She said what started as an unhealthy focus on her appearance progressed to vicious, gender-based abuse on social media as she spoke out on issues such as gender quotas.
“Because I sat in a prominent position (in Parliament) behind (then prime minister) Malcolm Turnbull, literally every sitting week my staff would be fielding phone calls about what I was wearing, how I looked: too old, wore too much make-up, ‘she wore that suit last week’ or ‘she shouldn’t wear white’.
I said the political world was years behind, but … in many ways in terms of workplace culture it’s decades behind – almost stuck in time.
“One week this person rang and said, ‘Tell that Julia Banks to stop wearing so much fake tan’. And my staffer said, ‘I’ll have you know that’s my boss’s natural skin colour’.”
Once, even as Parliament sat, an MP approached to show her a text from a far north Queensland constituent suggesting he should “tell that good looker to smile more”.
“Julie Bishop was (on her feet) talking about ISIS … It’s like ‘are you serious?’.” She said Sales’ recent tweet about gendered abuse on social media was another example of what women in high profile positions in Australian media and politics often deal with.
Ms Banks, along with former Labor senator Trish Crossin, recently accepted a role as a board adviser on gender and politics to the Victorian government’s peak body for gender equality, GenVic. It is her first public role after what she is calling her “gap year” post-politics.
“For the next chapter I want my main focus to be what was the unfinished business that is going to be around for a while; and that is gender equality, particularly for women in leadership or women who have any public profile,” said Ms Banks, a lawyer and company director.
“My entire adult life I’ve been banging on about gender equality and diversity; I’ve worked in really blokey cultures in the world of manufacturing, and I actually saw the transformation in those organisations from being the only woman in the room to being 50/50.
“I have said the political world is years behind business, but it’s struck me in many ways in terms of workplace culture it’s decades behind – almost stuck in time.”
She said unlike in corporations, there were not systems to adequately report and investigate gender-based workplace complaints within political organisations, which left “thousands of women who work (in federal political offices)” without proper redress if they did experience discrimination.
“The investigatory process is quite often led by the people who are the instigators,” she said. “It’s all, ‘oh yes, we’ve got systems to report those things to police, or of course they’re not police matters, they’re workplace matters’.”
As part of their role with GenVic, Ms Banks and Ms Crossin will be advising the organisation’s board on ways to create more equal work environments at local, state and federal political levels.
Her time in public life had shown Ms Banks that “the higher the woman’s profile, the greater the level of abuse”, often by sexist trolling on social media. “With every speech I made that got a public profile … the abuse got worse and more gendered,” she said.
Both she and Ms Crossin said they were attracted to working with GenVic’s program because the political equality initiative was non-partisan and recognised that women on all sides can face a harmful lack of respect.
Wendy Tuohy is a Sunday Age senior writer.