Parties urged to create female parliamentary equality


All political parties should implement strategies to ensure at least 50 per cent representation of women in Parliament within the next decade, the conference on Women, Power and Politics resolved yesterday.

In its closing session, the conference also called on all governments in Australia to develop policies to achieve, by 2000, “substantive equality” for women.

The conference’s 900 delegates failed to agree on a motion calling for all political parties to follow the example set by the ALP and introduce quotas. But they did call for parties to provide special funding, or mechanisms by which special funding could be donated, to be earmarked to help women in the selection process and as candidates.

The conference recommended the setting up of a commission to develop and implement measurable strategies for moving women into private and public sector boards and senior management positions, progressively, with a final goal of 35 per cent representation by 2000.

The commission would comprise representatives of federal, state and local governments, as well as the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Institute of Company Directors, the Australian Securities Commission and the ACTU.

To cheers and applause, the conference accepted a motion “that dismay be expressed to the Australian bishops’ conference of the Catholic Church that women are denied full participation in the decision-making processes of the church and its ministry”. It recommended that exemptions for religious groups from sex discrimination laws be removed. There was applause, also, for the call to decriminalise prostitution.

Other sucessful motions were: * That an International Equity Association be set up to link groups that want to fight free trade agreements, for fear that the pacts will “create gross gender inequity and lead to the destruction of the gains of the last 40 years in social, equity and environmental initiatives”.

* That the Council of Australian Governments be called on to use women to develop a national vocational employment and training action plan for women, setting goals and targets to be realised by 2001.

* That pay equity for women be a priority for governments, unions and employers.

* That rape in war be designated a punishable war crime, that the United Nations become more gender-representative, and that Australia’s defence and foreign affairs goals be increasingly framed in terms of peace and international peacekeeping rather than military security.

The conference failed to agree to dozens of motions, including one condemning criminal sanctions for genital mutilation and two calling for the full decriminalisation of abortion. This was not due to their defeat on numbers, however, but to lack of time for debate. These and other motions have been given to a committee for further action.

First published in The Age.

Women slipping back – professor


High unemployment was devastating women’s progress and sending them back to the level of the 1950s and 1960s, Professor Helen Hughes told the Women, Power and Politics conference in Adelaide yesterday.

“Sure, women have become board members and university professors, but so what?” she asked. “That’s not what matters to the majority of women.

“All through Europe, you’ve had greater representation of women, but a high proportion of women has been cut out of the economy, so they’re back to the conditions of the ’50s and ’60s. (The consequences) of this will show up in the next 20 years unless we can fix it.”
Professor Hughes, a fellow at the Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, said Australia had become a low-wage country with long working hours.

It used to have the third-highest income per person in the world, but had now slipped to 18th. With the recessions, women had “fallen out of the workplace”.

“Women have a lower workforce participation rate here than in most industrialised countries,” she said. But historically, it was only through employment that they got equal rights.

Professor Hughes, who worked with the World Bank for 15 years, said she knew of no country in which women had made gains without economic growth as a precondition.

“I have worked in (international) development for 30 years, and the evidence is that improved health for women, improved access to education, improved income, only come with economic growth as it is formally measured,” she said.

Professor Hughes said the second key to women’s continued advancement was education to equip them for paid work, but she said that “women in Australia and other countries are being denied access to education at the trade level.”

First published in The Age.

Seizing opportunities in the world of business

Another speaker told the Women, Power and Politics conference that corporate women who feel discouraged about their career progress should take heart. They have now reached critical mass as a force in business. Karen Kissane reports.

SHEILA Penrose has trained herself not to nod and smile when male colleagues are speaking. Women make these encouraging signals to indicate that they are paying attention to the person speaking, she says, but men misinterpret them as agreement to what is being said.

She has also taught herself to feel comfortable with silence in a conversation – “There are ways that men use silence to take control; it tends to make women uncomfortable and they jump in.” Such things might sound trivial, she says, but they are important tricks of the trade for women who want to succeed, and “the higher you get in an organisation, the more these interpersonal things matter”.

Ms Penrose would know. She is executive vice-president, wealth management, of the Northern Trust Corporation in Chicago, a commercial bank and one of the five biggest managers of pension funds (superannuation) in the United States. While most of the Australian speakers at the conference have said they are frustrated about women’s lack of progress in business in this country, Ms Penrose says that in America women are now becoming key generators of wealth and key decision-makers about how it will be spent. In every field of business, she says, they have reached critical mass.

In her company, half the middle managers are women. “In the United States, women start businesses at a rate two to three times faster than men, and women-owned businesses are one of the fastest-growing segments of the American economy. In 1972, only 5 per cent of US firms were owned by women. They currently represent 40 per cent of business owners (6.5 million) and by the year 2000, women will own 50 per cent of all small businesses.”

As in Australia, many women in large organisations still feel locked out of senior management, and believe the glass ceiling will not shatter until the World War II generation retires, she says. But soon the “birth dearth” of the 1970s will guarantee that there will not be enough men to fill the potential management positions. This alone will broaden opportunities for women.

