Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott has been slammed by outraged women and men from all sides of the political landscape for the lack of gender diversity in his ministry. Julie Bishop, as Foreign Minister, was the only women given the nod for a prized Cabinet spot.
Abbott claims it’s not his fault because he had slim pickings from which to choose. To this, Liberal Senator Sue Boyce said, “It’s a shame that this shocking and embarrassing statistic will permanently tarnish a wonderful victory.”
Australian of the Year Ita Buttrose criticised the lack of women in Cabinet and added, “I’m sure Julie Bishop is accustomed to being the token woman throughout her career, and here she is being the token woman again.”
Also critical of Abbott’s one-female Cabinet, Women’s Electoral Lobby chair Melanie Fernandez told AAP: “Good diversity of representation … means a better discussion and better policies being put in place.”
The new Cabinet boasts the lowest level of gender diversity since 1992 when Ros Kelly was the only female in Paul Keating’s ministry. Instead of simply complaining and pointing fingers, the women in the Labor party took matters into their own hands and pushed hard for change.
In 1994, an Affirmative Action Rule was passed at the ALP National Conference requiring women be preselected in 35% of winnable seats at all elections by 2002. The women who drove this change were Julia Gillard, Joan Kirner, Carmen Lawrence, Helen Creed, Candy Broad, Kay Setches, Leonie Morgan, Judy Spence, Meredith Burgmann, Jan Burnswoods, Carolyn Pickles, Sue Mackay and Fran Bladel.
Initially change was slow so a core group of Labor women who had been watching the growth of Emily’s List in the US took the initiative to launch an Australian version on November 11 1996. Emily’s List supports women who are likely to support other women when they reach positions of influence. It’s not a group that supports women for the sake of it. Real and lasting change is the motivator.
Founding members include Australia’s first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard and former Victorian Premier Joan Kirner. Kirner was also the CEO – pro bono – of Emily’s List until her retirement from the post in 2004. Four of the five women who were in Gillard’s cabinet are members of Emily’s List.
There is no similar change agent in the Liberal Party, although Sue Boyce recently explained that she had suggested a similar initiative for the Liberal Party, to be called Foundation 41.
It’s not too late. If conservative women are frustrated by the lack of women in the leadership pipeline they need to be pro-active, starting now. Here are a few things they could do right tomorrow:
- Support Sue Boyce and other Liberal women who had the courage to speak out. The sound of silence coming from the majority of women in the Liberal Party has been perhaps an even bigger negative signal than the defensive comments coming from Bronwyn Bishop and Amanda Vanstone.
- Engage Julie Bishop and the women in the outer ministry to develop strategies for changing the gender diversity mix of future Liberal governments. ASX companies with only one woman on their board have gained kudos for at least coming up with a plan of intent to change that situation. One of those strategies must surely now be a quota system, as was argued for by former Victorian Senator Judith Troeth in June 2010. She wrote in a policy paper at the time: “The custom defence against quotas is the ‘what about merit’ argument, as if to be for quotas you must be against merit. Like the charge of tokenism, it eventually fails the test of reason after sitting in a parliamentary party room for nearly 20 years without seeing a progressive increase in the cohort of women members. As if those handful of women members who are there were the only ‘women of merit’ who put themselves forward for pre-selection.”
- Don’t rely on Abbott to create a vision for an equal opportunity future for the Liberal Party. He clearly doesn’t have it in him. Don’t waste your effort on trying to change him. Focus on those you can. Engage Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey as sponsors. Create an Emily’s type list of your own but go one step further and make increased female representation the responsibility of men and women. Focus on the benefits of gender diversity in delivering improved business outcomes, something that Turnbull, Hockey and co. can understand clearly. The Talent Advisors’ Dianne Jacobs addressed the need for transformative thinking in her article published in Ivey Business Journal on the leadership pipeline: “Given all the current focus on gender diversity, there is still a strong sense that companies do not quite know how to move from programmatic diversity to systemic diversity. They are unable to achieve the breakthrough or shift in mindsets needed to create inclusive meritocracies.” Clearly the Liberal Party is equally in need of a breakthrough in thinking.