One day for women

Photo: Sophie Underwood (Purple, white and green are the colours of International Women's Day)
Photo: Sophie Underwood
(Purple, white and green are the colours of International Women’s Day)

This long weekend, we are invited to wake up and think about the women in our lives, focus on women’s achievements, and reflect on what still needs to change. On a personal level, this International Women’s Day I will have baked something purple-y to eat, called my girl buddies; painted the town purple (#paintitpurple is one of the official hashtags).

When it comes to the representation of women in politics, Australia has an impressive lineup of firsts, with female premiers, governors, a governor general, prime minister, attorney general, and now, in Queensland, a majority of women ministers with eight women (including premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and her deputy) and six men. The gender balance was so apparent and unusual it made the portrait on the steps of Government House mesmerizing.

Yet, more than a century of International Women’s Days and activism have not changed the fact that women are still under-represented in parliament. Compared with other national parliaments, Australia’s ranking for women in national government continues to decline, hovering around the critical mass of 30%, which is the figure regarded by the UN as the minimum level necessary for women to influence decision-making in parliament.

In 2013, Australia came a lowly 44th in the top 50 ranked countries for women in national parliaments. And, despite Tony Abbott’s claim that he was “disappointed” with the number of women in his own Cabinet, he picked just one among 18 men. As Minister for Women, this was somewhat of an own goal; as PM, it showed his leadership in this area to be hollow.

People who have studied these statistics cite structural, social and cultural factors and the nature of politics and the parliamentary environment in Australia. In her maiden speech in 1919, Nancy Astor, Britain’s first female MP said, “I do not want you to look on your lady Member as a fanatic or lunatic. I am simply trying to speak for hundreds of women and children throughout the country who cannot speak for themselves.”

There would be no need for an International Women’s Day if our system of government, increasingly disparaged today, was given a makeover from one that is not just harder for most women – and so hard for some it is plain they choose not to participate – to a system made easy for everyone.

I am ambivalent towards organized days. Often they are not what they seem. How can we properly celebrate Australia Day on the same day that it was claimed for Britain? Or, march on Anzac Day, with its focus on sending young people to war rather than building an ideal of peace?

So, on International Women’s Day, while being grateful for some change the women’s movement has seen in recent times, we must also reflect how women are not represented and how they are paid less.

I’ve done my fair share of banging on about women’s rights, as deputy editor of British Cosmopolitan and editor of Australian New Woman in the 90s. I now understand how sometimes it doesn’t help reacting to life events from a gendered perspective. Attacking men can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, causing more division while holding back women from finding their own way. In gender wars, often we are defined by our response to men, and what they will allow, or not allow, us to do, rather than by finding our own true voice.

This International Women’s Day, Malcolm Turnbull is on the radar as Prime Minister. I once sailed in a boat with him on Sydney Harbor and recall him being far from comfortable with me at the helm. Although I could sail he kept trying to take the wheel. Since then, his light has risen and fallen and is rising again. As an intelligent man hopefully he has learned his lessons in leadership.

Turnbull wore his internal struggle with leadership on his sleeve in an interview with Annabel Crabbe last year on ABC’s Kitchen Cabinet. After crediting his wife, Lucy, a former Lord Mayor of Sydney, for helping him survive the enormous blow of losing the liberal opposition leadership, he said: “Here’s the thing: if you are completely and utterly lacking in any sense of self awareness, and you’re absolutely oblivious to what anyone else thinks, you’re perfectly suited to be a political leader. If, on the other hand, you are dripping with empathy and you take seriously what the other people say then you run the risk of being very badly hurt. So how do you match, how you can be an effective political leader and be a human being?”

Showing acute self-awareness, Turnbull went on to say that he knew himself to be a far bigger person with his wife rather than without her. His challenge, if he becomes PM, is to hold on to this belief. He may then not only be a great prime minister but a great man too.

This year, for International Women’s Day, perhaps our politicians might take lessons from the Guides (although still a female-only club). As part of Guide Law they undertake to:

  • Respect myself and others
  • Be considerate, honest and trustworthy
  • Be friendly to others
  • Make choices for a better world
  • Use my time and abilities wisely
  • Be thoughtful and optimistic
  • Live with courage and strength

Why should the values of leadership be any more complicated than this?

In the celebration of winning leadership, perhaps it is also key not to overdo it. On losing power, former PM Julia Gillard spoke of the need to believe in a purpose “larger than yourself and your immediate political interests”. More recently, Socceroos manager Ange Postecoglou said a similar thing when Australia won the Asian Cup: “We spoke at the start of the camp about the need for personal ambition to be set aside for the good of the team objective. This,” he said, “is where the Aussie spirit kicks in.”

When this happens, when this Aussie spirit kicks in, we may well have real leaders and real equality – and that will be the day to celebrate.

First published in Tasweekend, March 7, 2015

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