Australia’s Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott has appointed only one woman to his Cabinet. Is this his idea of merit-based selection?

Abbott has been banging on about the merits of merit for quite some time. So have others, including the only woman appointed to the Cabinet, Julie Bishop. But do Abbott and Bishop seriously believe that the only people capable of filling the Cabinet roles are overwhelmingly  those wearing suits and blue ties?

Interestingly, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard (who had four women in her cabinet including herself) was ‘on the money’ when she gave her ‘blue tie’ speech just before she was turfed out of office in June.

On Election Day “we are going to make a big decision as a nation. It’s a decision about whether, once again, we will banish women’s voices from our political life”, Gillard said. “I invite you to imagine it. A prime minister – a man in a blue tie – who goes on holidays to be replaced by a man in a blue tie. A treasurer, who delivers a budget wearing a blue tie, to be supported by a finance minister – another man in a blue tie. Women once again banished from the centre of Australia’s political life.”

After Kevin Rudd took over the Prime Ministership from Gillard, he appointed six women to his Cabinet. While the ALP doesn’t use quotas to appoint Cabinet ministers, it does use quotas to pre-select women candidates – which has led to more capable women entering parliament and climbing up the ranks.

The same can’t be said for the Coalition though – and pre-selection is where it is failing. Only 20 per cent of its candidates for the recent House of Representatives election were women. When the vote counting is all said and done, it looks like women will hold 20 per cent of the Coalition’s Lower House seats. It’s not much of an improvement on the previous parliament, where women held 19.4 per cent of the Coalition’s seats.

However, the Coalition has done a little better in the Senate election, where 34 per cent of its candidates were women. But only four of the 18 newly elected Coalition Senate members are women. Before the election women held 25 per cent of the Coalition’s Senate seats.

By comparison the Australian Labor Party (ALP) has done better when it comes to pre-selecting and electing women to both houses of federal parliament. In the Lower House, 32.6 per cent of its candidates in the recent election were women. Despite losing a number of Lower House seats, it still ended up with a higher proportion of women in Opposition (36.3 per cent), compared to its last stint in government (32.4 per cent).

The ALP also did better in the Senate. Some 41.9 per cent of its candidates were women, and seven out of its 12 candidates who won seats were women.

Overall, women in the ALP hold a greater proportion of Lower House and Senate seats than their Coalition colleagues. Unfortunately, the Coalition doesn’t pull its weight on gender diversity and its percentages drag down the overall proportion of women in federal parliament.

The Coalition needs to fix the problem because it’s not okay for 18 of the 19 Cabinet ministers – the highest lawmakers – to be men. Women make up 50 per cent of the population and deserve better representation. Why are men given preferential treatment when it comes to being pre-selected and appointed to Cabinet? Why aren’t Marise Payne, Sussan Ley or Fiona Nash in Cabinet? In 2013 something is seriously wrong when 95 per cent of the Cabinet are men.

Quite frankly the root cause of the problem has nothing to do with virtually no women of merit being available. If you believe that you believe anything. Serious structural discrimination is ingrained in our society. So much so that the only woman in the Cabinet, Julie Bishop, believes that women in Australia have the same opportunities as men and merit is the way to go.

Here is what she said on Channel Ten’s Meet the Press in June, when defending merit selection over quotas: “I believe that every person who takes a position in the Parliament should be judged on their competency, on the merits of what they can offer, on their performance, on the way they conduct themselves, not on their gender.

“Now, every woman on the Labor side has been brought into Parliament based on their gender. Every woman on the Liberal-National side is there because they’ve earned the right through competence, through merit. And I believe in merit-based promotion.”

Does she seriously believe that she is the only women in the Coalition to merit a spot in Cabinet? Is she also happy that the Office of the Status of Women has been downgraded to the outer ministry?

More so than ever we need to rethink ‘merit’ when it comes to pre-selecting and appointing candidates because playing the ‘merit’ card, under our current ‘rules’, isn’t leading to the best outcomes.

The ALP must join in this rethink too. Although interim ALP leader Chris Bowen saw the lack women in Abbott’s Cabinet as a negative, he also noted that women must be appointed on merit.  But while more ALP than Coalition women have held high posts, the ALP still has a long way to go to achieve gender equality.

“The view that a woman should only be appointed ‘on merit’ is too often raised: men are rarely subjected to the ‘on merit’ test,” said adjunct Professor at James Cook University Diann Rodgers-Healey in The Conversation last year. “Its use is confined to women when they are seeking a senior role to which a man ordinarily would be appointed.”

Unfortunately, the problem is difficult to remedy because of unconscious bias. “Human beings form unconscious knowledge when they are exposed to existing associations and relationships, leading to ‘auto-pilot’ thinking that can lead to unconscious bias,” says the CEDA report, Women in Leadership: Understanding the gender gap, June 2013. “Unconscious bias is usually present in both men and women.”

It’s time to wake up Australia – it’s time for men in blue ties and women to stop playing the ‘merit’ card.

When have you borne the brunt of gender bias?

This story was updated on 8 December 2013.

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