The Challenge

What's the problem?

Despite several decades of political commitment to equal opportunity, and various policy initiatives aimed at increasing the representation of women in leadership and key decision-making roles across all levels of government and public administration, progress has been slow. Many would say ‘glacial’. Small gains have been celebrated and tepid targets reached, but many of these achievements remain patchy and vulnerable to the vagaries of political power and influence.

In 2017 around 32% of Federal MP's are women, and only 2 of Australia's 8 states or territories are led by women .

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Across Australia women still struggle for political representation and are yet to achieve the internationally agreed target of 30 percent of parliamentary seats. In 2017 around 32% of Federal MP's are women - 28.6% House of Representatives, and 39% Senate. Only 2 of Australia's 8 States/Territories are led by women. The smallest Australian juristriction, the Australian Capital Territory, is the only political juristriction to achieve an equal representation of men and women.

Across Australia women still struggle for political representation and are yet to achieve the internationally agreed target of 30 percent of parliamentary seats.

 Alarmingly, despite the nationwide engagement of Local Government, which employs 190,000 people across 560 Councils, this is the worst tier of government at including women in both its elected and executive ranks. Only 1 in 10 CEO or Chief Executives positions in Local Government are held women, and 30 percent of elected seats.

Screen Shot 2017 09 09 at 1.55.27 pmBut, a foot in the executive door, or on the parliamentary floor, is just one hurdle: leadership roles and positions of power and influence continue to be dominated by men, and defined by masculinity. Indeed,‘female firsts’ in both government and public sector leadership roles still warrant a news headline, as women remain a novel appointment.

Across the nation's 43 universities only 15 percent of Chancellors are women

Of the 19 industry sectors in Australia not one has achieved gender parity in leadership ranks, or closed the gender pay gap. The higher education sector presents a particularly frustrating conundrum for gender equity advocates, as more women than men have graduated from Australian universities for the past two decades, and yet women remain poorly represented in the senior ranks. Only a third of Heads of Schools or Faculties are women, and just a quarter rank in the top level of Professors. Across the nation's 43 universities only 15 percent of Chancellors are women.

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In the global context Australia ranks poorly for political representation, with the World Economic Forum rating us at 61 out of 144 nations. Our region, the Pacific, has the lowest regional ranking in the world with only 13.5% of seats held by women. Three of the world's four national parliaments with no women members are our near neighbours. PNG, which is Australia's biggest aid recipient, has not a single woman among it 111 parliamentarians. 

Further afield, in our broader region, the situation is only mildly better. Women hold only 9% parliamentary seats in Japan; 12% in India; 17% in South Korea; 20% in Indonesia, Cambodia and Pakistan and 28% in Afghanistan; 24% in China and Singapore; and 27% in Vietnam.

Across the globe's 193 UN member states, only 9 women serve as Head of State and 8 as Head of Government

At the executive level of political leadership the situation is breathtaking in its imbalance. Across the globe's 193 UN member states, only 9 women serve as Head of State and 8 as Head of Government. That grand global total of 17 is in fact a backward slide from a couple of years ago, when we hit an all time high of 19 women.

Such poor rankings in representation and leadership have a corollary in public administration. Yet given the critical role of civil service as the “bedrock” of government and the mechanism for governing, public entities should - as argued by the UNDP - serve as “a model where women and men equally participate and lead, including in decision-making”. The fact that they don’t only serves to perpetuate deep gender biases and further disadvantage women, while supporting entrenched notions of patriarchy.

 The push for gender equality in leadership is often misunderstood as an argument about ‘fairness’.

 The push for gender equality in leadership is often misunderstood as an argument about ‘fairness’. Consequently, efforts to address gender imbalance in the public sector are designed within narrow parameters of institutional models founded on masculinity and male advantage. Women have been added as ‘extra’, with an expectation that they will be refashioned to fit a male normative. The prevalence of institutional bias and the gendered nature of power remain largely unexplored.

But perhaps, most importantly, in an effort to include women policy design fails to value and celebrate gender difference. And whilst we continue down this path, women will remain invited conscripts to leadership, rather than covet and shape leadership roles in their own right.

 The challenge …

 The issue of gender imbalance in political representation and public administration leadership presents Australia’s greatest immediate challenge: both as a nation, and a leader of best practice governance across our region and beyond.