Patriarchy in Politics

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard reshuffled her Cabinet last week. Not counting Prime Minister Gillard in the top job, this makes five women out of 22 members in the Australian Cabinet. The media touts this as a ‘record number’ of women in top Ministerial portfolios. While technically true, this assesment shows that gender equality is an ever-elusive beast in this record-breaking week where patriarchy still counts.

Women Leaders Around the World

Out of the 193 members of United Nations and a further 12 independent states and disputed territories, women are minority political leaders in some of the world’s most advanced nations. The Worldwide Guide to Women reports that there are 28 heads of state: three moarchs; the UK has three Govenor Generals who act as de facto Heads of State (including Quentin Bryce in Australia); 10 female presidents; and 12 Prime Minsters (including in PM Gillard in Australia).

Women’s Political Leadership in Australia

The Parliament of Australia reports that there are 76 senators, twelve from each of the six states and two from each of the mainland territories. The Australian Parliamentary Library furhter reports that there are 27 women Senators serving in the current Parliament. 

As The Australian newspaper reports, that back in 2000 there was only one woman holding a top political role in Cabinet. Gillard said:

I am determined, being the first woman to serve in this position, as the nation’s Prime Minister, to see women take their full and equal place in our nation’s decision-making… These women, Nicola, Tanya and Julie, understand from personal experience many of the challenges Australian women face as they seek to build a career whilst having a family.

The incumbent members are:

  1. Nicola Roxon promoted from the health portfolio, has become Australia’s first woman in the role of Attorney-General
  2. Tanya Plibersek was promoted from the outer ministry into the role of Health Minister
  3. Tasmanian MP Julie Collins was promoted from parliamentary secretary to the outer ministry as Minister for Community Services, Indigenous Employment and the Status of Women.
  4. Jenny Macklin will oversee disability reform and family policies as the new Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Minister.

The fifth woman politician is Penny Wong, who retains her role as Finance Minister.

The press keeps using the phrase ‘a record number of women’ to describe these five women. For example The Australian, The Canberra Times, Crikey, Channel Nine News and Yahoo. The expat online newspaper, Australian Times, goes one better, by proclaiming in their patronising headline: ‘Australia is being run by a buch of girls’.  

The media remind us that most of these women have children and sucessful husbands, except for Minister Wong who is a lesbian and whose partner gave birth today. This is sexist, given that these family details are never so centred for men.

It’s true that five women on the Front Bench is better than the situation one decade a go. Still, as women make up around half of the national population, this progress leaves much to be desired.

Progress in gender equality is much slower than we collectively recognise.