‘Mean girls’ expose bullying culture at Parliament House

‘Mean girls’ expose bullying culture at Parliament House

The news of the sudden death of Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching, aged 52, last week has shocked the nation. However, it is newly revealed allegations about the bullying treatment that Senator Kitching allegedly experienced at the hands of her own female colleagues in the Labor party that has created arguably even greater media attention.

The allegations have ignited debate about the barriers to women participating fully in the Federal Parliament, including the nature of the workplace culture, the perpetrators, and the readiness of those calling for workplace reform to call out behaviour perpetrated by both men and women.

An article published in The Australian newspaper has detailed allegations of workplace bullying experienced by Senator Kitching from senior Labor women within her own party, including Senator Penny Wong, Kristina Keneally and Katy Gallagher, the trio referred to privately by Senator Kitching as “the mean girls”. 

A friend of Senator Kitching relayed the stress that these workplace interactions had on her mental health:

“She was very stressed. She confided in me a number of times.”

The stress contributed to the health problems Kitching was already suffering.

“This is where the process of isolation and cruel treatment intensified. Kimberley was stressed, started losing weight and strength dramatically,” a second friend alleged.

A third friend also spoke about the devastation Kitching felt at being ostracised by Labor’s senior Senate leadership team.

Kitching and some of her supporters would refer to the three women – Gallagher, Keneally and Wong – as ‘the mean girls’.

While the behaviour alleged in the article relates particularly to Senator Kitching, it confirms what the Jenkins Report found when it was asked to “make recommendations to ensure that Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces are safe and respectful and that the nation’s Parliament reflects best practice in the prevention and handling of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault”, which is that women were more likely to be the perpetrators of bullying behaviour.

In particular, the report found:

“Sexual harassment was more frequently perpetrated by one harasser, whereas bullying can be perpetrated by multiple bullies. Men were more likely to perpetrate sexual harassment, while women were more likely to bully.”

Instead of calling for an investigation into the allegations, Labor leader Anthony Albanese has ruled out an inquiry into the behaviour of Senator Kitching’s female colleagues and has instead taken issue with the term “mean girls”, calling it “disrespectful”:

“I find it astonishing that in 2022, I get a question using the term ‘mean girls’. I find that extraordinarily disrespectful to describe strong, articulate, principled women like Penny Wong, Katy Gallagher and Kristina Keneally,” Albanese told reporters in Brisbane.

A new social media campaign launched by the newly formed coalition Safety.Respect.Equity, which includes high profile members Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins, Julia Banks, Lucy Turnbull, and Christine Holgate (among others) is calling on the government to implement reforms to end injustice and inequality for women.

“The group is calling for the prevention of sexual harassment and bullying toward women and wants all 55 recommendations in the Respect@Work report implemented.”

And yet the group is still to publicly respond to this latest revelation or call for such behaviour to be included in its general calls for reform.

If as a nation we are serious about ensuring more women are elected to parliament and represented at all levels of politics, it is critical that behaviour such as that alleged by Senator Kitching at the hands of her own female colleagues is called out and addressed.

An ABC report last year questioned whether the lack of women in politics was due to “gender” issues:

“Although there are now four more women than men in the Senate, the number of female faces among the ranks in successive parliaments hasn't exactly skyrocketed.

“In fact, with less than a third of Lower House seats filled by women, Australia is currently ranked 56th in the world when it comes to female representation in parliament, according to figures from the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

“So what's holding Australia back while women elsewhere are seemingly smashing through glass ceilings to hold top office?”

The article argued that parliamentary workplace culture is “cooked”, citing the Jenkins Report, which found that one in three people working in the building had experienced sexual harassment:

“The inquiry found these unsafe working conditions were ‘largely driven by power imbalances, gender inequality and exclusion and a lack of accountability’.”

An article commemorating International Women’s Day this year published by the online publication MamaM!a has made suggestions for successfully overhauling the “misogyny, harassment and toxic culture” that are currently holding women back in the workplace:

“Recommendations. Speeches. Words. They're all good and well, but now is the time for actual action.

Change begins with genuine accountability and acknowledgment of the systemic inequality that exists.

It means a sincere commitment for an overhauled culture and conditions – and actually following through on it.

It means zero tolerance and swift ramifications for bad behaviour.”

Genuine accountability is exactly what is required right now if we are to address the structural impediments holding women back from entering and succeeding in public life. What message is being sent to young women considering a career in politics if allegations of women being bullied by other women are swept under the carpet? Alternatively, do we only care about bullying if it is perpetrated by men? The last thing young women considering a career in politics need is to see bullying of women by women go ignored or dismissed.

In reality there are a multitude of factors that dissuade women from participating fully in the Federal Parliament. Genuine reform will not occur if the barriers that are identified and campaigned on are only viewed through the lens of ideology or partisan politics. We cannot turn a blind eye to bad behaviour simply because its perpetrators are women.

In 2018, when former Federal MP Julia Banks made allegations of a bullying culture within Federal Parliament, Penny Wong called on the Prime Minister to call this behaviour out:

“Mr Morrison needs to decide if he's going to be a PM that condones this or a leader that says this is unacceptable, because it is,” Senator Wong said.

That goes for all sides of politics. We are either committed to workplace reform or we are not; dismissing allegations away because they don’t fit into an ideological narrative does no favours to women in the long run. Women deserve better and the late Senator Kitching certainly deserves better than to have her concerns posthumously dismissed and waived away.

Women’s Forum Australia is an independent think tank that undertakes research, education and public policy advocacy on issues affecting women and girls, with a particular focus on addressing behaviours and practices that are harmful and abusive to them. We are a non-partisan, non-religious, tax-deductible charity. We do not receive any government funding and rely solely on donations to make an impact. Support our work today.

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