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Brisbane, Australia

August 29, 2018

The Wrong Kind of Woman

When I began writing about my personal experiences abroad, I promised myself I would be as honest as possible. The main reason I wanted to write was to provide insight into the myriad of unexpected ways in which a person’s life is impacted by moving to another country. As someone whose life was profoundly changed by the experience in both positive and negative ways, I felt it was my obligation to share my stories with others so they would not be blind-sided.

Honesty is perilous when writing about your life. Every admission has proper timing.

I’ve written about whirlwind romances, office culture clashes, and travel nightmares. I’ve even gone as far as talking openly about how a particular situation had a devastating impact on my marriage. What I haven’t written about is the most difficult chapter of this globetrotting life so far: Australia.

I have authored numerous articles on the beauty of its landscape and the joy I experienced traveling throughout the sunburnt country, but I haven’t written about the circumstances that crushed my confidence.

Why didn’t I? Because it was humiliating. Because I’d stood up time and time again when the Dutch criticized my style of dress, working, and simply being. Because I’d survived four years in Singapore where my career was upended and I no longer knew who I was. How could it be that I had more severe problems living in one of the most beautiful countries on Earth where people are reputed to be so easy-going? Simple, because they aren’t.

Let me make one thing clear: I do not hate Australians. I do not have dislike for Australians.

And another thing: Not all Australians are the same.

When I write that my eyes were opened wide this week by a book about Australian / American interactions titled, A Fair Go for All by Dr. George Renwick please do not assume that I am an Aussie hater. My friendships with Aussies that have lasted for decades are testaments to that fact.

Last month, I met Dr. Renwick at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Education at Reed College in Portland, Oregon where I was a Fellow. We had not met previously and I was unaware of his extensive experience in international business prior taking his classes. I won’t pontificate on the impact this meeting had on me. I will say only this: It changed my life. The fact that another Fellow pointed out this book to me in the bookstore was not a coincidence. I was meant to read it.

Shocking statement number one:  “the idea is still widely accepted that women exist to serve men.”[1]The author goes on to provide examples of more modern thinking but please keep in mind this book was written in 1991. “Surely things have changed?”  you might be thinking. The answer is yes, but they have changed very little.

There is no question that chauvinism is rife in modern-day Australia. Perhaps I would have questioned this before I witnessed the vulgar way in which Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was treated when I first arrived in the country in 2011. Or before I read the news last week that the most experienced candidate for the job this time around, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, was passed over in favor of Evangelical Christian Scott Morrison whose personality loudly echoes Donald Trump’s.

Shocking statement number two:  “Australia’s chauvinist orientation can pose problems for business or professional women from the United States who are assigned to Australia to work in traditionally male fields. The issue is further complicated if the woman’s position is in management.”[2]

On this topic the author provides an illustration. “In a recent example, An American woman in personnel management was given a four-year assignment to the Australian office of a large U.S. multinational company. Ninety-five percent of the office employees were Australian, of which 75 percent were male.  “The first two years,” she reported, “were nearly impossible.” If the office had not had an American (male) general manager, she would simply have gone home. The last two years were easier because the ground rules for gender relationships were gradually established.”[3]

You could have knocked me down with a feather when I read this. I had no such American manager. What I had were a cohort of extremely aggressive Australian male executives and peers who went out of their way to bully me into submission. And what happened when I didn’t bow down to the intimidation? My professional life went from bad to worse. The company delivered its first anti-bullying training class to my office in 2011 and the label “troublemaker” was permanently affixed to my name.

Not too long afterward, I left the company to pursue writing. Living every day under the extreme stress was killing me. Unsurprisingly, I was far from the only female who exited stage left during my time there. When I knew I was reaching the end of my rope in 2012, I attended an International Women’s Day event held by the company. During the session, a live video conference was held with the most senior female executive in the company participating from the United States.

I raised my hand to ask a question. “What advice would you give to the younger women in the audience about handling the Boys’ Club?”

“Oh, I don’t think we need to spend time on that. I haven’t dealt with a Boy’s Club since the 90’s.” The hosting Australian female executive quickly brushed off the question.

The American female executive persisted. “I’m glad you asked. We should certainly address how to handle those types of scenarios if they occur.” She went on to provide strategies forcing inclusion.

If both women and men are loathe to admit that a severe problem exists, there is very little hope of solving it. A quick look into the frequency of domestic violence in Australia will illustrate that my professional challenges were minor in comparison.

Dr. Renwick writes that “Australian women generally seek and find fulfillment in the home.”[4] To anyone wondering why I now reside in the United States rather than Australia where I also hold citizenship, I admit I am the wrong kind of woman to thrive in its culture. I would also be the last to tell you that the challenges of inequality in America are minor. There are men and women in both countries who are fierce advocates for diversity and inclusion in the workplace. My personal preference is to live in the one where my voice is not ignored.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Dr. George Renwick, A Fair Go for All (Intercultural Press, 1991); pg. 36

[2] Dr. George Renwick, A Fair Go for All (Intercultural Press, 1991); pg. 36

[3] Dr. George Renwick, A Fair Go for All (Intercultural Press, 1991); pg. 36

[4] Dr. George Renwick, A Fair Go for All (Intercultural Press, 1991); pg. 36

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