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Abbott’s cabinet: a case study of workplace diversity

By Mathew Burke - posted Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Much has been made about the lack of female representation in the new Federal Cabinet.  ‘Things that have more woman than Tony Abbott’s cabinet’ has become an internet sensation producing some humorous and surprising results; the Iranian and Afghani Cabinets but two of them.  Loaded phrases – ‘affirmative action’, ‘gender quotas’, ‘meritocracy’ – have been flung about with reckless abandon by all sides.  One camp points to this as yet more evidence of Abbott’s misogyny, his woman problem.  Another decries the scourge of political correctness that promoting women for being women would bring.

Somewhere between the two extremes, like in any emotive dispute, is the truth.  Perhaps this really is the best composition of talent the Coalition can muster, which may be fair when we look at demographic breakdowns within the Liberal and National party rooms.  Assuming the loss of Fairfax, the Coalition has 20% (18 of 90) of its House of Representatives numbers as women in the 44th Parliament.  With twenty Labor women in the House of Representatives, the opposition outrank the government on this measure despite comprising only 60% of its total numbers.

But raw numbers only tell part of the story.  Ten of the government’s eighteen (56%) were elected either at the 2007 or 2010 elections, compared with seven of twenty (35%) within Labor.  If governing experience is a desirable quality of our government’s executive, then the fact that only eight of the government’s ninety members within the House of Representatives are women with more than one term experience would seem to justify the composition of the cabinet we see before us.


If the present cabinet is the best representation of talent and experience within the Coalition party room, then why should it matter that Julie Bishop is the sole female voice at the table?

Workplace diversity is a topic the corporate world is beginning to understand and is now attempting to address.  Studies show that companies with a diverse workforce across all levels – including within senior management and board representation – are more successful.  McKinsey & Company’s 2007 report Women Matter looks at gender diversity as a corporate performance driver.  It identified a strong correlation between improved qualitative (e.g. clarity of direction, accountability, leadership, innovation etc.) and quantitative (earnings and returns on investment) measures and the number of women in senior leadership positions.

The study was certain to point out that ‘correlation is not necessarily cause’.  However, it noted that the correlation was striking nonetheless, and reflected anecdotal remarks and comments gathered during the study’s interviews with CEO’s; that women representation facilitated changes in the nature of interaction, and that a team’s diversity promotes a richer set of ideas (McKinsey, 2007, 12).

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, has made similar claims.  Her book Lean In identifies means through which women can overcome institutional and personal barriers to professional success.  And whilst she doesn’t prescribe to stereotypical forms of male and female leadership, she identifies those traits women are naturally encouraged to display – listening, consensus building, and fostering team cohesion – as attributes which all leaders should possess.

But if there is consensus regarding the importance and benefits of diversity within decision making bodies, the methods for advancing such diversity are much more controversial.  The Australian Stock Exchange requires listed companies to state ‘measurable objectives’ of women in general workplace, senior management and board positions, and report actuals against such.  Europe, having originally tried a similar approach, is moving down the path of stricter quotas in an attempt to hasten the issue.  The ALP are well publicised in their aims for 40% of party positions and parliamentary seats to be held by members of either gender.

This brings us to the crux of the issue which seems to have been overlooked in this debate.   Low female cabinet representation isn’t the result of Abbott’s perceived misogyny and woman’s problem.  It’s an institutional issue within the Coalition as an entity; an environment has been created where the pipeline of female talent coming through Coalition ranks does not justify them holding positions of power within the upper echelons of government at this time. 


Diversity isn’t about promoting individuals based on irrelevant characteristics – tokenism in the highest order.  It’s the recognition that better decisions are made from a team with a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences and attributes.  If Tony Abbott is sincere in his disappointment that there was not higher female representation in his Cabinet, then what institutional changes need be made to the Coalition parties to overcome this disparity?  Or does the Coalition, in reality, believe that it is not an issue?

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About the Author

Mathew Burke works in corporate strategy within financial services. A Brisbane native, he is Deputy National President of the Australian Democrats.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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