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AUSTRALIA: Debate Heats Up on Equal Representation for Women

Neena Bhandari

SYDNEY, May 24 2010 (IPS) - Australia may be the land of the ‘fair go’, yet not all seems fair where equal representation of men and women is concerned.

When Judith Troeth twice attempted a pre-selection for a seat in Australia’s Victorian state parliament in the 1980s, she was unsuccessful. “It was a rural seat, and being female with five children didn’t help,” said Troeth, who persevered and eventually made a successful political career.

But over two decades later, Australian women are still under-represented in leadership and decision-making roles in both the public and private spheres despite comprising 50.6 percent of the country’s total population and 45 percent of the country’s total workforce.

“In recent years, the percentage of female candidates and members of parliament has been falling, as I believe women look at the success rate and decide to give it a miss,” said Troeth, who was first elected to the Federal Senate in 1993 at age 52.

Following the 2007 federal election, women occupied 26.7 percent of House of Representative seats and 35.5 percent of Senate seats. While 35.7 percent of the ruling Australian Labor Party (ALP) members of parliament (MPs) are women, only 25.3 of Liberal Party MPs are females.

The ALP, in 2002, adopted a comprehensive affirmative action model of 40:40:20, whereby a minimum of 40 percent of relevant positions shall be held by either gender by 2012, but the opposition Liberal Party has preferred to preselect candidates on merit and has rejected a quota system.

“The merit argument is clearly not working, and we need more progressive methods of selection,” Troeth told IPS.

Several countries have adopted some form of quota to ensure greater participation of women in parliament. In March this year, the largest democracy in the world, India, passed a legislation granting 33 percent of all legislative seats to women.

In Australia, a debate is heating up on whether the government should impose a quota to ensure women reach the highest echelons of their professions or let businesses take action to remedy this imbalance.

Women hold only two percent of the chief executive officer positions and 8.3 percent of board directorships in the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX)- listed 200 companies, according to the 2008 census by the government’s Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency.

To improve gender diversity, from July this year, the ASX-listed companies will need to publish in their annual reports the number of women on boards, in senior management and within organisations. Meanwhile, the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) has launched a mentor programme to encourage some of the country’s top women executives to get on company boards.

“We are heartened by recent moves from the ASX and AICD to increase female representation on boards. However, the Australian government has no plans to legislate to impose quotas for female corporate directors,” Australian Minister for the Status of Women Tanya Plibersek told IPS.

“What nation can afford to set aside 50 percent of the talent largely on the basis of gender and expect to be internationally competitive?” said Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner of the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Broderick said the government must lead the way in bringing about gender equality by ensuring that in the next five years, women equally share power, at a 40:40 ratio, at decision-making boards not only in the private and public sectors but also in education, health, sport and non-governmental organisations.

“In this country, 90 percent of unpaid caring responsibilities are still shouldered by women whereas paid work is largely a man’s domain. Changing this paradigm to bring in greater equality will benefit society at large,” Broderick told IPS.

In 2008, while 38.2 percent of women were employed full-time and 28.8 percent on a part-time basis, 72.4 percent of men were employed full-time and only 9.6 percent were working part-time, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

“Equality quotas allow discriminated minorities (whether implicitly or explicitly) a fair go,” said Sharan Burrow, president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, which has strongly supported gender-balancing quotas that will help women overcome obstacles within the workplace.

Australia has slipped to number 41 in women’s workforce participation despite ranking high on women’s educational attainment in the Global Gender Gap report released by the World Economic Forum last year.

Women account for approximately 50 percent of lecturing staff in Australian universities, but only 24.5 percent of academic staff are above the senior lecturer level.

“We need more women in university senior management teams and as deans and heads of schools. This not only gives female students important role models but also has a positive influence on the culture and collegiality,” said Professor Carol Adams, Acting Dean of the Faculty of Law and Management in LaTrobe University, Melbourne.

While those who favour quota say it is one way of bringing women’s merit out into the open in a patriarchal society, others argue it compromises with merit.

The peak body for women lawyers associations in Australia, the Australian Women Lawyers (AWL), said, “a quota system would be a short- rather than a long-term solution that would ultimately cause unnecessary criticism to those appointed under such a plan.” Currently, three out of seven judges in the Australian High Court, the apex court in the country, are women.

“To ensure that our profession is representative of the population it serves, the government needs to focus on issues surrounding the retention of women within the profession, not setting a minimum quota for appointments,” AWL president Olivia Perkiss told IPS.

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