Who Wears the Pants In Today's Australia?

Legal skirmish over skirts, pants, and sartorial discrimination - a letter from Down Under

MICHELLE BUSH was sacked in March for wearing an ``unfeminine'' outfit. And therein lies an Australian tale of male chauvinism in the 1990s. Mrs. Bush worked as a part-time sales assistant at Boys Family Department Store in Maryborough, Queensland. But her male boss objected when she swapped her old skirt for a new pair of dark, billowy ankle-length trousers, known as ``culottes.''

She was told to get a skirt - or else. But Mrs. Bush reckoned the pants were stylish and far more practical than a skirt for riding her bicycle to work. ``I said unless he was prepared to buy me a new skirt I would wear the culottes,'' she told the Sydney Morning Herald. Mrs. Bush showed up again in her culottes on March 16. And her boss showed her the door.

Such sartorial/sexual discrimination is unusual, even by Australian standards, most observers say. It is true that Australia has long had a reputation for being a male-oriented society. Some trace it back to the days when men far outnumbered women in convict colonial days or as a byproduct of an agrarian society.

``Male bonding was a necessity in convict society. Men convicts needed a powerful sense of solidarity to sustain the pressures of forced labor.... The bonding remained after the jailers departed, and one of the most highly urbanized societies of the modern world kept the image of the solitary rural worker or the itinerant swagman as a powerful image of national identity,'' writes historian Jill Conway in ``Gender in Australia.''

But a feminist movement of two decades, largely paralleling that of North America, has eradicated many forms of gender discrimination and made substantial changes in attitudes toward women. Under the Hawke government, the Office of the Status of Women was brought under the wing of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Sexual discrimination in jobs, property ownership, lending, and education is now outlawed.

``A decade ago, at union conferences, you would see no women on the panels and hardly any women delegates, even from unions with a majority of women in the rank and file. That's all changing quite rapidly,'' says Greg Bamber, an industrial relations expert at the University of Queensland Graduate School of Management.

Progress is slower in other areas. Surveys show Australian women comprise only 4 percent of top and middle management. Indeed, a month before the culottes case, the chairman of the Brisbane City Council attempted to have women wearing trousers banned from the council chambers.

But its not just women who face discrimination, says Steve Mark, president of the state Anti-Discrimination Board of New South Wales. Men with earrings, long hair, or short socks also are refused jobs or entry into clubs.

Short socks? ``Some golf clubs have rather archaic rules which require men in shorts to wear long socks [knee socks] but allow women to wear short [ankle] socks,'' Mr. Mark says.

Meanwhile, back in sans-culotte Queensland, a month of negotiations by Mrs. Bush's union won her job back - and the right to wear pants. Her boss also offered to buy her a new skirt if she agreed not to wear the culottes during the first week back because of the media attention.

But last week, the Sydney Morning Herald reported, Mrs. Bush's boss retracted the job offer. He said she had broken the agreement by talking to the press and saying: ``I think it was all been worthwhile. It is good to get the matter resolved so other people won't be afraid to stand up for their rights.'' Mrs. Bush has reportedly decided not to pursue the case further.

Perhaps she was discouraged by the news that a Queensland lower court judge has upheld a request to exclude women from a jury panel. The accused said women don't constitute a jury of one's peers. The ruling is being appealed.

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