Our new PM has described as ‘unfortunate’ the fact that there is only one woman in the Coalition Cabinet and six in the 42-strong Ministry (14.3%). I disagree. It is not simply unfortunate, but a case of really poor management on behalf of the organisation now governing the country. The fact Australia has fewer than 15 per cent of the Ministry positions held by women speaks to a systemic failure by the Liberal Party over the years to adopt the grown up reforms adopted by the Labor Party and many companies in the corporate world.
There are now more women on the boards of ASX200 listed companies than running the country. This is in part due to changes made in 2010 by the ASX Corporate Governance Council to its Principles and Recommendations governing best practice for Australian companies. Principle 3 (the diversity principle) required companies to measure and report on the numbers of women at all levels in the organistion and to take seriously the clear business case for gender balance. The number of women on ASX200 boards went from 8 percent in 2009 to close to 16 per cent currently.
It is a similar story in the Australian Labor Party. In 1994 the ALP National Conference passed an Affirmative Action Rule requiring women be preselected in 35 per cent of winnable seats at all elections by 2002. This target was subsequently lifted and the 40/40/20 rule by 2012 was enshrined as ALP policy. Women seeking election are supported by Emily’s List, a financial, political and personal support network for the election of progressive Labor women candidates.
Critics in the Liberal Party argue that merit based selection ensures the best candidates are selected to stand for election. Could someone please point that out to the pre-selectors who put Jaymes Diaz up for the voters in Greenway? Or to the way in which a Senate ticket is determined? Or to the way ambassadors for overseas office are selected? The notion of merit as some mystical force that, like Luke Skywalker, will rise to triumph over all evil is mysteriously alive and well – often among people who may not have been selected for a position should have a more rigorous process intervened.
Targets, quotas, or any proporitional share of positions requird to be held by a certain group, will automatically require a wider search to be conducted for suitable candidates. For the spotlight to be turned off and floodlight to be turned on, enabling people to look beyond their own field of view to networks they would not otherwise know or be part of. The same is as true for the pre-selection of political candidates and it is for ASX directors.
Mr Abbott in describing the dearth of women in leadership positions in the Liberal Party ignores that fact that this has been the case since the election of Howard in 1996 – 17 years and six elections ago. Plenty of time to focus on the issue at the grass roots level and develop a strategy for attracting, recruiting and sponsoring top quality women into leadership roles. The Coalition has also been in Oppostition for seven years, again time to renew the party and foster and develop talent. Familiar language and one that business uses all of the time in its quest for the best people.
Prior to his election Tony Abbott’s support for gender diversity rested largely on the fact he was married to a woman, had three daughters and announced a Paid Parental Leave Scheme (largely an overpaid baby bonus) which appears designed to keep more women out of productive work and wipe out 20 years of businesss policies. None of this seems to have translated into positions on the front bench – which is where the rubber hits the road in terms of demonstrating clear committment to gender balance.
The recently released Women on Boards Boardroom Diversity Index clearly illustrates that sectors with measurable gender balance targets are moving ahead of those that rely on good intentions and rhetoric alone. If the Liberal Party wishes to avoid the same ‘unforunate’ occurrence at the next election they might look to getting past their fixation on the arbitrary construct of merit and implementing affirmative action within the party and developing a pipeline of talented and progressive men and women to serve into the future.