She says the changing needs of business in the ’90s are also to women’s advantage. Hierarchies are dead and the management qualities for which women are particularly noted, such as the ability to encourage participation, share power and information, enhance people’s self-esteem and get them excited about their work, are in demand. Ms Penrose says, “This, of course, does not mean that women managers are all sugar and sweetness, but rather that they mix these traits with business savvy and a firm hand to bring out the best in their employees. A woman is more likely to create a weblike power structure, as opposed to a hierarchy, where they are at the centre and can reach out personally for easy interaction with their employees.”

Ms Penrose says women are major purchasers in America and around the world, even for typically male products, and that their relative wealth and their power to decide about investments is increasing: “As women accumulate their own wealth, inherit from parents and outlive their husbands (by an average of seven years), they will hold much of the country’s wealth.”

First published in The Age.

Mutilation law may do harm – expert


Outlawing female genital mutilation only drives the practice underground and could even further hurt the girls it is meant to protect, according to the president of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices, Mrs Berhane Ras-Work.

After her speech yesterday to the Women, Power and Politics conference in Adelaide, delegates will debate whether to call on federal and state governments to remove criminal sanctions from any laws drafted on the issue.

Mrs Ras-Work, an Ethiopian who represents 23 African countries in consultations with the United Nations, said she could not comment specifically on Australian moves to make mutilation illegal, but it generally caused more harm than good.

“Sudan in 1946 under the colonial regime passed such legislation. The practice went underground, people did it quietly, which meant that if the child haemorrhaged or became infected, they didn’t bring her to hospital.

“The Government should express its commitment to protecting the children, but criminalising it and throwing the mothers into jail will not help the community. What would be the damage to the child from being separated from the family?” Mrs Ras-Work said the procedure had been performed on more than 90 million women in the world today. It is becoming more common in Australia as a result of migration, and the Federal Government recently promised to outlaw it if the states could not agree on a uniform ban.

The Victorian Attorney-General, Mrs Wade, said this week that she was not opposed to such legislation, even though genital mutilation would already be an offence under the Crimes Act. Mrs Wade said she was consulting before making specific recommendations.

Genital mutilation, in which the clitoris is chopped off and/or the labia minora and parts of the labia majora sliced away and stitched over, is a traditional practice in many African and Middle Eastern countries. It can cause illness and death, long-term pain and gynaecological and obstetric problems. It diminishes or eliminates female sexual sensation.

Mrs Ras-Work, who is based in Geneva, says that governments that want to help migrant communities change their ways should use education and public information campaigns.

“(Its continued practice) is largely due to lack of knowledge about its consequences,” Mrs Ras-work said. “The mother who circumcises her daughter is not abusing her; she is doing it with the best of intentions to help her daughter to be eligible for marriage.”

First published in The Age.

Trade deals a bad deal for women – professor

Free trade agreements and the opening up of world markets were dangerous for women and other disadvantaged groups, a Canadian academic, Professor Marjorie Griffin Cohen, told the Women, Power and Politics conference.

Professor Cohen, an economist and professor of women’s studies at a Toronto university, said these changes were putting women out of work, causing the cutting of social services relied upon by women and families, and dramatically curtailing the ability of governments to make decisions for the public good.

Professor Cohen said agreements such as the one between the United States and Canada (Nafta) allowed large corporations so much power that the democratic process was being subverted. She said that in Canada, government plans for plain packaging of cigarettes and the setting up of a state car insurance system were dropped when American corporations threatened to sue for the billions they would lose in current and future income from the move.

She said that Nafta, the (North American Free Trade Agreement) required the permission of trading partners before a new public program could be set up. It also insisted that companies in the trading partner country be compensated for any losses they might incur. “Any government that decided it wanted a national day care program or a dental scheme would be discouraged by trade enforcement of prohibitively expensive compensation to US providers of those services in Canada,” Professor Cohen said.

“The wishes of people as expressed through the actions of elected democratic governments are being superseded by international trade rules. It is becoming increasingly irrelevant politically what economic and social issues parties decide to pursue.

“Women, minorities and the disadvantaged are confronting a very nasty political reality: this is the experience of even less democratic participation than we have had … Real decision-making power will elude us as the seat of power itself shifts.”
Professor Cohen said that half a million Canadian jobs had disappeared since the introduction of Nafta, many of them belonging to women in industries such as clothing and textiles. She predicted that the Canadian public health system would collapse by 2000 because Canada no longer had generic drugs but had to use much more expensive brand- name pharmaceuticals.

The conference will tomorrow debate whether to condemn “economic fundamentalism”. It will also consider recommending the establishment of an International Equity Association, linking women’s groups that believe the present international economic order will create “growing gender inequity and the loss of civilised society”.

First published in The Age.

Women to seek UN ruling on equality


In what could be a landmark case for women, three New Zealanders plan to take their Government to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, alleging that its failure to provide equality for women in Parliament breaches international conventions.

The three, who include a former MP, Dr Marilyn Waring, will use the convention employed by Australian gay activists in their recent case against Tasmania’s homosexuality laws. Dr Waring said the result could see any government that had signed the convention and its protocol morally obliged “to guarantee its women citizens half of its parliamentary seats”.

