By John Tons
By now most Australians will have moved on from the Emma Husar episode. For those who managed to miss it – here is a brief synopsis: Emma Husar is a first-term politician. There were indications that her staff were not happy with her management style, in addition some of her staff made some serious allegations concerning her conduct. The ALP conducted an investigation, and although dismissed the serious allegations did note that her management style could have been better. Emma agreed not to nominate for the seat in the forthcoming election, and all went quiet again. Success had been achieved; another ‘mouthy’ young woman had been removed from parliament.
I do not know Emma and know next to nothing about what she is supposed to have done or not done. But I do know a little about institutional gender powerplays. The key thing to note is that we are blind to those everyday practices of a well-intentioned society that creates a form of oppression whose causes are embedded in the unquestioned norms, habits and symbols that are blindly followed. It makes assumptions about the structure of occupational distinctions, the definition of tasks within them and the relations among people occupying differing positions within an enterprise. One of the more common examples that one could not help but hear about concerns the walking of Emma’s dog. Apparently, that was delegated to one of her staff members – people fulminated that this was an abuse of tax payers’ money – she should not use her staff in that way.
I will assume for the moment that this was a true account of what happened. Emma Husar employed staff to enable her to carry out her job as a parliamentarian and some of these staff were tasked with various domestic chores. I understand perfectly well why this created such a furore. We know why it created such a furore – domestic duties are seen as menial tasks – not tasks for paid professional staff. For me it highlights how deeply embedded are our prejudices about occupational differentiation. It is that same prejudice that leads us to accept a situation where a CEO is paid 200 times the annual salary of the janitor who cleans his toilet. (It is almost always ‘his’ toilet). We have lost sight of the fact that to get anything done requires a team of people – for anyone of those people to relate themselves as more important is a nonsense.
Yet we persist in supporting an organisational structure that gives credence to the belief that some jobs are more important than others, that defines people by what they do rather than the quality of their character. Parliament and Australians generally lost a valuable opportunity when they closed the book on Emma Husar – it had been an opportunity to question our assumptions about the structure of occupational distinctions.
Note: Some of this may sound familiar to some people; the commentary was influenced by Young, I. M. (1990). Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.