Last night members of Executive Women Australia gathered in Sydney’s Paspaley Pearls flagship store to celebrate the launch of a new executive program. The guest speaker to this group of prominent female business leaders was the minister assisting the minister for women Senator Michaelia Cash.
Her passion about the advancement of women in Australia was readily apparent. I have heard her speak before and have reached the same conclusion.
But then, and last night, it struck me that passion alone is not enough to create change.
I have two concerns regarding the current government when it comes to women. The first is that there is not sufficient understanding of the barriers impacting Australian women: I am yet to hear a single minister or representative from the government speak with any clarity or commitment on the issues affecting women. The second is the absence of any commitment from the government to even want to understand or tackle gender equality.
The composition of Cabinet alone sends that message quite clearly. The government’s defence of the Cabinet composition – that the 18 men are there on merit alone – serves only to underscore this. The news this week that the government is considering paring back the gender reporting requirements quite significantly sends the same message: gender equality is not an issue this government takes seriously. It’s galling to accept, particularly when the economic case for diversity is so clear; boost women’s workforce participation and you will boost GDP.
Against that background I’ll admit I was sceptical before Senator Cash even began last night. Interestingly more than one of the well-heeled businesswomen in the room expressed the same sentiment – unprompted.
Senator Cash’s speech about her own career and the government’s plans and ideas about women and productivity did little to dissuade me of my concerns. As I said, her personal passion is not in question, but as Cash argued the government’s philosophy about freeing up business to ensure they can get stuck into gender equality on their own terms my optimism faded. Fast.
I was heartened, however, to observe that the audience started to shift, eyes were glazing over and at one point a woman even interjected. The group’s frustration was palpable. It’s worth noting that the women assembled were senior, well-established business-women. If the Coalition’s message didn’t resonate with this crowd of women, it ought to make the government think twice.
Dialogue is something that seems to be missing from the current debate, particularly around these issues. Personally, I would have liked an opportunity to ask questions at the end of Senator Cash’s speech. These are the questions I would have liked to ask.
Senator Cash, you acknowledged there are barriers still facing Australian women but you remarked that it’s important to recognise we are so much further ahead than others in the world. You mentioned a family who fled Sierra Leone as refugees and said that in that family the choice was made to educate only their son not their daughter. Compared to that scenario, Australia has come a long way. Is the treatment of women in Sierra Leone a benchmark Australians should aspire to?
You want to reduce red tape so business can focus more on achieving gender equality. Keeping in mind these factors:
- that pregnancy discrimination is now the number one workplace discrimination complaint in Australia and
- that Australia’s female workforce participation rate is going backwards – we are currently ranked 52nd in the world
Is it likely that change will occur without some direction or requirement from government?
If you reduce gender-reporting requirements how will business be able to measure their progress in terms of reaching gender parity?
Do you think the composition of Federal Cabinet undermines the government’s position when encouraging businesses and employers to embrace gender diversity?
You said you are supportive of business setting targets but the government will not enforce quotas because in your view they are not effective. Last week the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, said quotas in the EU have “changed the landscape.” Why do you think they have been effective there but wouldn’t be effective here?
You have attributed your considerable career achievements to working hard. You say the more you want to achieve the harder you have worked. What advice would you give to a hardworking, highly educated, talented female who would love to work hard but is unable to access childcare? Or is working for a company that doesn’t offer her any flexibility to complete her job? Or a woman has been made redundant whilst on maternity leave?
You say the government is 110% committed to increasing productivity. How does the government plan to do this?