Making room for women in policy

It’s a man’s world doesn’t cut it, we need to sing a more inclusive song

Helen Sullivan

Government and governance, Education, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The World

6 December 2017

From global politics to university panels, we need to find a way to get more equal representation in the formulation of public policy, Helen Sullivan writes.

Let me show you a quick selective snapshot of the world right now. Kim Jong-un has just conducted another missile test, sounding alarm bells around the region. Photographs from North Korea show the country’s leader chortling with pride surrounded by his high-ranking male generals. Over on the other side of the world, Donald Trump – a man who believes that power gives him the right to grab women’s genitals – responds to North Korea’s provocations in typically macho and bombastic language.

Meanwhile, Southeast Asia’s emboldened ‘strongmen’ leaders position themselves to take advantage of a changing world order where power and influence are rapidly shifting towards a man so influential that he’s just had his very thought processes characterised as part of his country’s political culture.

Perhaps James Brown was right when he sang “It’s a man’s man’s man’s world”?

Thankfully, to quote another song of a similar era, the times are changing. In my time as an academic, I’ve seen the university sector of the UK and Australia wake up to the fact that it has a gender balance problem and that it needs to do something about the reality (and perception) that its dusty corridors are full of bearded pontificating old white men. That’s not to say the sector has successfully addressed this, wholly or even partially, but there is a growing awareness of the problem and a building resolve to do something about it.

More on this: Are we making headway in women's participation in Asia-Pacific politics?

These problems aren’t just the preserve of the university sector either. Only 32 per cent of Australia’s Federal Parliamentarians are female (perhaps little surprise when women make up only 22 per cent of Liberals in Federal Parliament), leaving Australia 50th in the world for percentage of women in Parliament. Even the business world struggles. A recent study found that fewer large Australian companies are run by women than are run by men named ‘John’ and that the number of women in key leadership positions actually fell in 2017.

At Crawford School, where Policy Forum is based, we pride ourselves on our links with the public service. Our researchers undertake work that aims to inform better policy, and they build strong and enduring links with public servants. Many of our students go on to senior public service roles, both in Australia and around the world, where they craft and write the public policy that we hope will create a better (and more equal) world.

One notable attempt to address gender imbalance began in the public service and is achieving results – the Male Champions of Change program. Founded in 2010 by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick AO, the program aims to encourage and support men in the corporate and government world to take an active role in addressing gender inequality.

As a school that puts on a lot of public events featuring both academics and senior public servants, we see this program playing out first hand. Frequently, senior public servants we invite to be part of public panels, for example, will insist that the panel is made up of men and women equally, both playing significant roles.

And a good thing they do this, too. The Male Champions of Change project estimates that just 15 per cent of panellists at events like these are women, and less than 12 per cent of experts cited in business newspapers are female.

More on this: What Trump’s win says about gender politics

Those kinds of ratios contribute to a broader corrosive effect on public policy discussion and formulation. They help position the men on those panels as the leading authorities on their topic, which in turn can contribute to reinforcing gender imbalances and stifling opportunities for career advancement for women. On top of that, an overwhelming chorus of male voices in public debate can mean that important policy areas run the risk of being neglected, for example, domestic violence or maternal health.

It’s an issue that is – pleasingly – attracting more attention. The excellent and amusing Tumblr All Male Panels may give all-male events a comical thumbs-up from David Hasselhoff, but it draws attention to how widespread the problem is.

In 2017 at Crawford School we put on more than 130 public events with a range of formats – seminars, talks, panels – on a wide range of policy issues. We did better than a 15 per cent ratio, reaching a little over 35 per cent female participation (although that figure drops by 3-4 per cent when you take out those women who were either moderators or chairs – many of whom may not have played an active role in sharing their own expertise).

However, 35 per cent isn’t good enough.

As a public policy school which seeks to inform, lead, and educate the next generation of policymakers, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to ensure that we are addressing gender imbalance.

To that end, in 2018 Crawford School will commit to a goal of gender balance in our public events with two specific targets: firstly, ensuring that we have a balance on panel events; and secondly, ensuring that over the course of the year our events program has featured as many women sharing their insights, expertise and views as it does men. At the end of 2018 we’ll publicly report back on this on both measures.

Of course, this commitment will only go a small way towards addressing a much larger societal issue. But everyone – individuals, companies, political parties, universities – needs to do their part.

The benefits of more equal representation in policymaking could be significant. I say could, because the world has so few examples to draw upon. But you shouldn’t need to believe studies suggesting that the best predictor of a country’s stability is the way its women are treated, or that more female leaders could mean a more peaceful world, to recognise that providing equal opportunities to half of humanity is a moral imperative in its own right.

We don’t need a man’s man’s man’s world, any more than we need public debate dominated by female voices. What we need is a more representative policy-making process that hears from men, women – and those who wish to be identified as neither – and public policy schools have a responsibility to play an active role in that.

We are training the leaders of tomorrow, so the work we do now might contribute to a much better gender snapshot in the future.

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One Response

  1. Quentin Grafton says:

    Well done Helen! Great to see a piece that goes from words to actions on this important issue. I’m proud to be part of a school that is taking a public stance on gender balance.

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