CANBERRA—There’s a crib in the office of Penny Wong. It’s the first thing one sees upon entering her office in this city’s Parliament Building, and it seems incongruous with her sober demeanor, dressed as she is in a pinstripe suit with a pale pink shirt under the blazer.
Previously, in an appearance on ABC’s “Q&A” show, Wong, who is also minister for finance and deregulation, parried attacks on the administration of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Australia’s first woman head of government. At the same time, she deftly sidestepped attempts to pin her down on the issue of same-sex marriage, brought on by the presence in the audience of a teenage daughter of a same-sex couple. Wong is an admitted lesbian, and the crib in her office is evidence of a daughter borne by her partner some months ago.
And so in many ways, she does hit the “trifecta” of minority entitlement: woman, gay and Asian-Australian.
But, conversing with her, one gets the sense that Wong is not interested at all in trading on her identity. She does admit that as a migrant from Malaysia, “being Asian was very difficult, facing discrimination in school.” Although, she reminds her audience, “this was in the 1970s.”
Today, she notes that “being a woman in politics is less difficult than before.” She adds, speaking of the lasting legacy of the Gillard administration: “There are strong positives in the being ‘first.’ It is important because of what it says to other people: that there will be a second and a third.” Having a woman prime minister, she notes, tells Australian girls that “you can do anything, you’re not held back, you can lead, too.”
At the same time, there is a huge risk: “If a woman in politics fails, then young women would say, I don’t want to be like that.”
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Gender equality is, understandably, a priority of the Gillard administration, which faces an electoral contest late next year. “We have a long way to go,” admits Wong. Although there has been “formal” equality for decades (the anti-sex discrimination act, which mandates equal pay for equal work, was passed in the 1970s), “real equality between men’s and women’s earnings has yet to become reality.”
Among the strongest priorities of the Gillard administration, says Wong, is to provide support for child care efforts, including making the paid parental leave scheme statutory. Wong also mentions changes in the tax system, one of them being a plan to increase the “economic benefits of working part-time, so that women, who comprise the great majority of part-time workers, can keep more of their income before being taxed.”
There is a growing clamor among Australian women for the imposition of quotas. They observe that after decades of setting targets and providing incentives for companies to hire more women, pay them equitably, and place more women in their boards, companies have proven resistant, as a recent survey shows.
Wong herself says she prefers to set targets rather than impose quotas. “Targets help you address the factors [that hold women back],” she says, “and can even drive cultural change.” This, she concedes, is necessary before holding quotas as swords above the heads of private sector employers. In her own life and work, and in her low-key manner, Wong seems determined to drive that change and hurry it along its way.
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Later on the same day as our meeting with Wong, we went back to Parliament Building to meet with “the other side,” as it were.
We were ushered into the office of MP Julie Bishop, who belongs to the Liberal Coalition and serves as deputy leader of the opposition and shadow foreign minister, but since she was held up by a meeting, we were met instead by Michaela Cash, shadow parliamentary secretary for the status of women.
A few minutes later, as Bishop joined us, it struck me that the two women seemed to be cut from the same mold: tall, svelte, blond, with the same steely resolve and direct manner of speaking.
“Economic empowerment [is necessary for] gender equality,” and one way of achieving that is to “get men to rethink what the Bible is saying,” said Cash. Bishop said she sees it as essentially “enhancing women’s participation in the workforce.” The opposition is “serious about the [greater] participation of women in the economy,” she said, noting that “childcare support is important if you want women to return to work.”
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But don’t mistake Bishop or Cash for feminists.
Asked if she thought her rise in politics could be attributed to her gender, Bishop declared: “I never attributed my success or otherwise to gender. I have always relied on merit and ability, and never thought of my gender as a reason for poor performance or failure.” Whereas, she pointed out, the Prime Minister “uses her gender as both a sword and a shield,” referring to Gillard’s famous put-down of an opposition MP as a “misogynist” and reference to her gender in the course of attacks over a decade-old controversy involving a former boyfriend.
Both also believe resorting to gender-based quotas would, in Bishop’s words, “be a retrograde step.” “Government shouldn’t impose on private company boards,” Bishop stressed. “Government can encourage, support and educate,” but in the end, “it is a matter for shareholders” to decide.
Is it ever possible for women in Australia to get over their political differences and “cross the aisle” for a common cause? Bishop recalled that some time back, women senators from five political parties worked together for the passage of new rules governing the use and licensing of the so-called “morning-after pill.”
“It’s possible,” she conceded, although, with elections looming, it doesn’t seem as if sisterhood will prevail anytime soon.