When we go to the polls today, it will be almost 110 years since Australia’s first federal election under Commonwealth law.

The push to give women the vote surrounded the 1903 election and marked the first wave of  feminism. But how much has changed for women since that time?

At the turn of the 20th century many women as well as many men were opposed to women voting and standing for parliament. Some formed the Anti-Suffrage League in Victoria to voice their objections.

The League’s mantra was published in the letters section of the Melbourne Argus on 25 September 1900. Among its strident views was this ‘gem’: men execute the laws and women are powerless without the laws, so men should make the laws; “The voting power should correspond with the real strength of the nation”.

The League and other anti-suffrage supporters must have been disappointed when legislation proposing  universal suffrage was tabled in the Commonwealth parliament. But with kindred spirits in the halls of power, the anti-suffrage movement wasn’t going to go away quietly.

In the House of Representatives on 23 April 1902, the member for Kooyong, William Knox, made his anti-suffrage feelings known during a debate on the proposed laws. He believed the legislation would lead to more women supporting themselves and taking “the bread out of men’s mouths”.

“I would have [women] married to honorable men, so that they might become the mothers of children, and thus increase our population,” he said. “The main ambition of a woman’s life should be to become the wife of an honorable and honest man.”

Another member of parliament saw the suffrage movement as a fad. It’s a “craze – I can hardly call it anything else”, said the member for Tasmania, Sir Edward Braddon. He also thought the movement had “glamorised” the cause.

These men failed to stop the Commonwealth electoral franchise being extended to white women. But unfortunately, universal suffrage was removed from the Commonwealth legislation, and many indigenous women (and men) found themselves locked out of the franchise. It wasn’t until 1962 that all indigenous people won the right to vote in federal elections.

In state jurisdictions, white women were granted electoral rights between 1894 and 1926. Indigenous women were granted these rights between 1895 and 1965.

Fast forward to today; and while we live in a so-called modern world replete with  anti discrimination laws, some of yesteryear’s sentiments still hang about like a bad smell.

Knox’s belief that it’s a woman’s duty and ambition to have children is perpetuated by some quarters today.

The Australian press associates womanhood with motherhood while portraying childless women as incapable, uncaring and deviant, says the 2012 report What’s ‘childless’ got to do with it?

The report provides examples – including the following about the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard – to illustrate how the press perpetuates this myth: “It seems a little inappropriate that an unmarried, childless woman should spend her time walking around shopping centres kissing babies,” The Australian, 20th July 2010.

The report says the print media’s tendency to disclose childlessness as a negative attribute regardless of the context of the story stigmatises all childlessness as negative.

“Ultimately, this serves to deny the diversity amongst Australian women, and offer a positive and alternative life course for women – one in which their reproductive status, outcomes and decisions have nothing to do with ‘it’,” the report adds.

Women who have children also find themselves in a time warp. Knox must be smiling in his grave, considering how well the sexual division of labour has held up over the past century.

Research continues to paint a picture of men as the main breadwinners, while women stay at home and look after the children. Women with children under the age of five spend an average of 32 hours a week on housework and 41 hours on childcare, says the Australian federal government’s 2013 report, Families working together getting the balance right. They also spend an average of 14 hours a week in paid work and commuting. Fathers meanwhile spend an average of 15 hours on housework, 17 hours on childcare and 46 hours in paid work and commuting.

Overall, the mothers spend an average of nine hours a week more in paid and unpaid work than the fathers. Even when the children get older (five to 14 years of age) and the mothers move into more paid work hours, mothers still spend an average of 29 hours a week on housework, while the fathers only spend and average of 17 hours.

Not content with relegating women to chief tea towel holder and childcare worker, some people want to see women out of work altogether. These people share Knox and the anti-suffrage movement’s view about men at work.

In May, workforce management company Kronos surveyed 500 business decision-makers and 2,000 employees in  healthcare, retail and manufacturing about preferred workers. It found that decision makers and employees alike “believe that being male and perpetually available with no outside responsibilities or interests, as well as prioritising work above all else are the most desired qualities for employment”.

