Why we need to open the door | Women's Agenda

Why we need to open the door

Like Prime Minister Tony Abbott, I am disappointed that the Coalition’s Cabinet contains just 1 woman out of 19 ministers. I am also surprised that more of “the good and talented women knocking on the door” of Cabinet were not appointed. I have had the pleasure of working with both sides of government and know that both parties contain many intelligent, capable and driven women. So I ask myself, why aren’t these women given more prominent roles in our government?

Whenever the issue of gender inequality in business or politics is brought up, it gives rise to the old argument, that people should be promoted or elected based on merit rather than gender. This argument is overly simplistic and misleading, as merit is not a neutral and objective test, but a fluid idea involving informal and value-laden criteria in the making of decisions, susceptible to bias. To say that women must be promoted on “merit” does not speak of competency, but of informal criteria used by an organisation, in this case a political party to make its appointments, which too often means women do not fit.

When I was appointed to the role of Executive Director of the National Committee of UN Women in 2007, at the age of 23, was I the most experienced person in Australia to lead a start-up team in a growing NGO? Or was I someone who had a strong academic background, demonstrated commitment to hard work and a young person, full of ideas and potential? I was the strongest candidate, ‘meritorious’ if you will – but part of being the strongest candidate, was a consideration of potential. Unfortunately however too many boards and leaders, in assessing the ‘potential’ of a candidate look for candidates who are similar to themselves – and so begins the cycle of white male dominance.

The other argument, that women simply aren’t as experienced in politics as men (viewed as a problem that will address itself over time) is also misleading. Experience is borne of the opportunities and support given to women and men at lower levels of politics and government. If women are less experienced than men in politics, then it is up to the party to address this issue at all levels.

The need for gender equality in government is not mere tokenism. When women are left out of leadership roles, the issues that disproportionately affect women, such as pay equity, superannuation and flexible work practices, drop off the agenda. There is a significant evidence base demonstrating that diverse teams make better decisions and whether crises better than teams which lack diversity. This has been comprehensively studied in the context of companies who weathered the global financial crisis best were those with more women on their boards. Gender equality in government would show to young Australians that we have confidence in both men and women to be leaders of this country and that their ambitions are not limited by their gender.

Our international reputation must also be considered. This number of women in Cabinet is far below Canada’s 11 and is even below the 3 in Afghanistan. In August 2012 the Government boosted funding to Pacific nations to increase the representation of women in parliament and leadership roles. We send a mixed message in our region by urging Pacific nations to make gender equality a priority, while disregarding it at home.

Clearly more needs to be done in Australia to support female political candidates and to ensure that women are not overlooked at the Ministerial level. I would challenge the new Government to consider that perhaps years does not equate to merit, and that instead, giving some of the highly skilled, talented women in the party a go will serve them better as a Government. UN Women supports special temporary measures to overcome systematic inequalities in government and corporate sectors. Quotas come into play when institutions are unable or unwilling to address these issues themselves.

We cannot address an inequality with equality. With just 1 in 19 women in Cabinet, it is hard to deny that we have a gender equality problem in Australia. Whether or not you believe quotas are the answer in Australia, it is important that we open the discussion on gender equality in government and ensure that all sides of politics are doing whatever they can to ensure women get further than “knocking on the door” of the highest levels of government.

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