Coalition Tokenism By The Numbers


How bad is the representation of women in the Abbott cabinet?  For it to be worse you’d have to go back to a time before there were any women in cabinet at all.

The best way to see this is by plotting the proportion of women in the house, senate, and cabinet since women first entered the Australian parliament in 1943 (the graph here includes changes in proportion due to elections, but also retirements, added seats, etc. Data sourced from the Parliament Handbook and Wikipedia).

The additional dotted line is the proportion of women in cabinet divided by the proportion of women in parliament as a whole: the cabinet parity rate representing the relative utilisation of available parliamentary women in cabinet positions, compared to men.

If women were appointed in equal numbers, then the solid lines would be at 50 per cent (meaning women made up half of the body in question), and the dotted line would be at 100 per cent (meaning that female parliamentarians would be just as likely to get cabinet jobs as their male counterparts). These are just “bums on seats” numbers of course (the actual power wielded is not nearly as quantifiable.

As you can see, the political representation of women was woeful in the immediate post-war period, with women dropping out of the lower house by the early 1950s and meagre Senate numbers dwindling in the late 60s and early 70s, before a mild Whitlam rebound and the first cabinet appointment.

One woman had previously been promoted to the outer ministry by Holt in 1966, but prior to 1976 there was not one female cabinet minister. There had been a few Lesleys in there, but they’d punch you if you said they had a girl’s name.

The most visually dramatic feature of the graph occurs with the appointment of Senator Margaret Guilfoyle to the Education portfolio in 1976.

The dotted line at this point actually peaks outside the area of the plot at 249 per cent: This is because by having just one woman out of a cabinet of 15, the first Fraser ministry was two-and-a-half times more representative than the houses of parliament themselves (6.7 per cent versus 2.7 per cent). 

This meagre statistical triumph was short lived. From 1976 until 1996 there was one woman in cabinet, and one woman only (ignoring brief gaps due to resignations), Fraser, Hawke, and Keating administrations.

Meanwhile, the gradual increase in the number of women in parliament chewed away at the  inflated parity rate from that single cabinet seat, and it dropped to well below a two-to-one underutilisation during the Hawke and Keating years.

This is why terms like “token” or “quota” (or “cap”) were apt for those times: The number is implausibly steady (amongst the chaos) for it to not be stabilised by gender considerations. If you were to plot the proportion of green-eyed or red-haired cabinet ministers for example there’s no way you would see such stability in the absolute numbers, and there is nothing like the volatility here that you would expect looking at the fluctuating proportions of women in the wider house and senate.

It was John Howard, the Fraser cabinet alum (not to mention Tony Abbott’s mentor) who added a second female cabinet minister, though the resulting parity rate boost was also short-lived. Since the late Howard years there have always been at least three women in cabinet, with as many as five under Gillard (including herself of course) and briefly six in the second Rudd ministry between June and September this year.

This was a milestone of sorts: the first time that women parliamentarians actually hit parity in the modern era (101 per cent) – women parliamentarians were just as likely to have made it into cabinet as men, with women also being marginally well represented in parliament as a whole (though still only 30 per cent).

This brings us to the new Abbott ministry.

Whichever way you cut it, the numbers are not just a blast from the past: they are the worst in the whole history of female cabinet appointments. Having only one woman cabinet minister is hardly unprecedented: the lone woman was a constant feature of cabinets for the first 20 years of there being any women at all.

But the relative power that a single cabinet post represents is smaller now than in those days. Cabinets in Fraser’s day had 15 ministers, not the 19 decking out Abbott’s. While she may protest her more senior status within cabinet as a mitigating factor, when considered as a numerical proportion of cabinet Julie Bishop is outnumbered like no other woman before her.

Keating’s cabinets usually shared a similar ratio, but a cabinet where blokes make up 94.6 per cent of the ministry is still the closest Australia’s been to 100 per cent since it actually was 100 per cent.

What makes the current situation definitively worse now is the parity ratio; at 18 per cent it is now twice as low as it ever was under the most miserly tokenism of the 80s and 90s. Pick one random man from parliament and one random woman: the man is more than five times more likely to have been made a cabinet minister by Abbott. The ratio has never been that skewed before. And it’s 2013.

Whether Julie Bishop is a “token woman” or not isn’t the real issue. The real tokenism can be seen in the women disproportionately filling out the backbenches.

There’s more analysis required about gender in federal parliament; about how the number of women in the lower house has plateaued and appears to be decreasing, about the Coalition’s imbalance and promotion practices specifically, about their lack of female pre-selection in safe seats (you don’t get into cabinet by winning a marginal) and of course about the whole public churn of accusation, insinuation and dodgy rhetoric about merit.

But looking at the long view, in the entire history of women in cabinet, Abbott’s new ministry is the worst ever.

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