We shouldn’t be too surprised though, as these aren’t the only outdated attitudes about women and work that continue to hang around today.

Every time a woman opens her pay packet sexist attitudes from the past leap out. One of the men who supported giving white women the vote in 1902 also helped to entrench the gender pay gap we experience today.

After a stint in the House of Representatives, Henry Bourne Higgins was appointed as the President of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration in 1907. In the same year, Higgins handed down the Harvester Judgement, which created the world’s first living wage. But, as the judgement determined how much money a man needed to earn to support a family, it sidelined women’s pay.

Interestingly, single men were granted the same pay as married men.

A living wage for women wasn’t considered until the Fruit Pickers Case of 1912. But rather than end the gender wage divide, it created occupational categories based on gender and set lower pay rates for female occupations. During this case, Higgins determined that fruit picking was a male occupation because most pickers were  men, and fruit packing was a female occupation because most packers were females.

He then set the female living wage at 54 per cent of the male basic wage. He reasoned that women only needed money to buy their own food, clothing and shelter. Unlike men, he didn’t think it necessary to consider if women had dependants to support. “The employer cannot be told to pay a particular employee more because she happens to have parents and brothers and sisters dependent on her…,” his Judgement said.

However, like the Harvester Judgment, single men were granted the same pay as married men.

Nevertheless, Higgins ‘threw a few more breadcrumbs women’s way’, as he also ruled that women working in jobs designated as male occupations should be paid the male basic wage. In this situation, he said women and men were competing for the same work, and he wanted to avoid employers using cheaper women workers instead of men. He didn’t think this would be too much of a problem as fewer women than men worked outside the home. “Fortunately for society…the greater number of bread winners still are men. The women are not all dragged from the homes to work while the men loaf at home…,” his Judgement said.

Both these wage cases set the tone for wage determination for a number of decades.

The equal pay cases of the 1960s and 1970s helped to ease the problem, but they didn’t fix it. Nor did including equal pay principles in the law. The gender pay gap still looms large – 17.6 per cent, says the Workplace Gender Equality agency.

Also, feminised occupations still struggle for wage parity. In 2011, the Social and Community Services Equal Pay case found that social and community jobs were underpaid because they were largely done by women and undervalued. In 2012, Fair Work Australia (now the Fair Work Commission) ordered pay increases of up to 45 per cent for these jobs.

Although more women are in paid work today, very few are being dragged from their homes to fill powerful and influential roles. If Higgins was around today, he would have little to worry about.

The lack of women in power is evident in the place women fought hard to belong to over a century ago: politics.

For more than 100 years, women have made up 50 per cent of the population, but very few have made it to the top. The record books reveal a stark and unacceptable gender imbalance.

It took 41 years for the first woman to be elected to federal parliament.

No indigenous woman has been elected to federal parliament – but this may change today if Nova Peris wins a seat in the Senate.

Australia has had 27 people serve as Prime Minister, but only one has been a woman.

We have had 25 Commonwealth Governors General, but only one has been a woman.

Before the House of Representatives was dissolved in August, women only held 29.6 per cent of the total seats in both houses of federal parliament, according to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library. This proportion is unlikely to improve after today’s election.

What about the states?

In 1921, Western Australia was the first parliament in Australia to elect a woman.

In 2002,  Western Australia was the first parliament  in Australia to elect an indigenous woman.

Only five women have been Premiers. This is hardly cause for celebration, considering a total of 246 people have served as Premiers since the colonies became self governing.

Also, only six women have been appointed as Governors. This number is low, considering a total of 254 Governors have been appointed since colonisation.

Today, women only hold 27.5 per cent of the total seats in state parliaments, according to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library.

What about the territories?

The Northern Territory (NT) has been self governing since 1978. Of its 11 Chief Ministers (CM), only one has been a woman. Since 1846, NT has had 34 administrators (or equivalent) but again only one has been a woman.

