The need for effective leadership is heightened during times of national crisis. It is crucial to reflect on what the current leadership picture literally looks like and what it represents. The chief repeated image so far around the national response to COVID-19 is of three men. Gathered in front of TV cameras, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Health Minister Greg Hunt and Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy have been the public faces of the crisis engulfing Australia and the world.
In addition, the Prime Minister has announced a new COVID-19 Coordination Commission, whose purpose is to "better co-ordinate the efforts within and between the public and private sectors". While the board membership is not fully settled (the not-for profit sector has been identified as another soon to be included), at the moment there are six men and only two women: Jane Halton (former secretary of the departments of finance and health) and Catherine Tanna (Energy Australia). This disproportionate representation of women is not only insulting, but sits in stark contradiction of the government's own policy to achieve 50/50 representation of women on all government boards. Such a policy, if it is worth having, should apply at all times. Particularly in times of crisis, when every sector of our community is affected by the decisions this commission will make.
Where have the women been to date in terms of public leadership? The states provide a few notable exceptions - Annastacia Palaszczuk and Gladys Berejiklian are clearly taking the lead in their respective jurisdictions. But women have been far less visible in our national response. So far the national voice of authority about what is happening and what steps Australia is taking has been a line-up of suits.
Professor Sharon Lewin, a leading infectious diseases expert and director of the Doherty Institute, was one of the panellists on Q&A on Monday evening, and set a strong example of female leadership. If only we were to see more of her.
In the US it has been instructive to see the mix of calm authority and empathy that Deborah Birx, the White House's coronavirus taskforce co-ordinator, has brought to Donald Trump's daily media briefings. Even more fascinating are her facial contortions as she watches Mr Trump ad-lib his way through media questioning.
Meanwhile, the moving footage of Dr Emily Landon, the chief infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Chicago Medicine, taking to the stand with a seven-minute speech that went viral is a reminder of the power of speech when a woman's multifaceted range of communication skills are deployed. Dr Landon's layered delivery weaves expertise, integrity, authority and compassion in a way we rarely see here in Australia. This moment serves as a reminder that we need to see and hear from more women experts, who are non-political, non-partisan, and whose words the community will be more inclined to trust. This is particularly important right now given the ample research that confirms politicians in Australia are neither trusted nor believed.
Why should this matter?
There are two significant reasons. The first relates to the health of our democracy and the breadth of our understanding of representation and leadership. Women make up (slightly more than) 50 per cent of the population, and as a matter of justice and equity, those women with the necessary expertise and experience (and they are out there) should be leading.
Moreover, how can we possibly attempt to respond to the huge unknown policy and logistical challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic is throwing at the community, while effectively excluding half of the population from key decision-making? Certainly, we need the experts in infectious disease to be central to decision-making (and there are many women in these fields) but we also need the diverse population to be reflected to ensure varied life experiences are taken into account with the impact of the decisions flowing from that expert advice.
There are clear gendered implications of COVID-19 that have been discussed in these past few weeks, both in Australia and at a global level. Women form a large group within those experiencing poverty and hardship stemming from loss of income. This means an additional burden is placed on women, particularly single women, and their children. Is the lack of equal numbers of women in positions of leadership part of the reason why the national response has not yet paid sufficient attention to the specific impact on domestic violence - which is destined to increase as a result of social isolation? Most state and federal budgets are gender-blind - that is, they are ignorant of the very different impacts of budget measures on women that stem from the prevalence of part-time, often precarious work in low-paid sectors, along with the additional burden of unpaid work in the home. It is of critical importance that politicians, in their ongoing responses to COVID-19, apply a gender lens to the billions in fiscal stimulus, recognising women and men may need different things to get through this crisis.
The unacceptable gender imbalance in leadership of our country's national response to the COVID-19 pandemic should give us pause to think about power and authority, about decision-making and rule-setting and whether women's very specific needs are being taken into account. Let's see some more of Australia's outstanding women visibly leading, out in front, starting with the yet-to-be-announced additional members of the COVID-19 Coordination Commission.
- Professor Kim Rubenstein and Trish Bergin are co-directors of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.
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