How Workplace Sexism Is Roiling Australian Politics
When it comes to judging someone’s words or deeds, Australians often resort to a casual barometer known as the “pub test.” If the locals are OK with it, then it’s deemed socially or culturally acceptable. By that standard, people across the country delivered a resounding verdict -- no -- in response to allegations of sexual harassment that reached into both the government and Parliament. The biggest crowds in decades -- tens of thousands of women and men -- rallied in March to demand greater female representation in politics and serious action against sexual violence and discrimination. Whether a tipping point has been reached in a long history of sexism in the workplace depends in part on how conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison handles the fallout.
1. Are complaints of sexism in politics new?
Hardly. In 2012 Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the nation’s first and so-far only female leader, drew global attention when she stood up in Parliament House and launched a blistering attack against what she called the misogyny of then-opposition leader Tony Abbott. Among the things she cited were signs at a rally he attended labeling her a “witch” and an expletive that rhymes with it. When foreign minister Julie Bishop quit politics two years ago, she said had put up with male behavior that wouldn’t be “tolerated in any other workplace across Australia.”
2. What’s the broader record?
While Australia quickly followed New Zealand in extending suffrage to women around 120 years ago -- almost two decades before the U.S. did the same -- the following century saw only incremental improvements to women’s rights. For instance, it wasn’t until 1973 that an equal minimum wage was granted. Even pubs were segregated until the 1960s. A 2017 government report cataloged Australia’s mixed record on gender equality. Women still earn 13% less than men. According to a survey, one in six women has experienced violence from her partner; a similar ratio of women have been sexually assaulted. Still, the figures regarding gender pay gaps and sexual violence are similar to those found in comparable liberal democracies such as the U.S.
3. Has the business world made progress?
Some. Female representation on boards hit 30% in 2019 following a years-long push by activist groups and pension funds. Research released in March found that organizations that set targets had added women at twice the pace as those that didn’t. But it also said such targets are becoming less common and less ambitious. Australia is above the average of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, but behind other members such as Italy, France and New Zealand. One group of investment firms, which together manage more than A$1 trillion ($761 billion), is pushing for at least 40% of senior leadership roles in Australia to be held by women. Companies are looking at these targets as one way to address systemic inequalities, spurred on by allegations of misconduct that hit financial giants including wealth manager AMP Ltd. and QBE Insurance Group Ltd. last year. Australia polls fairly high against fellow Group of 20 countries in terms of the share of women in middle and senior management positions.
4. How is the political world different?
Unlike in the U.K. and Canada where MPs face sanctions for failing to adhere to a code of conduct, no such doctrine is in place in Australia. Attempts to address sexual discrimination in politics have faltered, as have efforts to include lawmakers in the Sex Discrimination Act by expanding the definition of “workplace participant” and removing the current exemption for public servants. Opinions are divided about quotas in the political arena. On one side, the Labor opposition has had a quota system since 1994, and today has about twice as many female lawmakers in the lower house as the government. But they have been out of power for almost a decade. Morrison’s conservatives have resisted a similar program, despite polls showing Australians overwhelmingly support quotas. Overall women make up under a third of the House of Representatives and just over half the Senate. By comparison, women make up about a quarter of the U.S. Congress.
5. Why is this coming to a head again?
Since mid-February, there’s been a stream of ugly revelations involving lawmakers and their staff. It started when a woman said she had been raped by a colleague in Parliament House while working as a media staffer in the Defense Ministry. Then Attorney-General Christian Porter was accused of raping a 16-year-old girl during a debating tournament when he was also a teenager in 1988 -- a claim he denies. Soon after Australian media reported that male government staffers had shared images of lewd acts in parliament, including masturbating on a female lawmaker’s desk; Morrison called the behavior sickening. A week later, lawmaker Andrew Laming announced he would quit politics after he allegedly used social media to bully two women.
6. What has Morrison done?
Morrison -- who tries to craft an image as an affable suburban dad -- was panned for his handling of the initial rape allegations in February, especially after saying his wife helped him realize their gravity after telling him to consider the issue as the father of two girls. He then reshuffled his Cabinet to add one woman -- lifting the tally to seven out of 22 -- and promote Michaelia Cash to attorney-general to replace Porter (who remains in the cabinet as minister for industry, science and technology). Morrison also created a cabinet-level taskforce to focus on women’s equality, economic security, health and wellbeing that’s helmed by Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, who he said would effectively become “the prime minister for women.” Morrison on April 8 said he was seeking to include lawmakers under the Sexual Discrimination Act. He also announced the government would adopt 55 measures designed to reduce workplace sexual harassment, as recommended in a national report handed to the government last year that had been largely ignored.
7. What’s on the horizon?
The prime minister’s personal popularity has plunged and his government now trails Labor ahead of elections expected next year. Meanwhile, the women’s movement has grown and mobilized under a new “March 4 Justice” banner.
The Reference Shelf
- Bloomberg Opinion’s Ruth Pollard writes on the #MeToo movement in Australia, and Daniel Moss on Canberra’s bubble and what it all means for Morrison’s future.
- Watch Julia Gillard’s famous misogyny speech.
- The 55 recommendations made by the Human Rights Commission in its 2020 report.
- An article from The Conversation asks why it’s taking so long to achieve gender equality in Australia’s parliament.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.