Politics comes first in gender debate
The 350 women who gathered at Sydney's Sofitel hotel on Tuesday to hear treasurer-in-waiting Joe Hockey deliver an address to the Executive Women Australia's inaugural leadership symposium would have been left scratching their flattened heads (from years of hitting against the glass ceiling).
I guess he thought dispensing with a prepared speech in favour of homespun tales of his great-grandmother/grandmother/mother and daughter would appeal to that feminine sympathy chromosome.
The story of his parents' small business almost going under during the Whitlam years was inspiring. His mum rolled up her sleeves and went into work with Hockey's father, his sister answered the phones at the family real estate agency, while his older brothers drove clients around (despite being absent driving licences). Hockey swept out the shop at the end of the day.
They ultimately kept their house and their business and Hockey went on to become the first in his family to make it to university.
A charming start to a leadership symposium but not one that augured well for anyone that hoped for some kind of policy statement around gender discrimination, quotas or equal pay.
Clearly he has respect for his mother and her status as the bedrock of the family. The next anecdote suggests he wants his daughter to thrive professionally, at least that is what he promised her as a baby.
Having established his credentials as a "good guy", and one of the first in Federal Parliament to apply for paternity leave, the audience was on the edge of their seats hoping he would back up the rhetoric with some measurable policy moves to advance the cause of women executives.
It was never going to happen. Thus Hockey's decision to "open up" in front of the audience was - he thought - a better fallback position than standing up reciting the appalling female board and executive participation rates but providing no robust plans to do much about it.
Indeed, he studiously avoided the question of mandating quotas for females in executive or board ranks until pressed in question time. The answer was a flat no.
He is supportive of the Australian Securities Exchange's measures to identify listed companies with poor gender diversity statistics at board level and identify the reasons and is in favour of pushing this move even further.
Hockey says he is also supportive of evidence that underuse of female resources in business is costing the economy billions of dollars. He cites the report issued this year by Goldman Sachs that concluded Australia is missing out on $195 billion or 13 per cent of gross domestic product by failing to close the gender gap.
To be fair, the Goldman Sachs report is more about lifting participation rates (in much the same way as increasing immigration is a growth spur for the economy). But is also about cutting down on the wastage that occurs when women are educated but are not used productively.
But Hockey reckons you don't need investment banks or financial consultants to understand what is patently clear.
While the Coalition government is not prepared to take the step of some European nations to force quotas, one of its major policy initiatives will be extending paid parental leave.
It is a good start and one that Hockey should have used as the key plank in his address.
Allowing the primary caregivers in a family the opportunity to take time off on full pay is a meaningful way to keep women in the workforce. But its not a cure-all. It comes with a $150,000 cap, so it won't compensate women in very senior roles.
It also won't provide the solution for women who decide to take several years out of the workforce to raise young children until they get to school age.
And it is an expensive impost on the government. Quotas would definitely be a cheaper way to go and to contribute to a meaningful shift in corporate attitudes and behaviour.
Clearly both the government and the opposition have read the mood of the electorate on this issue and decided that either ideologically or politically "reverse discrimination" based on gender would not be a winner.
Hockey's solution - and it is pretty lame - is that there should be more male and female mentors helping the current and next generation of female leaders. This type of argument has been around for 30 years and statistics around female management participation have barely budged.
The female management movement has become more active but they seem to be traversing the same old ground. Lots of committees and meetings, endless studies and some high-profile advocates but minimal results.
Hockey is sufficiently "evolved" that he is not a supporter of entrenched gender inequality. But he is also a politician and politics comes first.
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