Let’s talk about merit

by Dr Liz van Acker

A well-educated professional woman wrote on Facebook recently that if women were not tough enough to get into politics without quotas, they wouldn’t be tough enough to stay there.

Photo: Troy, CC BY 2.0

That this argument is still articulated confidently in public is somewhat depressing as is the fact that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said that there just weren’t enough experienced women for the ministry while ignoring very competent women and including some mediocre men. It suggests that personal perceptions and public institutions still need to be shaken up to achieve equality.

So how do we shift these attitudes and increase the participation of women in politics?

This challenge is more complex than the need for women to ‘toughen up’. Recognised barriers for women in politics include the workings of the electoral system, women’s lower levels of education and socioeconomic status, cultural biases about the role women in society, preselection and political party processes and the challenges associated with balancing the workplace and family commitments. The key point to highlight is that women politicians are as tough as their male colleagues.

I want to explore two issues: the masculinity of Parliament and negative media portrayals of women.

For many women, Parliament and the media provide salutatory lessons about how women are treated. Women searching for career options may be taking note of the political shenanigans and decide that politics is not a sensible choice. This is despite the fact that difficult issues which affect women such as domestic violence, child support and social services need attention.

First, an important issue which needs to be acknowledged is the machismo of Parliament. Historically, the ‘invisibility’ of women in politics has not been regarded as a problem, but neither has the ‘presence’ of men. If we go back to 1943 when Enid Lyons and Dorothy Tangney were the first women elected to the federal Parliament, there were no available female toilets. They made do with the amenities for junior staff and service staff. The lack of this fundamental facility suggests that women did not belong and had not been considered as legitimate participants in Parliament.

But that was decades ago, surely facilities have improved for women in the 21st century? That Parliament remains a masculine dominated institution is clear when we consider the particular needs of young mothers in Parliament. A space for women with young children has not historically been taken into account. Relevant reforms have been addressed very slowly.

In 2006, Jackie Kelly called for an onsite child care facility and noted the struggle for mothers who were attempting to maintain their careers. In 2008 the House of Representatives passed a resolution allowing women to vote by proxy if they needed to breastfeed. Two small rooms were made available for women to feed their babies or express milk.

Sarah Hanson-Young, Senator for South Australia (R)

In 2009, Sarah Hanson-Young was unable to spend a few minutes with her two year-old daughter who was going back go Adelaide because a division had been called and the Senate doors needed to be locked for a vote. The upset little girl was handed to a staff member. Barnaby Joyce accused Hanson-Young of pulling a stunt and bending the rules. The decree that politicians are not allowed to bring a ‘stranger’ to the floor of Parliament persists.

In 2015 women are not permitted to breastfeed in the House or the Senate. There is still scope, therefore, for more family-friendly reforms including reasonable sitting hours and access to child care which would benefit fathers as well as mothers. This is especially relevant at the moment, given that a familiar reason for abusing parliamentary ‘entitlements’ and family ‘holidays’ is that politicians want to spend more time with their families. The possibility of job-sharing which may be helpful for parents has also been raised.

Second, media treatment of women and men as politicians and those involved in political institutions more generally provides further examples of the different ways that femininity and masculinity are constructed. The circulation and production of gendered meanings are constantly interpreted as we interact with images about what it is to be female or male. We are not born feminine or masculine — gender codes are shapes by a variety of meanings which relate not only to sex, but to race, age, class and physical appearance. These meanings also apply to how we see the world of politics and how the participants are presented.

Former Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard (R) — Photo: Ed Dunens, CC BY 2.0

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s portrayals in the media have been well documented. As far as the representation of her domestic skills as a homemaker goes, there have been some problems. In 2005, Julia Gillard then in the Labor Opposition was photographed sitting at her kitchen table for the Sunday Age. Puzzlingly, the tabloids and talkback radio criticised her sparse ‘lifeless’ kitchen and empty fruit bowl which somehow became a symbol of her impersonal, career driven existence.

Over the years she has received a great deal of ridicule culminating in more negative reporting in 2013 after she posed for the Australian Women’s Weekly knitting a toy kangaroo for Prince William and his wife’s baby. This photo shoot was suggested by her media advisors and was not successful in softening her image. She was accused of pulling the gender card, of hypocrisy for exploiting this feminine pastime while deriding sexist behaviour in other areas and that it was no more than a flagrant attempt to humanise her. Of course, men also confront a demanding media. For example Tony Abbott has been lampooned consistently — particularly in his speedos and/or blue tie — but pictures representing the ‘action man’ are not as harsh as those depicting ‘mad old aunts’.

The above examples demonstrate that the old adage of ‘adding women and stirring’ is not adequate to address the complex issues involved in politics. Due to a persistent masculine bias, simply adding more women without revising political institutions will not improve the situation for women. Reconceptualising politics to include women as women is a major endeavour which is still underway. It is heartening to see the issue of increasing women’s participation being taken seriously by the Labor Party and also by the Liberal Party and some of the minor parties — whether this occurs via quotas, targets or mentoring.

Nevertheless, we need to move beyond any suggestion of tokenism. Discussions and comments about the need for merit are tiresome because ‘merit’ is an abstract term that refers to excellence, accomplishment and worth, but it does not seem to be equally applied.

It appears to be measured in a gendered manner. Certainly it is the case that the majority of senior politicians are white, middle-class, private-school educated men. It is taken for granted that these men have merit and therefore similar men are readily integrated and promoted into this group, while it is assumed that women do not have a similar value. It does not seem fair that aspiring women wishing to enter politics need to be included and endorsed on the basis of merit, while men are pre-selected or promoted simply because they are men from a particular ethnicity and class background.

Therefore the criteria for merit are determined differently: it depends on whether the candidate is a man or a woman. Clearly, women are disadvantaged in competing on ‘merit’ in the current political system where men still hold the majority in the ranks of influence and privilege. The notion that quotas for women displace the merit principle and the implication that quotas will unreasonably benefit people who are unmeritorious does not follow.

No one denies that it is crucial to get not just women, but smart, savvy and competent women into positions of political power. It is also crucial to get more men with similar attributes into these positions. Yes, women should be making more decisions and wielding influence in a representative democracy. Yes, they should be playing valuable leadership roles. No, this does not necessarily mean that politics will be better (or that merit as an overriding factor in pre-selection will suddenly begin applying to men). However, a wider range of abilities and points of view would be accommodated if more women, including young women, indigenous women and those from different ethnic backgrounds participated in places such as Cabinet, Parliament and the political parties.

In short, blaming women for not being ‘tough enough’ to participate and survive in politics is just plain wrong. Let’s adopt some common sense!



Dr Liz van Acker is a Senior Lecturer, in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University.

Liz’ research interests include innovation and industry policy, relationship support programs and government policies, gender and politics and service delivery by the third sector.

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