Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

The ecosystems of Parliament need urgent change

Dec 3, 2021 | Politics, Commentary, Policy, Democracy, Leadership, Equality, Opinion, Power

Written by Kim Rubenstein

With a Christmas tree behind him the Prime Minister unwrapped a recycled theme years in the making and painful in its unpacking — the findings of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkin’s report Set the Standard. It was a standard, if it ever existed, that had been slipping for decades and Mr Morrison could only lament the obvious, the issues were not new and the culture giving rise to them didn’t just appear.

Even so, it took Brittany Higgins’ extraordinary courage and the storm of pressure it unleashed to trigger the review and to lead the Prime Minister on Tuesday to acknowledge that “[w]e all share in the ownership of the problems and we all share in implementing the solutions.”

He also acknowledged the breadth and extent of the bullying and harassment that besieged workplaces everywhere and thus making it particularly shocking that the very seat of government, perhaps the nation’s most prestigious workplace, had not been setting the standard for others to aspire to.

But with the Jenkin’s report now released, the focus is on Parliament to look deeply at itself, and for the major parties to accept that the people elected to it are key to ensuring we are able to make real and meaningful change.  A more diverse Parliament, committed to using the far-reaching levers that Parliament has the power to draw upon, will ensure a greater chance of enabling our society to do better on gender equality and on all areas of public policy.

On this, the Commission’s report provides confronting testimony on what needs to be addressed, hearing how gender inequality and a wider lack of diversity entrenches power within one group, devaluing women and, consequently, fostering gendered misconduct.  Multiple participants spoke about the lack of women in senior roles. ‘[B]y crowding out women at the most senior levels of staffing, a male-dominated and testosterone-fuelled culture dominates’ as well as instances of everyday sexism,” the Report explains.

This absence of equality in leadership drives the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation to focus its research and activate policy to ensure that we have women and diverse leadership equally in all areas of public life. Moreover, it is clear that changes are needed in three key areas that contribute to the current ecosystems in all peoples’ lives. To address any change in the public sphere we must make changes in the private spheres of our lives.

As Sam Mostyn, President of Chief Executive Women noted in her national press club address, the caring work done, both outside the home and inside the home, provides the fundamental infrastructure to all our lives, and must be valued.  We are thus led to examine the economic framework underpinning this infrastructure and see in turn the influence it has  on gender norms about what is valued and on power structures that so far have not yet enabled women and people of diverse backgrounds to be truly represented.

Gender norms need budging in the home and in the traditionally identified ‘private’ spheres that impact on women’s experiences beyond the home. Parliament can and should address what must be done in the home to shift and challenge those norms. Government must address the role it can play in assisting in the sharing of the load of unpaid care work that COVID so clearly amplified was and is disproportionately carried by women. This demands greater attention to paid parental leave for men and women, that is affirmed in the workplace and government must better address how child- care fits in this paradigm.

The links between the economic structures in society and equality are stark. When it comes to gender this has been evident in the context of the gender pay gap, the gender segregated workforce, the tax system, and public policy generally not being attentive enough to the differential impact of public policy, including fiscal policy, on different groups in society. Work must be undertaken in these areas, to consider what reforms are needed to embed equality in our economic structures to enable people’s lives to be lived to the full and to enable women to equally share the power and contribute to better public policy.

But ultimately, Kate Jenkin’s report tells us that political and governance structures need changing to assist in the project of embedding equality in all public leadership in Australia.  Part of this project requires that we seriously address the style of politics currently on show in Parliament – where men stand over women, or attempt to do so, and the whole atmosphere is one of intimidation, dominance, put-down, humiliation and aggression. It is not one of respectful engagement to tease out and resolve countless wicked problems besieging the health of our nation.

Kate Jenkins’ landmark report Set the Standard should be a seminal marker in our nation’s story, on the road to a healthier and stronger society.  The 28 recommendations should be engaged with immediately and carried forward by this and the next Parliament, due to be elected by 21 May 2022.  Let’s see if it has an immediate influence on the number of women pre-selected in safe seats around the country, as well as joining the numerous women standing up as Independents around the country, committed to ensuring a safe and equal society for all men and women, wherever they live.

Feature image: Sydney, Australia – March 15, 2021 – Thousands of Australian women protest against Crime and Sexual Violence in a Women’s March 4 Justice rally. Photo from Shutterstock.

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Kim Rubenstein is a Professor in the Faculty of Business Government and Law at the University of Canberra, which has supported the production of the new podcast series It’s not just the vibe, It’s the Constitution. She is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law and the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

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