March 1, 2008
The Canberra Times

Rudd’s 2020 vision overlooks our best and brightest women

Oh, to be a fly on the wall the next time Lachlan Harris is face to face with his mother. He may well be important in the Kevin07 scheme of things, given he’s the Big Man’s senior media adviser. But to his mum right now, the charming Lachie is not the messiah. He’s just a naughty boy.

But the eloquent Catherine Harris wouldn’t say that, of course. She’s keeping mum about her boy’s guilt- by-association with his boss’s grand gender gaffe. After a spray on ABC radio in Sydney on Tuesday, about her shock and fury over Kevin Rudd’s Oops-Honey-I-forgot-the-Women summit, Catherine Harris has decided now to sit tight, and keep quiet. But she knows more than most – including her son – about the pains of operating in a world where women are an anomaly and an afterthought.

She was formerly director of the Affirmative Action Agency, which later morphed into the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency. When asked on radio how she felt about Rudd including only one woman in his choice of 10 ”best and brightest” Australians to chair discussion groups at his landmark 2020 summit of ideas, she didn’t mince her words. ”I felt like screaming, ‘Hello, Kevin.’ I can’t believe it.”

And she’s not alone. Women across the nation have added their voice to the collective fury. Like Harris, most are genuinely shocked, and the adjectives have been flying, with a superlative shrill: ”appalling”, ”insulting”, ”outrageous”, ”alarming”. Women say they are ”gutted” and ”gobsmacked” at such a display of ”11th-century paternalism”. But no one is going to punch anyone in the nose, or wave protest placards – because we all want to be there. We want to be included and counted.

The 2020 Summit is a tremendous chance to listen to a diverse range of thinking and to brainstorm ideas. While no one is expecting a tight sum of solutions, the weekend is broadly being seen for what it is – a beginning. From the outset, the public vibe has been positive and enthusiastic.

And why wouldn’t it be? No government has offered such widescale engagement with ordinary citizens before. Frankly, the bold notion of gathering 1000 Australians as a sort of brains trust represents the kind of gesture we’ve quickly come to expect from Kevin07.

So why then botch it with a bevy of blokes at the helm? And mostly the same kind of blokes: white, Anglo and ageing. After all, isn’t Rudd a woman’s man? He’s got the high- flying corporate wife. He’s the first prime minister to take a woman as his deputy. He’s put four women in his cabinet (of 20), and three in his Outer Ministry (of 10). Surely this is the man who was most expected to balance the imbalance, and ensure women were afforded their rightful place in the front row.

But in truth, this dreadful gender oversight is really not that surprising at all. And it’s not because Rudd is a bigot or a misogynist. Clearly he’s neither. The fact is, women really are an anomaly when it comes to positions of power and leadership in Australia. We have become so blithely accustomed to men topping all the power lists, that most of the time the imbalance passes without remark. The fact that neither Rudd, nor his mostly male inner sanctum, noticed the glaring problem with naming Cate Blanchett as the only woman among 10 people on the steering committee is not so remarkable. The committee requires people of power and influence, and the ability to lead. And as the past week’s numerous suggestions in the media have proven, there are dozens of expertly qualified women to fill all 10 of those roles. But when drawing up public lists of the most powerful and influential leaders, women usually never rate more than a small or singular mention.

Perhaps the most coveted is the annual power list published by The Financial Review. For some years it had not included a woman in its top 10 people of ”overt” power, until Sharan Burrow snuck in last year at No8. The only woman to win a spot in the top 10 ”covert” power list over the past three years has been Janette Howard, and a few women have made it into the ”cultural” power list. But of the 30 ”power” positions, women have never accounted for more than five. So if not ”power”, what about ”influence”? When The Bulletin magazine ran its ”Australia’s 100 Most Influential” edition back in 2006, it ranked just 11 women.

You could be forgiven for thinking there aren’t many women in Australia, or at least not many active ones. But we know that nearly 60 per cent of university graduates are female, and half of the professional workforce are women.

Yet, when we look at the most recent Australian Census of Women in Leadership, once again, women are significantly under-represented. Across Australia’s top 200 ASX companies, only 2 per cent of chairs and 3 per cent of chief executives are women. Fewer than 9 per cent of board directors are women: despite the 4750 names on the women on boards register. So, with little power, influence or leadership ranking, surely there must be something women are getting to justify their enormous public contribution. It certainly isn’t pay. The latest Gender Income Distribution report attests to that. Among Australia’s 1136 ”top earners”, 7 per cent are women.

Have you noticed a pattern? Women are struggling to get above single digits. Given that, the summit’s steering committee is looking more like a gender breakthrough than a backlash. Its one woman among a team of 10 equates to a whopping 10 per cent. Perhaps things are looking up!

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

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