Dr Waring, speaking at the Women, Power and Politics conference in Adelaide, said that if the committee found for the complainants, the issue of quotas for women in Parliament would be irrelevant.

“Equality is not a 20 per cent quota or a 35 per cent quota; equality is 50 per cent,” she said.

Australia has signed both the conventions on which the case is based – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women – and the optional protocol that allows citizens to take grievances to the UN committee.

The New Zealanders intend to ask it to rule on whether a new, expanded definition of equality established in Canada’s Supreme Court applies to UN conventions. Traditionally, the law has defined equality using Aristotelian principles: people are equal if they have equal rights and opportunities. In the Canadian decision, the Andrews case, it was decided to abandon the question of whether people had a chance to be equal and examine whether they actually were.

Under this principle, for example, it could be argued that women’s equal rights to govern would consist not merely of the right to stand for Parliament, but the right to be represented in Parliament in equal numbers to men.

Dr Waring said: “We discreetly and informally inquired initially as to whether the UN Human Rights Committee would be interested in a test case that suggests that inequality, in terms of the UN’s human rights instruments, should be interpreted in the way the Andrews case interpreted inequality, and we have had an affirmative answer.”
She said the petitioners’ legal advisers thought they had an interesting case. “They’re delighted to help, and everyone is doing it for nothing.”

First published in The Age.

Women and power, and a hint of frustration

Karen Kissane – Adelaide.

They were there not just to celebrate history but to make it, and the message from the first two days of their gathering was loud and clear: No more Ms Nice Guy.

More than 900 delegates had gathered in Adelaide for an international conference on Women, Power and Politics, opened by the Prime Minister, Mr Keating, at the weekend. They welcomed his gender-sensitive speech, with its assurances that “We need women as full participants in decision-making simply because we need to make the right decisions.”
He said Australia was a pioneer in women’s rights. “It is surprising, really, that among the facts of Australian history, this one is less known than Ned Kelly, who was a horse-thief, and Phar Lap, who was a horse.”
The delegates laughed as Mary Beasley, chief executive officer of South Australia’s Department for Industrial Affairs, told of the way journals 100 years ago had described the typical female activist.

“Neglecting her hair, and allowing her stockings to fall into holes, she wears her hat with a sort of reckless abandon and takes no more pride in complexion pastes and remedies for wrinkles, warts and outstanding freckles; she becomes an ache and an
aggravation, a thorn planted in the side of man.”
And they relished the sardonic delivery of the British MP and former actor Glenda Jackson, who gave the keynote address on women in government.

“Margaret Thatcher,” she announced with vigor, “was like a poultice. She brought to the surface of the English national character this great boil of greed, selfishness and avarice.”
But, in what was meant to be a celebration of the centenary of South Australia becoming the first democracy to allow women to stand for Parliament, the mood was not so much triumph as frustration. Perhaps it is partly because the looming millennium, a natural time in which to take stock, provides a figurative deadline, a symbolic yardstick for progress.

Perhaps it is just that change has taken too long.

Women speakers and delegates from business, politics, academe and the bureaucracy talked of being fed up with waiting for evolution to work; encouraging and educating male-dominated management had not been enough to move women into senior decision-making jobs in large numbers.

Some want to wait no longer. They argue for compulsory quotas for women in Parliament and in business now. Others suggest one more try with targeted, measurable goals to be achieved in the short term, say, over the next five years. But if that fails, many of them, too, favor the last resort of Government-imposed quotas.

Ms Beasley said society was on the brink of the next stage of significant change. “Just as the suffragists of the 1890s were poised on the crest of a great wave that would take women into the next century with new rights and freedoms, so, too, are we in the 1990s poised on the crest of radical changes. Imagine this huge wave curling up to its full height, full of women in bright colors, poised to sweep over that endless sea of grey suits that is our current Parliament.”
The debate is not merely academic. This conference, which is attended by many state and federal MPs, will help set the agenda for women’s issues in this country for the next decade. The resolutions it makes will be sent to State and Federal Governments and other decision- making bodies whose policies affect women, which will then be lobbied to implement them.


Decisions made by the conference will help to set the agenda for women’s issues in Australia for the next decade. Each session of the conference proposes resolutions that will be taken to a plenary session tomorrow for debate and voting. Measures adopted tomorrow will be passed on to governments and other policy-making bodies.

Proposals so far include: That all political parties implement strategies or rules to ensure at least 50 per cent representation of women in legislative assemblies within the next decade.

That the pursuit of pay equity be a priority for unions, government and employer groups.

That parliaments establish creches and woman-friendly sitting hours, that political parties have “equality officers” funded by the state, and that quota legislation be introduced if equality targets are not met within a certain time.

That the Council of Australian Governments provide resources for women to develop a national vocational employment and training action plan for women, setting goals to be realised by the year 2001.

That the conference recommend to the UN Conference on Women that government representatives should include more women and that rape in war be designated unequivocally a punishable war crime.

That there be public debate and scrutiny of the Australian defence budget, and that Australia’s defence and foreign affairs goals be increasingly framed in terms of international peacekeeping.

First published in The Age.