While Workplaces Test Dismissal Laws, It’s Women Who Will Suffer

This week Australia’s outrage machine has been (justifiably) directed toward Cricket Australia.

The sporting body sacked its government relations manager, Angela Williamson, over a series of tweets criticising the Tasmanian government's abortion laws.

The organisation, which was recognised in July as an “Endorsed Employer for Women”, is now being roundly accused of deep hypocrisy, corruption and gender discrimination for dismissing Williamson.

A look back at just a few months of public responses to Cricket Australia employee scandals and one can see why accusations of “hypocrisy” are being tossed around. After male cricket players found cheating earlier in the year were merely sidelined for a year of game play, it hardly seems fair that a series of barely controversial tweets should get a female employee sacked from her job.

Williamson, who was one of the first women forced to travel interstate to access abortion services after Tasmania’s only surgical abortion clinic was closed earlier this year, was simply advocating for the human right to healthcare via her tweets. It’s a strange world where an Australian’s job might be in jeopardy for criticising government policy via a personal social media account.

However, the rights for an employer to mandate how their employees behave on social media are complex and evolving fast in Australia. Formerly cut-and-dry cases for dismissal based on controversial opinions expressed via personal Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts are now not so easily adjudicated, and Fair Work courts are beginning to rule more in favour of an employee’s “reasonable right to privacy” online, rather than the employer’s assertion that any social media account is “public domain”.

Still, employers will always test dismissal laws. In Australia an unfair dismissal case is lodged against an employer every three minutes, which is about 127 claims per day; and the rate of success for employees filing those claims is decreasing dramatically. In 2017 the success rate for unfair dismissal claims in Australia dropped below 40 per cent for the first time, and around 93 per cent of cases never even reach a formal hearing.

It’s reasonable to assume, as employers test dismissal laws to see what they can get away with, that it’s female employees who will suffer more, in the same way we suffer a multitude of other industrial injustices. Workplaces in Australia remain remarkably unequal in 2018, not just in terms of pay and opportunity, but in how employees are censured and dismissed by organisations looking for efficient ways to keep costs down and “corporate interests aligned”.

If employers wish to test the boundaries of dismissal laws related to social media posts, it is women, for whom the personal is always political, and who are most vulnerable in the workplace (with the least capacity to fight against injustice), who will bear the brunt of this philosophical experiment.

Though Williamson’s case is by no means the first one that displays a deep bias against women’s right to be outspoken and autonomous in the workplace, it is an especially potent and high-profile example. First, there’s the clear difference in the way Cricket Australia responded to Williamson’s alleged misdeeds and those of other, male members of their organisation – the cheating athletes Smith, Warner and Bancroft. Then, there’s the muddied involvement of the Tasmanian government, who it’s alleged forced Cricket Australia’s hand in firing Williamson, not just because of the tweets, but because Williamson had terminated a pregnancy in the first place. (The government has explicitly denied this, but significantly the nasty allegations have stuck around.)

Finally, there’s the long, broad history of men who have been caught behaving outrageously and yet have managed to hold onto their jobs. At the very same time the Williamson story broke, another news item was circulating about a senior police constable who had released the address of a domestic violence victim to her abusive partner – in a series of foul correspondences – and somehow retained his job on the force.

This man keeps his job, but Williamson, simply (and civilly) exercising her free speech, gets the boot? If you say so…

The fact is, as workplace law plays catch up with contemporary life and communication – especially post #MeToo, in an era where an online call-out can lead to a job dismissal – those who will suffer most are likely to be the very people industrial law and call-out culture is built to protect. Simply put: women are made so much more vulnerable in biased and unequal workforces structured against us, so these uncertain and evolving laws will bite us back first.

In workplaces like Cricket Australia and other male-dominated organisations, the fight will always be to protect the masculine status quo, whether or not employers even realise this is the culture they’re creating. “Gender equality” in the workplace is far from a reality, and very few (if any) workplaces operate on a true “meritocracy”. So women, who are already on the back foot, will cower and compromise to protect ourselves from unfair censure or dismissal – the very kind that has left Williamson jobless over a tweet thread.

Feature Image: Getty/The Project - Angela Williamson