Jamie Briggs, Minister for Cities and the Built Environment in the Abbott/Turnbull Liberal National Coalition Government resigned from the Ministry on the 29th December, 2015, citing his behaviour was an error of professional judgement. A female public servant has submitted a formal complaint, complaining of Briggs’ sexual behaviour. No one knows the exact nature of the complaint made, as we are not privy to any specific details at this time. Newspaper reports indicate that this complaint relates to unwanted sexual advances and/or sexual harassment.
Sexual Harassment by men is the “Unsolicited, non-reciprocal male behaviour, that asserts a woman’s sex role, over her function as a worker (Benokraitis & Feagin, 1995).
A number of articles written in various newspapers seek the opinion of Jamie Briggs’ wife. I will not link these articles, as I will not reinforce this distraction from Briggs’ behaviour. In fact, Jamie Briggs’ wife should be left out of this altogether.
When I read the various articles in newspapers focusing on his wife’s opinion and acceptance or condemnation of Briggs’ behaviour, I cringed. My mind went back to late 90’s and Hilary Clinton immediately. Hilary Clinton is still harassed about her husband’s behaviour today. Hilary Clinton is still expected to take responsibility for her husband’s behaviour and men in politics try their hardest to use this as a source of shame for Hilary Clinton.
No sooner had the ink dried on Briggs’ resignation, the media immediately turned their attention to his wife.
In doing so, this takes the focus off the man’s behaviour. It gives us something else to talk about other than the man who used his power on a woman who did not consent, nor did she welcome such behaviour of a sexual nature. Briggs abused his position of power. His ethical behaviour is also questioned.
Many argue that Bill Clinton had his ‘private ethics’ hat on, in his interactions with Lewinsky. Many argue there is a fine ethical line between a private ethics hat and a public one for politicians. However, in the case of Briggs, his ethics hat at that time was a public hat, as he was representing Australia in all his actions at that time. His reflection that this behaviour was not up to the standard of a Minister is accurate. He has made the correct decision to step down from his position in the Ministry.
In all organisations, including politics, there is a system of power rules in play. These power rules, like most other rules in society, have been developed through the powerful positioning of white men over a long period of time. (Please note, this article is about the sexual harassment of a woman. The Author recognises such power rules can impact on men, women of colour, men of colour, LGBTI people and people with a disability and other marginalised and disadvantaged groups).
Some of the “Power Rules” in play for the case of Briggs are “Legitimate Power” (power given to a person due to their position) and possibly “Coercive Power” (this is power where the holder of this power may have an influence on career choices etc., Coercive power is often used in a negative way, such as threats of demotion or non-recommendations etc.,). This is a little more complex, as it has many dynamics. Even if coercive power is not direct; a woman needs to face the decision if her complaint will be detrimental to her work-life due to the coercive power of those associated with the aggressor. This is intensified when the aggressor displays the perception that they have such power, (perception of power) even if it is not legitimate.
Unwanted sexual advances and sexual harassment of women, intimidates and creates fear at a personal level and has implications at the work level. In cases where unwanted sexual behaviour and the workplace collide, intimidation and fear may also impact the victim’s work-life. Often, this is a source of non-complaint, where women feel reporting an incident of sexual behaviour is not worth the risk. The use of power rules, particularly coercive power in workplaces can have a dramatic impact on a woman’s self efficacy to report unwanted behaviour in the workplace. This should not be delegitimised by shifting the focus of attention to the opinion of the Briggs’ wife.
Turning the focus to Briggs’ wife takes our attention off the victim. It takes the focus off the victim’s discomfort, powerlessness and distress. The victim should remain the most important person in relation to Briggs’ behaviour, not his wife, mother, aunt or any other women who may be used take the attention off Briggs’ own behaviour.
Also, bringing a third party (wife) into the scenario, this act of abuse of power resulting in humiliation, discomfort and distress, for the victim, diminishes Briggs’ behaviour to the opinion of the third party (wife) and not the opinion of the victim.
