On a recent tour of Melbourne's Town Hall, a visitor commented, while studying a wall of mayoral portraits, that only two were women. The female tour guide informed us that the current council of 11 comprised four women - ''so is pretty much balanced''.
How is it that people can think that less than 40 per cent of council membership constitutes gender balance? The public discourse around the concept of merit gives us some clues.
Merit has received a healthy airing during recent months as various political and government appointments were finalised.
The Canberra Times editorialised in December last year on several public appointments, and made the point that they are ''a useful means for rewarding sympathisers, allies, backers and fellow travellers … Not that anyone would admit this publicly.'' Further, when these appointments are criticised, ''the line invariably trotted out is that the appointment was made on merit, with no ulterior motive''.
When the Abbott government's ministry was named with only one woman in cabinet, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop declared she had ''got there on merit''. This comment triggered considerable discussion about how such a poor result for women could occur when the business case for gender equality is well established. Despite the rhetoric about these merit-based decisions, we know that public and ministerial appointments are based more on reward than on competence.
In her book The Misogyny Factor, Anne Summers argues that ''the 'merit' argument is an insidious example of the entrenched nature of the misogyny factor across so much of Australian society - in the workforce, in the awarding of honours, in selecting people to run for political office - because it both bolsters the sexual status quo and perpetuates it''. She draws on Hillary Clinton's distinction that evidence of women's progress is not evidence of success. The recent past looks like progress - women as prime minister, governor-general, state premiers, ACT chief minister - but these achievements can be one-offs rather than ''signifiers of permanent change''. Yes, women have made considerable progress during 40 years of reforms, yet equality success still eludes us.
The ''I got there on merit'' argument is a handy tool to quell discussion about targets and quotas, positioning these as violating the merit principle, even antithetical to merit. Federal Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop said she did not want to see affirmative action adopted as it would entrench women as ''permanent second-class citizens''. Blurring the relationship between merit and targets implies that unqualified women would be appointed. Few women would want to be appointed beyond their capacity or just because they are a woman. Yet how many of us have, at some stage, been managed by incompetent men who were promoted beyond their capability? Surely we can accommodate a few poor choices of either gender while recognising the abundance of female talent on offer.
Summers, in a Griffith Review article, further explored how merit and quotas were represented as opposed to each other, thus preventing women from ever achieving the critical mass essential for success. She asked: ''Do we think for one second that if there were an equivalent tool offered that would enable men to get jobs, promotion, raises and generally be top dogs, that they wouldn't grab it with both hands?''
A core factor in the equality ''conversation'' is how the gender-balance equation is perceived and defined. Summers outlined two opportunities the previous government had to make appointments to the High Court and to the ABC board. These opportunities would have resulted in women comprising a majority of judges and board members. Neither opportunity was taken. Summers concluded: ''Women can be included but not given the power to run the joint.''
Power and numbers help us to understand how our tour guide could think that less than 40 per cent constitutes ''balance''. In brief, the components of the gender-balance equation are:
- Equality for women means that about 50 per cent, in line with the proportion of the population, is acceptable in theory.
- Less than 50 per cent is tolerable and doesn't warrant a fuss, unless we apply Dale Spender's ''one-third rule'', where as soon as women are more than one-third (of a board, for example) they are perceived by both genders as taking over.
- Anything more than 50 per cent is an aberration and must be adjusted back to 50 per cent or, preferably, less.
When we consider the numbers from a male perspective, we have accepted for a long time:
- Gender balance for men can mean a numerical majority and even 100 per cent every time, for a long time, no questions asked.
- If women make ''inroads'' into this majority, it will be tolerated in the short term before it is ''corrected'', and no one will bat an eyelid.
So long as we continue to measure progress in terms of proportional balance, so long as representation of women is seen as only meaning about 50 per cent, we will never gain real equality. Prime Minister Tony Abbott was reported as saying that ''some very good and talented women (were) knocking on the door of cabinet''. This metaphor speaks volumes, conjuring an image of women politely standing at a closed door, knocking, waiting for someone - a man - to call out ''enter''. By proposing they will ''get there in the end'' based on merit, women are kept in their place, trying hard to earn a promotion, knocking on doors but not gaining entry.
How will we know when women have succeeded in achieving equality? When women can repeatedly comprise 70 to 100 per cent representation and no one comments, complains, or takes action to ''fix'' it. It is accepted as part of the swings and roundabouts of shifting representation.
Dr Ann Villiers is a career coach, facilitator and author of the best-selling How to Write and Talk to Selection Criteria. firstname.lastname@example.org