that way,” Dr Aftab says.  

The digital sphere, traditionally an arena for greater expression for minorities who are less represented in traditional institutions, can also be a minefield, with minorities subject to higher levels of sexualised cyber-bullying and trolling.

“Even online we are seeing that sexual harassment is impacting on the confidence of women. It’s trying to reinforce these ideas that women should be perhaps seen, not heard, that they are less worthy of having an opinion or a voice or be able to contribute some way,” Dr Aftab says.

“We (even) see that in political debates if a woman speaks up, especially a minority woman they are shut down really quickly. What would you know? Go back to where you came from.”

For Dr Aftab, the study is a chance to capitalise on discussion generated by movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, to create awareness of women’s experiences and most importantly centre women of colour in the discussion.  

“As long as there is not silence around the issues, and that’s been historically one of the biggest barriers to progress. When you are not talking about an issue, how we start to think of ways to overcome these issues and adequately address them?”

Catch up on Is Australia Sexist? on SBS On Demand.


Workplace sexism isn't all in your head
One constant in my working life has been the inordinate number of men who hold power over others, compared to women in those same positions.