Abbott Ministry – Gender Analysis

Would business tolerate the Abbott cabinet gender imbalance?

It would be wrong to think that gender equality in the workplace is still elusive. Even if the Abbott government’s Cabinet, with its sole female member in foreign minister Julie Bishop would seem to show otherwise.

Legislatively, there has been a strengthened effort to significantly change how employers address and report on gender equality in the workplace.

Amongst the principle objects of the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 (WGE Act) which replaced the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act 1999, is the specific aim to “promote and improve gender equality … in employment and in the workplace,” and to “support employers to remove barriers to the full and equal participation of women in the workforce.”

As WGE Act 2012 moves to a new reporting regime which comes into full effect in the 2013-14, relevant employers will be required to report against a set of six standardised gender equality indicators (GEIs) of which the precise reporting matters for each GEI are to be set by the Minister for the Status of Women. In the new Abbott Ministry, this would presumably be the responsibility of Senator Michaelia Cash, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women.

Senator Michaelia Cash, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women. AAP / Lukas Coch

However, against the backdrop of a 95% male cabinet, will Abbott’s government leadership and governance for WGE Act 2012 be credible? It would seem that this political institution of greatest power over the nation will not be leading by example. It will lead from the front, but will serve as a stark reminder of the entrenched sluggish willpower – or lack thereof – that exists at influential levels to shatter the glass ceiling.

With women comprising 2.5% of ASX 200 Chairs and 3% of ASX 200 CEOs in 2010, the ASX Corporate Governance Council in 2010 put gender diversity on the corporate governance agenda to address the low levels of female participation at the senior levels of company management and at the board level. The Council continues to uphold this policy recommending that companies should have a policy concerning diversity; that the annual report should disclose the measurable objectives for achieving gender diversity set by the board, and progress towards achieving them.

To assist listed entities to formulate a diversity policy, the ASX outlines that organisations need a “commitment to and identification of ways to promote a corporate culture which embraces diversity when determining the composition of employees, senior management and the board, including recruitment of employees and directors from a diverse pool of qualified candidates”.

Although in 2012 women’s presence at board and executive level increased slightly to 3% for ASX 200 Chairs and 3.5% for ASX 200 CEOs, the ASX recommendations appear to have had a positive effect for women in the top echelons of corporations.

To promote a parliamentary culture which embraces diversity at its highest level of Government executive decision-making, will the Abbott Government follow suit?

Furthermore, in line with the ASX’s Council’s recommendation, will the Abbott government also make transparent what selection criteria was used to determine eligibility for the inner sanctum of its government?

The ASX Council recommends that organisations need to have transparency of board processes, review and appointments and suggests that selection criteria need to be broad to include a mix of skills, experience and attributes. If as Abbott assures us that there are “strong and capable women knocking on the door of the cabinet”, what selection process was used to prove them incapable?

The message from senior party figures that there are “talented” and “outstanding” women in the Liberal Party, conflicts with the decision for not selecting them. Furthermore, the qualification that “in time” we should expect to see many more women promoted is a complete let down as this is exactly the theme we have heard for decades. In the UK, in 2010 when women made up 12.5% of the corporate boards of FTSE 100 companies, it was reported that “at the current rate of change it will take over 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK”.

Having more women in Cabinet needs to be a key strategic focus for the Abbott Government because it matters on so many levels, including at a symbolic level for gender equality in Australia, at a representative level as women make up half of Australia’s total population (50%), at a Human Rights level, for women who for decades continue to be under-represented in positions of leadership within both the private and public sector in Australia, for businesses who are being asked by Government to reinforce the importance of equality in the workplace, and for Australian society that will benefit from a richly diverse and gender balanced Parliament.

The Abbott government’s support for women in leadership is critical for attaining real change in gender equality in Australian workplaces.


Disclosure statement

Diann Rodgers-Healey does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


James Cook University

James Cook University provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.

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