We have had a turn up for the books in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Since the start of self government in 1989, six people have served as the CM and half of them have been women. The ACT doesn’t have an administrator.

Today, however, women only hold 38 per cent of the total seats in the NT and ACT parliaments, according to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library.

Overall, women only hold 28.6 per cent of the total seats in the federal, state and territory parliaments.

If Tasmania’s Braddon was around today he would be pleased; the “craze” he was concerned about more than a century ago has failed to take off – and is far from glamorous.

The big end of town is also failing in the gender stakes. Women only comprise 9.2 per cent of executives in ASX 500 companies, says the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, November 2012. Also, only 12 ASX 500 companies have women CEOs.

What about women in small business? Things are better there; women start up 29 per cent of nascent small businesses and 26 per cent of young firms, says Australian Small Business Key Statistics and Analysis, December 2012. This is compared to men, who start up 37 per cent of nascent firms and 40 per cent of young firms. Mixed gender teams start up the remainder of the firms.

Much has been said about how to increase the proportion of women in top jobs, but not much is working. At the rate we are going, it will take almost 300 years before 50 per cent of the CEOs in Australia are women, said The University of Queensland’s Dr Terrance Fitzsimmons at the Women in Local Government Forum earlier this year.

Drawing on his 2011 doctoral study, Navigating CEO appointments: do Australia’s top male and female CEOs differ in how they made it to the top?, Fitzsimmons said many of the problems associated with so few women being in CEO roles start with parents and educators treating girls and boys differently. In turn, this affects how we behave in later life. For this to change, he says we need to alter how we build the foundations of society, schooling, government and business.

Fitzsimmons advocates a number of changes, including giving daughters the same experiences, opportunities and values as sons, stopping and thinking every time we are about to make a “pink and blue” decision, providing access to more non-traditional female role models, ensuring workplace laws focus on women’s workplace “promotion” rather than “participation”, and improving out-of-hours childcare. He says businesses should identify and encourage talented women early in their careers, provide family friendly benefits and make diversity a key performance indicator.

Why not change the way we work? Flexible work hours are a must, but other cultural and structural alterations are also necessary, according to a 2013 study by Bain & Company Inc. 

In what reads like a memo to the ‘boys club’, the study says traditional assumptions about leadership and what it takes to get into senior executive roles must be challenged, and unbiased and objective candidate selection processes are necessary. Using candidate targets should be part of the process. “Setting minimum levels or targets for the number of women that form the candidate pool considered by the board or executive for succession can create an ‘acid test’ for a gender neutral process,” the study says.

In her book The Misogyny Factor, Anne Summers says we need to stop expecting women to behave like men. Referring to board appointments, she notes: “If women brought onto boards are expected to behave like men, what is the benefit of their presence? It is the worst of all possible worlds: the company is denied the different perspective women directors might bring to its governance, while the male directors stew in their resentment that they are being forced to recruit women, which means there are fewer positions available for their mates.”

Quotas are also an option. But they are contested because some quarters feel they lack merit. However, we need to keep reminding ourselves that men hold most of the top political jobs and run most of the top businesses not because they merit these positions more than women. Rather, we live in a patriarchal society, where men dominate law making and business because of their gender.

Women shouldn’t have to jump through so-called merit hoops that are trickier to negotiate than those that men have to step through. “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 of people to run for political office – because it both bolsters the sexual status quo and perpetuates it,” says Summers in The Misogyny Factor. “It is a view that is so internalised in so many people that you actually have women using it to defend the discrimination that prevents them and their sisters from being included and from being treated equally.”

Men only make up 50 per cent of the Australian population, yet they hold 90 per cent of executive positions in ASX 500 companies and more than 70 per cent of the seats in parliament.

Do we want to wait another 100 years before we elect our second female Prime Minister and hire a few more female executives? Let’s make all sorts of women in all sorts of places the norm.

When we turn out to vote today – remember – our law makers can only take us part of the way.

What can we do to take us the rest of the way?

This story was amended on 15 June 2016.

Leave a Reply