Earlier this week, Minister Pyne was interviewed on the 7:30 Report, where he was talking about a book had had written. The discussion was about his choice to go into politics. Both the Minister’s new book and appearance on the news program, are completely mundane and ordinary occurrences. The noteworthy part was when the discussion turned towards the representation of women in politics and when the Minister was asked about the difference in numbers between the ALP and the LNP he said ‘I don’t believe in quotas and I don’t believe in targets, but I do believe in people being elected on the basis of merit.’
But here’s the thing: the concept of merit or the very idea that career progression is simply based in the quality of one’s work is naive at best, and folly at worst.
Looking at the surface of the representation of woman in Australian Federal politics, it’s not great. The first woman to be elected federally was Enid Lyons in 1943, 41 years after women received the right to vote and stand. At a state level in Queensland, you might remember that women won the right to vote in 1905, the right to stand in 1915 and Irene Longman was the first woman elected in 1929. Across all the Parliaments, it isn’t until the 1990s that the number of women in the house is significant. In Queensland, this was obvious with the 1989 election where seven women were elected at once. Overall, the percentage of women in the Federall the parliament peaked at 27.3 and it now sits at 26. Basically, we’ve had a few women through the doors, and Julia Gillard even made it to Prime Minister in 2010, but if you were to believe the only reason why the the proportion of women in parliament doesn’t reflect the proportion of women in the wider population is based in merit, then you need to face the facts.
Women make up 50 percent of the population, and are now more likely to be better educated than men, however this is not reflected in positions of leadership or power. In The Wife Drought Annabel Crabb outlines the numerous was in which women take on the lions share of the domestic duties and emotional labour, even when they work full-time. The same is not true of men. Specifically, men are more likely to progress further in their careers when then become a father and earn more money. Not only do women tend to take a career break if they have children, they also run the risk of retuning to work in areas of under employment. Women can also expect to earn up to 20 percent less than men, even without the traditional career breaks. If women are as capable as men, and now, more educated than men, then why are they under-represented in terms of power and leadership? It’s the merit argument. Which I would re-lable as the social capital argument. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
I’ve outlined before there is a gap between women’s rights and the cultural execution of these rights, and I assert this lingering cultural lag is due to both explicit and implicit gender based discrimination. While the explicit discrimination is beginning to recede, it is the implicit discrimination which is more pernicious and more challenging to eradicate. Which is why this concept of merit is inappropriate. Merit implies recruitment requirements are measurable outcomes and accountable terms which can be marked off on a list, however this doesn’t account for implicit discrimination or unconscious bias. That is, qualities which are desirable for certain roles cannot always be learned, taught or measured.
The merit argument, also does not account for the ways in which our lives are imbued with gendered dispositions, whereby men (when I say men, I recognise there are numerous way in which men express their feelings, emotions and masculinity, however there is a clear pattern where white men are valued higher than people from other backgrounds) are seen as powerful leaders and women are the caregivers and nurturers. Bringing this back to politics, remember when the PM said this ‘I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons’? Or when the Pm was asked about his biggest achievement as Minister for Women was the repeal of the carbon tax? Or when he said, ‘What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing is that if they get it done commercially it’s going to go up in price’. All of these comments from Mr. Abbott rely on the natural order of the duality of the gender binary. Not only are these terms outdated, as specifically, there are no differences in our capacity to learn, or carry out certain tasks, but by reinforcing the gender binary, we are ignoring the complexity of identity. Furthermore, the gender binary exploits and represses men just as much as women, by expecting masculinity to be one small facet, instead of recognising the myriad of ways in which human express ourselves. Views which argue for the natural order of things, ignore the structures which reinforce this natural order. It ignores that this concept is not natural, that it is constructed and is embedded and ingrained by cultural practices .
The implementation of quotas is a positive step, but it is only one of many steps necessary for any organisation interested in becoming the best it can be. The ALP implemented quotas in 1994, however we are still yet to see equality within the party, as quotas still do not answer the bigger questions of unconscious bias. As Paul Reynolds indicates, despite the implementation of the 40 40 20 rules, women are still over-represented in the marginal seats.
So I say thank you to Minister Pyne, for telling the women of the Australia, what we already know. Women are knocking on the door, but patriarchal structures are sill holding us back from our full potential.