By now you will have heard the news. Tony Abbott has unveiled his new Cabinet and it comprises 18 men and just one woman, the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. Afghanistan has three times as many women in its Cabinet than Australia does. There are three times as many men who hail from one Sydney rugby club than there are women. Even if Sophie Mirabella had been included the representation of women would still be dismal. Abbott says the lack of women is “obviously disappointing”. Indeed.
But whilst it is shocking and disappointing is it really surprising? Who else did we expect Tony Abbott to include? There are competent and capable women in the Liberal party whom Abbott could have included; Sussan Ley, Fiona Nash and Kelly O’Dwyer all spring to mind. But Tony Abbott made it clear throughout the election campaign that his government would not be a government of surprises. We would get what we saw. And what did we see?
We saw Abbott’s attitude towards women in its gritty, patronising glory.
We certainly didn’t see him front and centre, in any meaningful sense, championing his female MPs.
Of course we did see him reference one of his female candidate’s sex appeal. But perhaps, even in his mind, sex appeal, whilst obviously being important to voters, doesn’t equate to Cabinet-worthiness?
In a patent attempt to appease Abbott’s perceived ‘problems with women’, a telling precursor in itself, throughout the campaign we barely saw him without women on either side. But they weren’t Cabinet-hopefuls were they? He was thronged by his adult daughters in an unconcealed display of his expectations of young women. Did we really think that a man who was happy to relegate his own educated daughters to smiling trophies was going to fill his front bench with smart women? Really?
As far as I can tell we are getting exactly what we were promised. This is a Prime Minister true to his word: no surprises. If Abbott had wanted to surprise us he could have installed another few females in his Cabinet but he didn’t. Instead he went with experience and stability.
Which takes us to the core of the bigger problem. Until something changes women won’t get the experience, and if they don’t get the experience, they won’t be considered and so the cycle will continue. It is the catch which complicates the merit argument and easily explains why, despite the rhetoric, women remain under-represented in senior ranks.
Even if Abbott had appointed another few women it wouldn’t change the fact that the issue of women in senior positions in government – as in business – is systemic. Last week Women on Boards released further research that confirms hope is not an effective strategy to achieve gender equality. Without a clear objective and a plan for change the numbers won’t budge.
There is a simple reason that women are merely knocking on the Cabinet door rather than taking seats in the room. The Liberal party has not taken any action to boost the number of female candidates at pre-selection or support them in senior ranks. Abbott’s Cabinet clearly reflects that which might be alarming but it’s certainly not surprising.