International Women’s Day is not the time to call equal representation a “side issue” when it comes to governing the country.
Nor should such matters be dismissed as low on the priority list on the remaining 364 days of the year. But on IWD especially, our Minister for Finance Mathias Cormann should have known better than to label the low number of women on the Abbott government’s frontbench as less important than other issues.
He did just that on Sky New’s Saturday Agenda over the weekend telling David Lipson that, “We are not going to get distracted by these sorts of, what I would say, are side issues.”
Senator Cormann was responding to questions regarding the low level of female representation in the Abbott government, following calls by the Coalition’s own Sharman Stone that the Liberal party should consider introducing mandatory quotas to address the imbalance.
Of all days, you’d think IWD would be one in which a white, male politician in his forties could give a little airtime to gender diversity. He did try. He named two women the Coalition regularly turns to for support on such matters: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Senator Michaelia Cash.
But more concerning was the fact our Minister for Finance would think unequal representation can be dismissed as a “side issue” in the first place. This is not merely a debate about whether or not the Coalition should support quotas or targets, it’s about realising the matter of working towards equal representation is important: to get the best policy outcomes, ensure the best parliamentary talent is available and that our governing body bears at some resemblance to our actual population.
Indeed a more equal representation of our genders may have the Abbott government reconsidering its reported plans to scale back gender reporting guidelines for ASX-listed companies — what has become a particularly unpopular move by some of the country’s most powerful women’s groups and alliances.
The gender makeup of government can affect policies that benefit women. Analysis by Emily’s List released over the weekend found that the combined Gillard and Rudd governments — which both carried a record number of women in any Cabinet or ministry at the federal level, and female representation across the party at 36% — passed a significant body of legislation benefitting women and families including paid parental leave, Disability Care, pay equity principles providing pay increases particularly to those in the community sector and superannuation changes benefitting women.
Let’s remember also that increased female workforce participation is one of three issues identified by the Grattan Institute as key to improving productivity in Australia.
When it comes to women’s workforce participation, the numbers still do not add up.
As the latest PwC Women in Work Index has found, Australia is still ranked first for educational attainment but 52nd for Labour force participation. We’re spending big on educating female talent, but not benefitting from the investment.
We need to see women representing at the highest levels of business, community and government in order to get the best outcomes for the entire population.
If we can’t agree that gender representation in Parliament is more than just a ‘side issue’ we may as well give up on ever hoping to see much change in the future.