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'Keep them nervous': Behind the awards no one wants to win

Trophy case with golden trophies, Dr Meredith Burgmann looks at camera in professional headshot.
Dr Meredith Burgmann is on a mission to fight sexism through comedy and friends. (Sources: Getty, Supplied)

Each November, some 300 women from all walks of life come together in Sydney for the Ernies, to laugh and to vote for the year’s top misogynistic quotes.

It’s a night of hilarity, fun and banter.

Winners are determined by the person who receives the most booing when their sexist statement or action is read out.

The Ernies dinner is the brainchild of Dr Meredith Burgmann.

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The event is named after former Australian Workers' Union secretary Ernie Ecob, who was known for his misogynistic remarks. One of his best-known was: "Women aren't welcome in the shearing sheds. They're only after the sex."


As far as she can remember, Dr Burgmann has been an activist. In the late ‘60s, she was arrested for anti-racist and anti-war activity.

During her career, the 74-year-old, has filled roles in parliament and unions. She has written on parliamentary ethics, codes of conduct, women’s work, equal pay, Aboriginal women, green bans, heritage environmentalism and workers’ rights.

Thinking back to the first Ernies event, Burgmann recalls gathering friends in celebration of Ecob’s departure.

“I’d landed a role in parliament and I thought I would organise a lunch with women in the trade union,” she said.

“The event was to celebrate Ernie’s departure. Back then, there were very few women in the unions, but 43 turned up.”

The women loved the lunch so much, it has become a tradition.

“While it started as a joke, there was a serious intent behind it. We were sick of being treated badly in the trade union and it was time to name these people.”

The rest, as they say, is history, with the Ernies celebrating 30 years in 2022.

Ironically, since that time, the trade union area has done an about face.

“Today, it’s totally changed. It’s hard to find someone in the trade union who is disparaging,” Burgmann said.

“Thankfully, we have women in the roles of secretary and president of the ACTU.”

Another area where change is apparent is with judges.

“In the early ‘90s, the judges were Ernie award winners,” added Burgmann.

“This changed after the judicial commission was brought in and judges were given training about what they said.”

Burgmann recalls some of the most notorious quotes.

“One judge said, ‘No doesn’t necessarily mean no.’ Another said, ‘A man is able to use rougher than usual handling with his wife.’

“Thankfully, judges have cleaned up their act.”

While the Ernies is a great occasion for women to get together, there is another reason.

“It’s cathartic for them, they boo, scream and get angry, mostly about victim blaming and anything to do with violence - they go right off,” Burgmann said.

“Often a woman will say to me, ‘I feel so much better after attending’.”

Aside from being cathartic, holding men up to public scrutiny and making them accountable is equally important.

“Our motive is: keep them nervous. Again, it has a serious side while being great fun.”

Gender pay gap prevails

Over the past decades, as changes improve in areas of women’s rights and equal pay, sadly, women are still behind men when it comes to being financially secure.

Burgmann believes the pay equity problem is due to the work women do and that, it is less valued.

“A proper work value analysis of women’s work has never been done and we need one,” she said.

“For example, childcare workers, who are mostly female, are paid tuppence, but a factory worker with less years of education and less skilled is paid more.”

In the late ‘60s and ‘70s, women’s wages rose to 77 per cent of men’s, as a result of two equal-pay cases.

“By 1977, it was 84 per cent of men’s wages, and pretty much has hovered there ever since,” added Burgmann.

Taking time out of the workforce is one of the issues leaving women behind financially.

“It’s a real problem for women today,” Burgmann said.

“In the old days, when people retired, they went on the aged pension. The problem now is the pension is moving mostly towards real welfare recipients.

“Women are usually the carers and part-time workers, they take time out for children and also, they take time out to look after elderly parents. These gaps create shortfalls in their superannuation.

“There’s a storm of older women, who are leaving the workforce with very little and, for the first time, in real poverty.”

A change in mindset has to occur.

“Women must understand the long-term effects of not having savings. The problem with superannuation is that it’s difficult to understand,” Burgmann said.

Australia needs to strengthen its union movements, she adds.

“Those countries with strong union movements have better results for women workers.

“We should be arguing for more centralised wage fixing and changes at superannuation. Women on maternity leave should continue to have their contributions paid into superannuation, so they don’t lose out.

“Families need to rethink parenting, so that it’s not women doing part-time work or out of the workforce. Men have to pick up their share of parenting.”

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