Will PM Turnbull lead the way towards gender equality in Australia?

By Diann Rodgers-Healey

As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s new Cabinet begins, there is much excitement in the air that Turnbull has boldly addressed the gender balance issue. It is timely then to note some advances and some concerns shadowing this change.

That women are the big winners in the 21st century because Turnbull has added three women to Cabinet bringing the total to five women has made headlines as it grates against Abbott’s unremarkable low record of two women in his nineteen member cabinet and his infamous remarks that “There are very strong and capable women knocking on the door of the Cabinet” most of whom Abbott as gatekeeper ignored.

While Turnbull’s new total of five women hovers around earlier figures, with Gillard’s first cabinet having four women and Rudd’s having six, as has been commented internationally, it has also been noted that on an international comparison, Australia’s ranking for women in national government continues to decline.

Nevertheless, it is commendable that Turnull has demonstrated his valuing of female leadership in appointing women to positions traditionally held by men – Marise Payne, as Australia’s first ever female Defence Minister and Kelly O’Dwyer as both Minister for Small Business and as Assistant Treasurer. Michaela Cash is only one of three women to have been appointed Minister for Employment since Amanda Vanstone in 1996 and Julia Gillard in 2007.

However, even with the new reshuffle, women in Turnbull’s Cabinet only represent 24% of the total which has a 1 to 4 ratio of women to men in Cabinet.  Women are still in the minority in the highest echelons of the Turnbull government. Will this gender imbalance translate into a powerful elite vs a minority?

Given this imbalanced representation, what additional pressures will these five women Ministers have to bear simply because they are women in these positions? Will they have to work harder than their male peers to prove themselves? Will the cabinet culture be egalitarian in valuing their contribution, voice and leadership style? Will the culture encourage a flexible working environment to balance work and family life without hidden repercussions?

That Turnbull opened the door to the women who were “knocking” is notable because it shows that he recognises that a “21st-century government and a ministry for the future” cannot be void of women and their leadership.

In explaining why he promoted these women, Turnbull’s explanation showed that he did not appoint these women because of their gender, but because of their experience.

Given that no woman had been appointed as Minister for Defence or Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, in appointing Marise Payne as Australia’s first woman Defence Minister, Turnbull promoted Payne on proven performance and potential founded in her performance as Human Services Minister.

Turnbull’s advocacy of promoting women highlights the importance of sponsors providing opportunities for women when structural and cultural obstacles impedes women’s advancement. 

To enable the full participation of women in Turnbull’s 21st century government and ministry, training, mentoring and sponsoring women in the party pipeline is critical as is establishing a culture that is egalitarian and not masculinised, so that the collective intelligence, imagination and influence of all cabinet members can be harnessed.

Turnbull points out, “There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.” Equally so, with women making up approximately half of Australia’s population, there has never been a more opportune time for the equal representation of women and men in leadership.

It is hoped that PM Turnbull who has started with a compelling story for change will  continue to lead the way towards a cultural shift to dismantle barriers against women and achieve gender equality in Australia.

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