Well-meaning but still sexism: Why the Liberal party needs enforceable targets for female representation

Even though his party’s percentage female representation has fallen into the low 20’s, Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly opposes quotas for female positions in the pre-selection of candidates. Why? Not just because he believes that substandard women will be selected under quotas but, also, as he announced in an interview, “I have spoken to female parliamentarians who find it hard to leave their children on Sunday nights to travel to Canberra.” Kelly’s view is one that is widely held by members of parliament and is openly expressed by Liberal members. His and their views are antiquated, inconsistent with the evidence, and out of step with the more enlightened view of diversity and inclusion held by many in the business community.

Legislation granting women the right to vote and stand as candidates for government bodies has been in place in most of the industrialised world since the first quarter of the 20th century. Isn’t it time we removed the barriers to their full exercise of those rights and took positive steps to increase female representation? Without enforceable targets or quotas, the representation of women in the Liberal party will not increase significantly any time soon.

One option is to have enforceable targets for the number of seats reserved for women in parliament. A second option is enforceable targets for the list of candidates preselected, and, for the senate, positions on the ballet paper.

Talk of merit in the pre-selection of parliamentarians is misplaced. It is a political, popularity process for selecting novices who must learn on the job. Many gain experience as staffers and party workers, but the big differentiator of successful politicians is their ability to learn on the job. Something even the current leader of the Liberal party, like other leaders of all parties before him, has struggled to do.

Male leaders are criticised and may lose their roles when their colleagues judge them to be underperforming. None of those leaders have been attacked as viciously as Julia Gillard was by Tony Abbott and other member of the Liberal party, the media, especially the shock jocks whose stock in trade is prejudice, and members of her own party. To her credit, Ms Gillard governed with a wafer-thin majority and held it together well. Much better than what we have seen since her departure.

The double standards for judging men and women are rife, and act as a barrier to women seeking pre-selection and being selected when they do.

Studies have shown that female parliamentarians do a better job representing their constituencies, are more involved in discussions of social policy issues and have better attendance records. If pre-selection was indeed a merit-based process, women would be over-represented in parliament.

Quotas and targets for female representation in legislative bodies are applied in 74 countries around the world. A study by Dr Sojo of Melbourne University and colleagues, reported in Leadership Quarterly, shows that the level of targets set and the degree of enforcement influences the level of representation. Quotas are simply non-negotiable targets with strong sanctions for failure to meet them, such as the loss of a place on the ballot paper. As Sojo and colleagues report, in countries with targets, but lax enforcement, the prejudice and discrimination against women is revealed in strategies that expose them to much greater risk of not being elected, compared to their male counterparts. One such strategy is to place them at the bottom of the ticket, which often ensures they miss out. The aspirational target of 50% for female representation by 2025 has no enforcement mechanisms and, on the evidence to date, is at odds with the aspirations of many in the Liberal party.

The Sojo study also examined the role of legislated enforceable targets for female representation on corporate boards. The results were the same as those for parliaments. The higher the target and the stronger the enforcement, the greater the proportion of women on boards. There is no rigorous evidence that quotas or targets affect the quality of people or the performance of the companies who set the targets. The same is true for women selected to parliament in countries with enforceable targets. There is a lot of evidence that points to the benefits of diversity, when accompanied with inclusive practices, for the quality of problem solving and innovation in teams.

Everyone who wants to oppose targets and quotas, has a story or example to tell, like the female parliamentarians Craig Kelly spoke to. If he bothered to look at the performance of his colleagues over the last 5 years, he would quickly realise there have been and still are many more underperforming men than women. I am sure there are also men who miss their families and perhaps even women who don’t. But to admit the latter would, of course, be a denial of the female stereotype that is implicit in Craig Kelly’s comments and would expose any women thought guilty of such a lack of feeling, to backlash. And if, like Julia Gillard, she doesn’t have children to miss, she will cop backlash for her lack of ‘family values.”

Australian businesses, have clearly made more effort to understand the evidence regarding targets and quotas than politicians like Craig Kelly. Most companies in the ASX 200 now have enforceable targets for the representation of women in senior management and on boards. Craig Kelly and other politicians clearly need to talk to boards and CEOs of leading companies about their diversity and inclusion strategies. If they did, they would discover that business leaders believe that diversity is good for business and that they are unlikely to get enough of it without enforceable targets. They would also learn that, with some imagination and supporting policies, enforceable targets do not lead to the selection of substandard people. Enforceable targets have led to a levelling of the playing field through more rigorous search for talent, and promoting processes that foster talented women. Finally, in response to the question of why focus on gender diversity, they would be reminded that women are the largest and most underrepresented minority and women are also members of other minority groups. Enforceable targets for women does not exclude other underrepresented groups.

Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, when asked why he implemented a 50% quota for women in his cabinet, replied “because it is the 21st Century.” He could have added that they are 50% of the population and are equally talented. Representative democracies are based on the premise that all citizens have a voice. Current preselection processes for the Liberal party are not merit based, they are biased in favor of males.

Sign up to our mailing list for blog and newsletter updates: