March 10, 2007
The Canberra Times

Gender equality button is still stuck on pause

So another International Women’s Day has passed and another collective sigh of relief that we got away with it. Speeches were made, issues raised, and still we all politely managed to offend no one. Pity.

While there is no joy in offending, sometimes it’s necessary. And now is that time. With the week’s celebrations over, let’s be honest and rip open our very own inconvenient truth. An unnerving complacency has beset Australian women – particularly young women. A complacency about women’s right to own and wield power: political, institutional, commercial, economic and judicial power. We’ve become complacent about our right to administer that power as women, and not as women who have morphed into men.

As every woman in federal Parliament knows, a woman encumbered with children could never make it as prime minister – as things stand. However, a childless woman, with no family responsibilities or needy husband, who is available to work 24/7 might though: but not in our lifetime.

Yet, not even an occasion like International Women’s Day can generate any significant public discussion on why this is so? Within the mainstream media there is a dull lethargy about tackling gender inequality in Australia. The overriding mood is one of ”all’s well”. Ask any young woman now about feminism, and watch her cringe: it’s ”like so over”. Use the less offensive phrase ”gender equality” and watch her glaze over.

On the very day the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Women’s Issues, Julie Bishop, was pouting in Parliament and scolding the Opposition Leader in a cutesy- pie little girl voice for being ”a naughty boy”, a delegation representing her was in New York to speak at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The progress of Australian women was reported as exemplary.

But the UN already knew that. It recently ranked Australia eighth out of 136 countries on its gender empowerment measure and third on its gender-related development index, which takes into account female life expectancy, literacy, education and income. Australia rates well ahead of the United States, Britain, New Zealand – even Finland, which has some of the best gender-equity policies in the world. So what’s the problem?

Well, it starts at the top. Where are the women when we look at who wields the real power in Australia? Power here always seems to wear a suit and tie. An exaggeration? In less than 30 seconds name Australia’s five most powerful men. Easy, isn’t it? Now, as quickly, name our five most powerful women. Stumped? You’re not alone. When I once asked this of ANOP pollster Rod Cameron, not only did he struggle with women’s names, and then ask for five minutes, he concluded by saying the premise of the question was wrong. ”Power is the wrong word to use because power is a male thing,” he said. Ouch.

I tried the same quick test on a lecture theatre of first year university students, and the results were probably similar to most randomly selected groups. Among the five most powerful men, names such as Packer, Murdoch, Howard, Costello, Turnbull, and McGuire rolled off the tongue. As for the women, there was a bit of pen chewing and head scratching. Then a few suggested Janette Howard, along with various women on TV such as Mel, Tracey, Sandra. Even Kylie got a guernsey. Can you pick a bit of a theme here?

To be fair, these are only simple straw polls. So what about the official lists? If we swap ”power” for ”influence” for a moment, women crack a small showing. Last year when The Bulletin published its list of Australia’s 100 most influential people, there were 89 men and 11 women. Germaine Greer was there, along with a cook, a gardener, a pop queen, a former fish ‘n’ chip queen turned politician turned jail bird, and a woman who came out on the first fleet.

However, it’s perhaps The Australian Financial Review’s annual power list that is – well, the most powerful. Last year, of the 30 Australians noted for their ”power”, there were only two women: Janette Howard won a place for her ”covert power”, and Cate Blanchett for her ”cultural power”. No women made the grade in the ”overt power” list. They never do.

Is this a problem? Yes. Mostly because we think it isn’t a problem. We barely even notice it. What’s worse – we expect it. There are plenty of great women out there doing exceptional things and making their mark. Many have been honoured and celebrated this week, among them are ground breakers and quiet leaders. Too quiet.

The book Women with a Mission launched by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on Thursday, includes dozens of women who have served as heads of diplomatic missions. Why have we never heard of them? Why are the only women known to most Australians pop stars or celebrities?

Women want to get their hands on the levers of power just as much as any bloke. Australian women are better educated and certainly not shy of hard work. So why is our power button stuck on pause?

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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