Turning the focus to the opinion of the wife, also diminishes the behaviour of the aggressor, when we ask, “What does his wife think about this?”
If Briggs’ was a single man would the media or other male politicians diminish his behaviour by using excuses such as, ‘he was only looking for a soul mate’ ‘She (the victim) must have read him wrong’ etc., etc., as we have seen many times before.
If the behaviour of sexual advance/harassment by men in power cannot be diminished or excused due to ‘bachelorhood’, the next step is normally, to seek to diminish the behaviour through the support of other women in their lives; usually starting with the wife.
As with Bill Clinton, question’s raised in people’s mind’s about Hilary Clinton, “Is it her fault?” “Is she not being ‘good wife'”, “Is the wife ‘not meeting his needs'” etc., etc., All these questions raised in various people’s minds puts the onus on a third party (wife) and lets the male aggressor off the hook.
All politicians and the people who market them desire for them to have ‘Referent Power.’ In a nutshell, referent power is about charisma and using that charisma to influence others and build loyalty (voters). When men are in public life, it is very important for others to try to re-establish referent power for the (fallen) individual male in question as soon as possible. The culture of sexual harassment is still dominated by the needs of the male (ie how complaints about their behaviour will affect their career. What will happen to the man now?). Seeking the opinion of supportive wives, other supportive women and supportive prominent men who may reinforce the ‘goodness and wholesomeness’ of the aggressor, reinforces this culture.
As a woman, I will not pass judgement on wives of men, where the men have a question of sexual behaviour or any other indiscretion associated with their power above them.
As a woman, I will not pass judgement on wives of men who are in positions of significant power. “Power Rules” exist in the wife’s external environment (political face and an extension of the husband’s work-life) and internal environment (power and control within a relationship). The layers of ‘power rules’ women, as wives of men in power must negotiate, is complex.
For people judging Briggs’ wife’s support for her husband, the illusion of how high her own moral bar is held, simply cannot and should not be judged. She could very well be subject to power rules and her ‘morals or ethics’ could be set at a very different level in private. (In saying, that her moral bar is completely irrelevant). In making any judgements about the wife’s opinion and her morals, we are simply condemning another woman caught in the same power rules as the victim. Power rules created by powerful men. We also remove support from the victim, by shifting our focus away from the unwanted, unsolicited sexual behaviour perpetrated by a man in power.
The only woman I have concern for, and the only woman who should be in our focus is the victim.
It should be continuously acknowledged that Briggs’ behaviour and men who display the same behaviours make women feel uncomfortable in their own spaces, fearful, frightened, powerless and even ashamed.
It should be continuously acknowledged that Briggs’ behaviour and men who display the same behaviours make women fearful, intimidated and distressed about how these unwanted behaviours will impact on their own career progression and work.
It should be continuously acknowledged that Briggs’ behaviour and the men who display the same behaviours view women, not as workers, but as sexual objects. This diminishes a woman’s entire gamut of knowledge, skills, abilities and personal attributes a woman possesses in her workplace. This in turn, diminishes the value of a woman’s labour at work. These men should not be part of public life, particularly where they influence legislation pertaining to women and work, such as Briggs was in the Howard era. (Chief advisor in the Prime Minister’s office on Industrial Relations / Work Choices).
(On an aside note, It brings to question, if Briggs’ Work Choices work, is the motivation for Turnbull promoting an Abbott supporting right wing man.)
Briggs, a man, so hell bent on the idea of Merit as opposed to Quotas, in particular really needs this reinforced over and over and over again, until he ‘gets it.’ Ironically, Jamie Briggs’ own behaviour makes him a shining example of why we do indeed need quotas for women in politics.
The focus in the case of Briggs’ resignation should always be about condemning Briggs’ behaviour and concern and empathy for the victim. Sexual Harassment by men, particularly by men in positions of power needs a cultural shift and that shift should start now.