Australia: Depression reigns as instead of Julia and sisters, Abbott's male majority takes charge Print E-mail

 Melbourne ~ Saturday March 8 2014

Dancing on the glass ceiling on International Women's Day

By Suzy Freeman-Greene

Former prime minister Julia Gillard. (Nic Walker & Louie Douvis)

Today is International Women's Day. A year ago, on this day, we had a female prime minister and three women in cabinet. Now 18 men plus Julie Bishop make decisions on our behalf. So much for holding up half the sky.

In Victoria, a senior female government minister has just lost preselection to a less experienced man. Soon a military man will replace our female Governor-General. Women still earn 17 per cent less than their male peers and run 3 per cent of ASX 200 companies.

The Abbott government is appointing mostly male ideologues to key roles. Its paid maternity leave scheme, while welcome, favours higher earners. Women, in general, are less wealthy and have far less superannuation, but the government has meanly axed the $500 super rebate for low earners. It even tried to get low-paid (mostly female) childcare workers to hand back a pay rise.

When Julia Gillard made her embattled ''blue ties'' speech last June, warning that abortion could become ''the political plaything of men'', I thought she was way over the top. But in Victoria, male politicians are again trying to tell women what do with their bodies. Geoff Shaw, a devout Christian who holds the balance of power, says our abortion laws are ''some of the worst in the world''. And Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge's support for these laws is said to be one reason she lost preselection for Kew.

What a depressing difference a year makes. Gillard's ousting is still a painful topic for many. To me, the whole unedifying saga seems almost surreal, now men are back in charge. (Hey, but they've got lots of daughters. Phew!)

Still, Gillard's demise has got women talking passionately about where to from here. In an e-book by Australian Centre for Leadership for Women founder Dr Diann Rodgers-Healey, Considerations for Australia's Next Woman Prime Minister, 17 female leaders offer their views on Gillard's efforts and the way forward.

Kathy Bensted, national president of the Australian Local Government Women's Association, admits: ''To be honest, when the outcry over misogyny hit the press, I had to look up the meaning in the dictionary.'' She thinks gathering hard data is the best way to tackle gender inequity in her field. Natasha Stott Despoja writes: ''I wish Julia Gillard had not been so wary of her feminism from day one.''

Others also regret Gillard's late public conversion to the cause. Still, they condemn talk of ''playing the gender card''. No one would accuse Adam Goodes of ''playing the race card'', observes human rights advocate Christina Ryan. Yet sexism, like racism, is a deep-seated problem. Senior women don't want to be seen as special pleaders. Still, offensive behaviour should be dealt with immediately, writes Margaret Thornton, professor of law and public policy fellow at ANU.

After the notorious ''ditch the witch'' protest, for example, senior figures such as the (male) deputy prime minister, Wayne Swan, could have publicly condemned such insults. Indeed, if more men spoke out against sexism it would unsettle the dinosaurs.

Attitudes to female leaders are often shaped by unconscious biases about gender. Thornton suggests Gillard might lend her name to developing a schools program to tackle sexism.

Events of the past year have shown that women will have to fight for and defend their access to power. I think raising the status of flexible and part-time work is vital - so more men and women can spend time with their families without their careers suffering. It's easy to feel deflated. But there are some great recent cases of women uniting, speaking out - and getting results.

The Stella Prize for women's writing, for instance, arose as a response to the under-representation of women in literary awards. Its founders wanted to do something positive, rather than whinge about gender inequality. The prize was criticised, of course, as discriminatory. But it has had an impact. Last year, incredibly, the Miles Franklin Award had an all-female shortlist.

Likewise, when women directors dubbed Australian theatre a boys' club, feathers were ruffled. But this year, the Melbourne Theatre Company has launched an inaugural Women Directors' Program.

If you think I'm overstating the need for such action, I'll leave the last word to Professor Thornton. ''Men,'' she writes, ''dominate all positions of power and influence in our society - in politics, business, the arts and universities.''

Happy International Women's Day.

Suzy Freeman-Greene is a senior writer at The Age.