As the Coalition mounts a rearguard assault on sexism, should the smaller proportion of conservative women in power raise alarm bells? Political watcher Stephen Luntz reports.
While people more qualified than I (women for a start) continue to debate whether uncharitable descriptions of female genitalia are more or less serious evidence of misogyny than attempting to limit access to abortion, I’m rather surprised no one has looked at a more objective test of sexism. A comparison of the proportion of women in parliamentary positions strikes me as enlightening, to say the least.
There are just two women in the 20-member shadow cabinet: Julie Bishop and Sophie Mirabella. The cabinet has five women. This is just the start of a pattern where women make up a smaller proportion of positions of power on the Liberal side than among their opponents.
Among the shadow ministry the proportion of women rises — to 18%. There are three female shadow parliamentary secretaries, but 11 men. Most of the criticism of Abbott has focussed on the way he behaves to women on the other side of politics, or those who find themselves unwillingly pregnant. However, Peta Credlin notwithstanding, the low proportions raise questions about whether he likes to surround himself with strong women. Two men, but no women, were promoted when Cory Bernardi pushed the limits too far.
However, it may be that Abbott is just playing the cards he has been dealt given the number of women in Liberal and National parliamentary ranks. Women make up 21% of Coalition parliamentarians — a higher proportion than those Abbott has chosen to promote, but not much. On the other hand, 42% of Labor federal reps are women, and 60% of Greens.
The number of women in Parliament has risen quite dramatically over the past few decades, so it might be expected that the Liberal women are younger, and therefore less likely to hold shadow ministries. However, it turns out this is not the case. There is only one Liberal (and no National) federal parliamentarian under the age of 40. There are four more women in the Coalition ranks between 40 and 45, but among under-45s, women are still just 24%. In contrast the three youngest Labor federal parliamentarians, and two youngest Greens, are all women.
So it would appear that any problem with women belongs at least as much to the entire Coalition machine as it does to Abbott. The numbers would not differ much if Malcolm Turnbull was leader.
Nor is it just a federal issue. In fact, 21% of Coalition state and federal MPs are women as well, ranging from just 16% in Queensland to a high of 37% in the Northern Territory. In almost every state parliament Labor has a higher proportion and the figure for the Greens was exactly 50% before the ACT election. The fact there have been five female premiers and four chief ministers, all but one of whom were Labor, also speaks to a difference between the parties. If the push against Isobel Redmond succeeds it could be a long time before a conservative woman leads a state.
These figures should be particularly worrying for the conservative feminists (now that the term has apparently been rehabilitated) because it is quite common for the proportion of women to rise temporarily after landslides, since women usually make up a larger proportion of candidates in long-shot seats. The figures for Queensland and New South Wales could fall as the narrower winners drop off.
Nor is this a situation that will necessarily sort itself out with the fullness of time. It’s not a huge sample, but it is interesting that the Young Liberals website lists just one woman on their 14-member executive. The Australian Liberal Student Federation has one out of six (both last on the website if that means anything).
The really interesting question is whether women are not putting themselves forward for pre-selection in winnable seats, or if party sexism is stopping them winning: William Bowe has been keeping records at Poll Bludger of the candidates in preselections around the country. I’ll confess I have not done a systematic survey of these, but have been struck by how often on the conservative side there were no women candidates at all. (Four women did come forward when Mary Jo Fisher resigned from the Senate — so it’s possible there are plenty who want to run, but think they won’t have a chance except in cases like this one, where the only woman in South Australia’s federal Liberal delegation was being replaced.)
I wouldn’t say this is proof of a misogynistic culture in the party, but it raises questions that deserve to be answered. How well can a party with so few women in Parliament represent the majority of Australians? Why are these numbers so low, and more significantly, why does the Liberal Party seem so untroubled by them?
*Stephen Luntz works as an electoral analyst for the Victorian Greens