David Bushby helpfully pointed out yesterday that he wasn’t being sexist when he meowed at Penny Wong. After all, he could have been channelling "a male or female cat". And what’s wrong with comparing a female colleague to a small, moody housepet if you’re not being gender-specific?
Bushby may have been amused by his own animal impressions. Others suggest his catcall was just another reminder that even after a year under Julia Gillard’s prime ministership, gender bias still lurks in the corridors of Parliament House — as it does around the rest of the country. And we’re reminded of this each time someone gets up to call Julia Gillard "deliberately barren" or "Bob Brown’s bitch".
There are more insidious forms of sexism skulking around too.
The pre-election "revelation" that Gillard had questioned plans for paid parental leave played neatly into the endless discussions of her decision to remain childlessness. On Gillard’s promotion, Newsweek’s Julia Baird predicted that the PM would "be encouraged to draw on her gender as a strength-implying she will be more honest, transparent, and compassionate — while fighting suggestions that it is a liability. She will be seen as a curiosity, an interloper, and a ball breaker. She will simultaneously be admired for her resolve and cast as a soft touch." And sure enough, barely an opinion piece goes by without noting Gillard’s "straight-talking", her "toughness" or her "feistiness". It took tears over a child’s death during the Queensland floods to soothe her detractors.
So Gillard’s own vision of her "normalising" presence at the top of politics is a way off yet. And in some ways, so it should be. As a symbolic win for women, Gillard’s leadership is a thrilling, stand-out achievement. But at the same time, the media obsession with her jackets and her hair colour and her boyfriend distracts from what her government is actually doing. Policy-wise, her ascension has hardly marked a giant leap forward for Australian womankind.
In the week she became PM, Gillard acknowledged that "there’s still a bit more to do" on equity issues like pay parity and women’s representation in Parliament, and voiced concerns about domestic violence, sexual assault and the commodification of women. "For women to be truly equal in all things we’d want to get beyond a stage where there’s so much commodification of how women look." (As the woman urged by at least one columnist to change her haircut, lose weight and ask the Governor-General for some wardrobe advice, she probably knows what she’s talking about.)
But these issues haven’t exactly dominated the political agenda over the past 12 months. And with four fewer women in the House of Representatives since the 2010 election, Australia look set to continue slumping its way down the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap tables. We fell from 15th place to 23rd since 2006. The pay gap has widened to 16.9 per cent across the country, broadened by the high-wage jobs created by the mining boom and filled, by and large, by men.
It’s not all bad news: there are around 150,000 community and social workers due to receive a pay rise and they have Gillard to thank for it. In May, Fair Work Australia ruled that they were underpaid as a result of gender discrimination — and as minister for workplace relations in 2008, it was Gillard who introduced Fair Work Australia. Universal parental leave and the National Plan for the Reduction of Violence Against Women and Children are also significant, valuable items of legislation. But both were initiatives of Kevin Rudd’s administration, not Julia Gillard’s.
From a certain, elevated, bird’s eye view, it has been a good year for women.
Australia’s first female prime minister was sworn in by its first female governor-general, Quentin Bryce. As the chairman of Hancock Prospecting, Gina Rinehart, the country’s richest person, is a beneficiary of the mining tax concessions negotiated by Gillard before the election last year. And in boardrooms across the land, the proportion of women increased meaningfully for the first time this decade. Yes, we still only occupy a piddling 10.7 per cent of boardroom seats — which perhaps has something to do with the Prime Minister’s preference for "self-motivated change" by businesses, rather than quotas. But given that women accounted for 8.3 per cent of board members at the start of 2010, and that that figure only grew by 0.2 per cent between 2002 and 2009, it’s an advance worth noting.
But further down the pecking order, women have less to thank the leader of this slightly wobbly minority government for. To some extent, it’s understandable. With economic growth, rather than economic equality, at the heart of the government’s mission, perhaps it’s inevitable that the women who have seen most benefit during the tenure of our first female prime minister are the ones who already belong to the elite. As party leader, Gillard must represent a wide range of views — not least those of the right-wing Labor men who helped get her the job, and who, as Catriona Menzies-Pike pointed out on this website a year ago, have never seemed particularly worked up about the interests of sidelined or vulnerable women.
And in an atmosphere where Tony Abbott feels comfortable telling the PM to make an "honest woman" of herself — Politically speaking, of course, surely he wouldn’t dream of making underhand references to her marital status? — where just being a woman is enough to get you compared to a witch, a desert or an angry domestic animal, is it really surprising that the likes of Wong and Gillard aren’t more vocal about their feminism?
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