The recent treatment of former Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate has been rather dire, laying bare the gendered double standard to which women - particularly those in the public eye - are persistently subjected.
This double standard is apparent not only in Holgate's unfair dismissal, but also, perhaps even more insidiously, in the constant reference to her by her first name. One headline, for example, read "Cartier Christine goes postal: My chairman lied and I lost". Even Prime Minister Scott Morrison has referred to Holgate as "Christine" in press conferences. While this might seem insignificant at first glance, it is a revealing indication of a larger and more damaging structural bias.
In my research examining media coverage of women political leaders, I have consistently found that the mainstream press makes a habit of referring to prominent women by their first names while their male counterparts are referred to more formally by their last names.
Even Julia Gillard, Australia's first woman prime minister, regularly received this treatment. In the days after her 2010 election, one headline lauded "The Julia Ascension" while another referred to her as "Queen Julia". As part of the backlash to Gillard's carbon tax policy, notorious shock jock Alan Jones accused the prime minister of being "untruthful" and labelled her "JuLiar". Soon after, at an anti-carbon tax rally, then-Opposition leader Tony Abbott tacitly endorsed this disrespectful epithet when he stood in front of a poster that read "JuLiar ... Bob Brown's Bitch".
This also is not the first time that Morrison has referred to a woman in the public eye by her first name. In the wake of former political staffer Brittany Higgins' allegations of sexual assault in Parliament House, Morrison regularly called her "Brittany", rather than the more considerate "Ms Higgins", in related press conferences. The most memorable instance of this to date has been the much repeated quote in which he recalls a conversation with his wife, Jenny, about empathy and sexual assault:
"Jenny has a way of clarifying things. Always has. And so as I've reflected on that overnight, and listened to Brittany and what she had to say..."
By referring to Higgins by her first name, Morrison trivialises the issue and evokes a false sense of familiarity, despite his refusal to meet with her in subsequent months.
Even in his recent backtracking on this refusal and statement that he is "happy to meet" with Higgins, Morrison yet again refers to her as "Brittany":
"I can understand if Brittany wished to meet, [but] she hasn't expressed that to this point."
The fact that he did this again, even after widespread public critique, in addition to the fact that he's only now agreed to meet with Higgins in the face of mounting public pressure, reinforces his lack of respect for her.
This phenomenon is not isolated to Higgins, Holgate, or even Morrison. It's part of a larger trend of delegitimising women and further entrenching gendered power imbalances. And it's not just limited to politicians, either, but is evident in the mainstream media as well as less public spaces - like the workplace.
Naming is a social practice subject to certain rules that are largely status-reliant and differ depending on the situation and the subject - who's speaking and who's observing. The way we refer to someone can affect how they're regarded and received, as names indicate the speakers' and subjects' relative positions, often in accordance with status. The higher the status, the more formal the title, while those of lesser status are referred to more informally.
Take, for example, any classroom or doctor's surgery where students and patients are referred to by their first names while the teacher or physician is accorded the distinguishing privilege of a prefix and surname. In politics, it has been the tradition to refer to those in positions of power by their surnames - with or without their title - to indicate their status.
It is rare to read news stories that refer to male politicians by their first names, yet some have deliberately chosen to encourage the use of their first name to appear more approachable and to bolster a larrakin-esque, matey persona that can strengthen their relationship with the electorate. Take former-prime minister Kevin Rudd's 2007 election campaign slogan, "Kevin07", for example, or even UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Yet these men already speak from a privileged position, and the use of their first name enhances rather than reduces this privilege, whereas a woman in the same role often does not possess the same assumed authority.
Additionally, even when male politicians mark themselves by their first names in election campaigns, research shows that the media are unlikely to refer to them as such.
This gendered double standard is damaging for women. If men are referred to by their surnames, in accordance with the social practices and rules outlined above, while their women counterparts are not, this conveys certain messages about gender, status and power. It has insidious effects, suggesting lower status, particularly in male-dominated fields, while stripping women of recognition and respect.
Morrison's consistent use of first names to refer to women in the public eye, at best, asserts an over-familiarity and is, at worst, a patronising microaggression that reasserts gendered power dynamics.
Even though the number of women in positions of leadership has increased, habits like this continue to remind those who have achieved authority that a certain culture remains entrenched.
- Dr Blair Williams is a research fellow and lecturer in Australian politics and gender-specific studies at the Australian National University.