Leadership

The Problem With ‘Babe’ Behaviour

As ABC chairman Justin Milne resigns following allegations of political interference, claims he called female staff 'babe' and 'chicks' contribute to the fallout.

By Lara Robertson

Leadership

As ABC chairman Justin Milne resigns following allegations of political interference, claims he called female staff 'babe' and 'chicks' contribute to the fallout.

By Lara Robertson

ABC chairman Justin Milne has resigned today following allegations of political interference in the public broadcaster. Adding growing pressure to the fallout were claims he inappropriately addressed his female colleagues, using patronising language such as “chicks” and “babes”.

Earlier this morning, Fairfax reported the relationship breakdown between Milne and former ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie – who was sacked on Monday – may have been exacerbated by Milne’s alleged use of over-familiar language. Milne is alleged to have referred to Guthrie as “the missus” in front of staff. A media executive also claims that Milne referred to female staff as “chicks” and “babes”. Milne has not addressed the claims, but denied allegations of political interference.

Dr Katie Spearritt, Chief Executive Officer of Diversity Partners, a service that works with businesses to create more inclusive and diverse workplace cultures, said using this kind of language, even with good intentions, can have negative outcomes for women.

“Using words like ‘missus’, ‘love’, ‘the girls’ and ‘babe’ – particularly when used by a male leader – tends to reinforce gender stereotypes and undermine the credibility of women in the workplace,” she said. “They can contribute to women not being taken seriously for their professionalism and capability.”

Although the alleged “familiar language” is one of many revelations contributing to Milne’s resignation, the former ABC chairman is not the first Australian executive to resign following allegations of inappropriate language in the workplace.

 

“Using words like ‘missus’, ‘love’, ‘the girls’ and ‘babe’ – particularly when used by a male leader – tends to reinforce gender stereotypes and undermine the credibility of women in the workplace.”

 

Antony Catalano, the flamboyant chief executive of the highly successful Domain real estate company, suddenly resigned in January 2018 in the wake of numerous complaints about sexist behaviour that was disrespectful and belittling to women including allegedly calling female colleagues “babe” and “doll”.

“When it comes to language, context is everything,” Dr Spearritt said. “What might be okay in a casual setting may not be okay in a boardroom. We encourage people to speak up if language is used that leaves them feeling uncomfortable.”

Allegations against Milne began following his decision to sack Guthrie on Monday. A leaked email revealed Milne, a friend of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s, had previously directed Guthrie to sack journalist Emma Alberici because the government “hated’’ her. 

A document Guthrie circulated to the ABC board before she was fired also revealed that Milne had urged her to “shoot” the ABC’s political editor Andrew Probyn after a meeting with then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Despite hundreds of ABC staff unanimously passing a motion calling for his resignation and for an independent inquiry to take place in a meeting on Wednesday, Milne vowed to stay on as ABC chairman. After an urgent board meeting held on Thursday, the ABC reported that Milne stepped down as chairman while a government inquiry is undertaken.

 

Illustration: Patti Andrews

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