Over 10 years ago, Australians crowded around television screens, waiting expectantly as Julia Gillard’s first public statement as prime minister was broadcast across the nation. As Gillard took to the podium, an inside joke began making the rounds amongst some female journalists in a small corner of Twitter.
“I can’t wait to see what she’s wearing.”
To which another journo replied: “Her hair looks good.”
On June 24, 2010, public discussion boded there was nothing particularly noteworthy about Gillard’s fitted white blazer, pearl necklace and that distinctly auburn hair. The journalists were only joking after all.
And yet, one day later, her multicoloured coat dress made scathing front page headlines.
Almost 13 years on, and the wrong colour blouse or skirt length remains a career-derailing credibility issue for many women working in the public sector. For ABC News Breakfast host Lisa Millar, it’s an “upsetting” but not uncommon reality of the job.
On Tuesday, on the eve of International Women’s Day, Millar faced an onslaught of misogynistic comments and online outrage regarding her outfit on the morning show.
She interrupted the ABC’s usual programming on Tuesday, with her statement: “The fact that what I wore on Monday attracted obnoxious commentary on Twitter, foul, disgusting personal abuse that I wouldn’t and couldn’t repeat here – it was upsetting.
“I am angry on this International Women’s Day. Angry on behalf of myself and also on behalf of other… young women who see… someone like me being violently abused day after day. I worry it will make you think no progress has been made and it’s not worth it to be a woman in the public arena.”
The trolling comments were republished by News Corp and The Daily Mail, prompting ABC News Director; Justin Stevens to respond: “Media outlets that amplify this disgusting anonymous trolling need to take a good hard look at themselves and their standards.”
The ABC’s official statement reiterated “giving social media bullies publicity on a national platform is participating in and perpetuating antisocial behaviour and the very serious issue of online abuse of women… We ask for a more responsible approach to reporting on these issues.”
This was not the first time Millar has copped relentless attacks from online trolls, having deleted her Twitter account with a 55,000 audience-following in 2021 to distance herself from the abuse.
From Lisa Wilkinson to Natalie Barr, Samantha Armytage to Carrie Bickmore – Australia has a long history of ripping female journalists’ outfits to shreds.
Wilkinson, the longest serving woman co-host at Nine Network’s Today Show and former anchor of The Project was the subject of a Daily Mail article in 2017, that singled her out for wearing a blouse four months after she wore it for the first time. An estimated 125 outfits later.
She took to social media saying “I am soooo busted!! Seems I’ve been seen hosting a breakfast TV show in the same blouse ‘with a strategic cut-out above the bust’. Like personally, I’d sack me!!”
I am sooo busted! Seems I've been seen hosting breakfast TV wearing same blouse with "strategic cutout above the bust" just 4months apart!!! pic.twitter.com/hx1AaQw2b2
— Lisa Wilkinson (@Lisa_Wilkinson) April 11, 2017
While Wilkinson’s colleagues immediately came to her defence, taking turns donning the same floral blouse – Wilkinson was “dismissed” from the breakfast show that very year after allegedly trying to negotiate and close her gender pay gap.
Last year, she left The Project, after claims she had been subjected to a “targeted toxicity” by sections of the media.
Australian television and radio presenter and one of Wilkinson’s very own colleagues Carrie Bickmore also left The Project after 13 years. In her farewell speech, she said: “I remember early on in the show being told that my outfits were perhaps too much, that people couldn’t look at what I was wearing and listen at the same time.”
She gestured to her red feathered Rebecca Vallance mini dress: “Take this. I proved them wrong.”
Interestingly, research has shown there is a correlation between what television presenters wear and public viewer perceptions.
A 2012 study revealed minimal appearance cues can lead people to accurately judge others’ personality, status or politics. Through a process called thin-slicing, participants processed visual details from photographs of strangers most worn shoes to precisely judge characteristics of an unknown person. Their age, gender, income and relationships were revealed solely through pictures.
“Shoes can, indeed be used to evaluate others, at least in some domains,” the study concluded.
Researchers have also found the more “sexualised” a female anchor is – whether she is wearing bold make-up or clingy clothes – the less likely male viewers are to remember the news and the less credible she seemed. For women however, results opposed, and the highly sexualised journalist was found to be a more reliable source of information; indicating a gender gap in how viewers remember news content.
That is why Today Show co-host Karl Stefanovic, angered by the sexism he saw being thrust upon his female colleagues decided to conduct a social experiment in 2014.
He wore the exact same navy-blue suit on air for one year. And no one noticed.
“Women are judged much more harshly and keenly for what they do, what they say and what they wear,” Stefanovic said at the time.
Being a female television news fixture in a patriarchal culture means spending a significant amount of time, effort and money to largely remain unseen. While the days of rigorous dress codes; conservative necklines, full-length skirts and sombre colours are gone, social media has presented a new platform to amplify the criticism and attention journos’ wardrobes receive.
The 2019 Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance “Don’t read the comments: Women journalists harassed out of a job”report states more than one third of female journalists have experienced online harassment, trolling and stalking while doing the job. Only 15 per cent were aware of a workplace policy to address online abuse.
Recent findings from the International Center for Journalists in the US also shows the mounting hate, misogyny and violence aimed at women in the sector.
Using two case studies, it revealed Twitter “is the main vector for the attacks” and the platform “has utterly failed to protect the journalist” with online trolling coming in at very high speeds, sometimes within seconds of a journalist posting a Tweet.
“Online violence against women journalists is one of the most serious contemporary threats to press freedom internationally… It is designed to silence, humiliate, and discredit. It inflicts very real psychological injury, chills public interest journalism, kills women’s careers and deprives society of important voices and perspectives.”
In the case of Millar and the highly contested skirt last week, Minister for Women, Katy Gallagher said: “For women in public life unfortunately, at the moment, this is part of our experience.
“If we want to pursue careers that are in public life, our choice is put up with it, or withdraw from it… It’s not an acceptable situation at all.
“We’re not going to have a gender-equal Australia if people are seeing Lisa’s experience and others’ experience. It will mean that women choose not to go and pursue careers where they have to endure that kind of online abuse.”
As Auspol TikTok Queen Belinduh Pynne posted to Twitter, “Yesterday it was Julie Bishop, today, Lisa Millar.”
Ten years ago, it was Julia Gillard.
It makes one wonder, who will it be tomorrow?
Main image montage by Yasmine Alwakal.