A memo to the Minister for Women: no discrimination is legal - Women's Agenda

A memo to the Minister for Women: no discrimination is legal

Before Tony Abbott was elected Prime Minister I was told, by a few different people who know him in a few different ways, that I would be pleasantly surprised by him. That he is more rational, clear-thinking and kind than his many gaffes indicate. I cannot say that in the weeks since he was elected that has proved true but I can say, sincerely, that I hope it might be.

I don’t have a personal vendetta against Tony Abbott or the Liberal party. Truth be known I am a swinging voter – policies on both sides of the spectrum resonate with me – and I haven’t steadfastly supported any single party in the 13 years since I first cast a vote. So why do I so often criticise the man who is now our prime minister?

Because he has – time and time again – through his words and actions proved himself to be, at best, wholly naive about gender equality in Australia and, at worst, sexist. Abbott vehemently denies this but so do a lot of people. I don’t think he denies it dishonestly; he seems genuinely incredulous that anyone could question his attitude to women. After all he is a man married to a woman, with daughters he adores, and a sister and mother he is close to. But his words and actions consistently prove his attitudes towards women are antiquated.

The fact these instances are so often brushed aside as unintentional, or gaffes, doesn’t help. It just serves to compound the effect of the original remark. (Not only did he think it was appropriate to reference a candidate’s sex appeal during the election campaign, but, even after the fact, in the midst of criticism, he didn’t once acknowledge that it was inappropriate. He just excused it as mere exuberance, giving the impression that equality is an obvious and acceptable casualty when excitement is in the equation.)

Unfortunately Abbott’s first official words as the minister for women are not reassuring. Talking to Neil Mitchell on Melbourne’s 3AW last Friday Abbott said this:

“I don’t think women suffer legal discrimination and I don’t think anyone these days sets out to do the wrong thing but it is very difficult for women to combine work and family if they don’t have a fair dinkum paid parental leave scheme and that’s going to change very soon under the Coalition.”

The first half of that long sentence crystallises exactly why Tony Abbott is so ill-equipped to be the minister for women. It captures perfectly why gender inequality still pervades and succinctly explains why substantial change is likely to elude us for as long as he is responsible for the portfolio. How so?

For a start, ‘legal discrimination’ is an odd choice of language because there is no such thing. Discrimination is illegal. Many might call me out here for semantics but let’s remember whom we are talking to; the prime minister in an arranged media interview. He was not caught off guard, he was on brief discussing a topic he knew would be covered. The fact Abbott thought to make a distinction between legal and illegal discrimination – to me – suggests a lack of legitimate awareness and understanding of discrimination. And yes, from the minister for women, that is problematic but it’s not even the worst of it.

The biggest issue is that Abbott clearly indicates he doesn’t think there is a problem with the way women are treated in Australia. Yet when it comes to opportunities on the basis of gender it is patently obvious that there is a substantial problem. As the minister for women I would have thought, or hoped, that Abbott might be across some, or all, of these details but as it seems he’s not, here’s some proof.

  • Australian women are paid 17.5% less than Australian men. There are no excuses for this.
  • Australia ranks 25th in The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report which ranks countries on their ability to close the gender gap in four key areas: healthcare, education, political participation and economic equality. Cuba, South Africa, Latvia, Canada and America are just a few of the countries that provide better opportunities for women than Australia.
  • Women occupy 3.5% of chief executive roles in the ASX200 companies whilst only 15.6% of directors on those company boards are women.
  • Almost a quarter of all ASX200 companies are yet to appoint a single woman to its board.
  • There is one woman in federal Cabinet.
  • A lack of merit does not explain the disproportionate representation of women in senior roles in business, government or any other sector. 
  • In June this year the Attorney-General’s Department commissioned the Sex Discrimination office to conduct a national review on the prevalence, nature and consequences of discrimination in relation to pregnancy at work and return to work after parental leave due to the number of complaints made on this basis. 

This list is not exhaustive and these are not refutable opinions. They are facts that represent the state of affairs for women in Australia and they illustrate – clearly – that discrimination is an issue for women. So what can we deduct when the minister for women and prime minister denies this? Denying there is a problem is the quickest way to ensure nothing changes. Because if someone doesn’t recognise a problem exists what impetus is there for them to fix it?

Another problematic part of Abbott’s attitude lies in these words: ‘I don’t think anyone these days sets out to do the wrong thing.’ And yet? As outlined above ‘the wrong thing’ keeps happening. Since 1975, whether it’s intentional or not, discrimination on the basis of gender has been illegal. Whether people are actively limiting the options for women or not is irrelevant. The minister for women should be focused on positive outcomes, encouraging people to do the right thing, rather than excusing anyone for doing the wrong thing and contributing to the problem.

No self-respecting chief executive would ever rationalise a year’s worth of poor sales on the basis that no one set out to do the wrong thing. Rather than excusing wrong-doers I’d like the minister for women to exalt them to do the right thing.

Of course some people will jump on me for criticising Tony Abbott whilst he was spruiking a generous paid parental leave policy. There is no doubt that paid parental leave is a vital piece of infrastructure for working parents. However there is some doubt about whether Tony Abbott recognises that it is just one part of the solution.

I don’t consider condemning Tony Abbott sport. I don’t do it because I am vindictive or because I am a Labor-loyalist. I do it because equality is the only cause I am committed to to the extent that it can be accurately described as a vendetta. In this regard, Abbott is in the line of my fire. I cannot tell you how much I wish he’d move.

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