Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, depicted lying naked under the nation’s flag after having sex in her office with her hairdresser boyfriend, is interrupted by a colleague who is knocking at the door.
The fictional Gillard in the national broadcaster’s “At Home With Julia” television comedy is finding respect hard to come by, much like her real-life counterpart, whose support has fallen by half since she became Australia’s first female prime minister 15 months ago. The plunge in the polls and the parody of Gillard’s private life have reignited a debate on chauvinism in a country that, 116 years after granting women the vote, has only one female chief executive officer of its 30 biggest companies.
“We’ve come a long way in gender equity, but there are significant pockets of change still needed,” said Catharine Lumby, a feminist author and director of the Journalism and Media Research Centre at Sydney’s University of New South Wales. “The corporate sector is a holdout and it’s disgraceful.”
From the Reserve Bank of Australia’s board, where men have outnumbered women 57 to three, to corporate directorships, women still struggle for influence in Australia, which fielded its first female political candidate in 1897, decades before most Western nations granted universal suffrage. The failure to use this “hidden resource” is costing the A$1.3 trillion ($1.3 trillion) economy as much as 13 percent in lost annual production, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. economists estimate.
Australia ranked 44th for the proportion of women in the workforce, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report last year. The average weekly wage for women in Australia in the three months ended May was A$1,150, 18 percent less than the A$1,398 for men. In the U.S., women who usually worked full time had median weekly earnings of $689 in the second quarter, 16.5 percent less than the $825 median for men.
Australia, a former prison colony and outpost of the British Empire, developed a reputation for tough outback men typified by Paul Hogan’s reptile-wrestling hero of the 1986 movie “Crocodile Dundee.” Critics such as Lumby say the Australian creed of “mateship” -- male friendship that typically excludes women -- is partly to blame for the imbalance of women in the workforce.
“I’ve always thought the Australian culture is blokey,” Gillard, 49, said in an interview with Bloomberg News last week. “It’s not acceptable to me in the modern age that we can look at boards of major corporations and not see one woman.”
At 8.4 percent, Australia’s female board representation lagged behind major English-speaking nations, according to a 2010 census of women in S&P/ASX 200 Index companies by the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency in Sydney. That was almost half South Africa’s 16.6 percent, and behind the U.S.’s 15.2 percent, Canada’s 14 percent, the U.K.’s 9 percent and New Zealand’s 8.7 percent. Australia had a lower proportion of women in executive management than the U.K., Canada, U.S, and South Africa, the study found.
Critics include Quentin Bryce, the country’s first female governor general, the de facto head of state. Like Gillard, the 68-year-old Bryce has been parodied by state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corp. -- in the comedy show “Chaser’s War on Everything” in 2009.
The sketch highlighted Bryce’s inability to take up the traditional honorary membership of the men-only Melbourne Club, with members being asked for donations to pay for her to have a sex change. After a life-sized replica doll is tossed over the club’s back wall at the end of the skit, comedian Julian Morrow declares: “That is a victory for women everywhere.”
Bryce said on the eve of International Women’s Day on March 8 this year that companies should meet quotas of women in the workforce and management.
World Bank Quotas
Ana Revenga, Washington-based co-author of the World Bank’s ‘World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development’ released on Sept. 18, said the bank also supports the idea of quotas to get female representation to at least 30 percent. “You have to change beliefs and if the belief is women don’t make effective board members, then one way to break it is to have a quota,” she said.
Revenga said employing more women in Australia could lift output per worker by 4 percent to 8 percent.
Westpac Banking Corp.’s Gail Kelly, the sole female CEO in Australia’s top 30 companies by market value, argued last week against board quotas and in favor of the “name and shame” approach taken by Australia’s stock exchange. Under new rules this year, the ASX requires companies to set and report targets for gender diversity at board and senior management level.
The Australian Institute of Company Directors says the proportion of women on boards of S&P/ASX 200 Index companies rose to 13 percent in August, from 8.3 percent in January 2010.
Gillard, whose popularity peaked at 48 percent weeks after she took office in June last year, was backed by just 23 percent at the start of this month, making her the nation’s least popular leader in 18 years. The disapproval is throwing up hurdles to her agenda that includes new taxes on carbon emissions and mining companies such as BHP Billiton Ltd.
Worse than the TV parody are the attacks on her private life, according to feminist and author Germaine Greer.
“The jibes about Gillard that upset me are the ones about her childlessness, the ones about her relationship, the assumption that there is a kind of heterosexual norm that she is somehow an escapee from,” Greer said Sept. 12 on ABC’s “Q&A” program, which debated the topic “Women on Top.”
Empty Fruit Bowl
As Gillard’s national profile increased in 2005, she was criticized after posing alone for a photograph in the kitchen of her Melbourne home, backed by stark benchtops and an empty fruit bowl. Six years later, opposition Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott was photographed in his kitchen with wife Margie, surrounded by food, dishes and a bowl full of fruit.
Gillard’s policies are proving least popular in Queensland and Western Australia, where the nation’s biggest resources-investment boom in more than a century has swollen remote mining towns with male workers, reinforcing the gender divide.
In Kalgoorlie, 600 kilometers (373 miles) inland from Western Australia’s state capital, Perth, workers in bars are served by topless barmaids or women dressed in nothing but black lace underwear.
“That’s why we come here,” says Stephen Hucks, a 23-year-old tradesman for the Sunrise Dam gold mine as he ordered a beer at the town’s Rec hotel. “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Those attitudes contrast with Australia’s efforts to legislate for sex equality, including new passport rules this month that allow citizens to nominate their official gender as male, female or indeterminate, without having to undergo surgery as proof of a sex change.
Some of the strongest attacks on Gillard stem from her decision to proceed with a carbon tax after pledging not to do so before last year’s election. Her Labor party lost its parliamentary majority at the Aug. 21, 2010, poll, forcing her to form an alliance with independents and the Greens party, led by Bob Brown, to stay in power.
Protesters bearing placards reading “Ditch the Witch” and “Ju-Liar -- Bob Brown’s Bitch” have dotted anti-government rallies in recent months.
“You look at the body language and some of the placards held at those rallies and I think there’s a degree of misogyny and sexism,” said Haydon Manning, an associate professor in the Department of Politics and Public Policy at Flinders University in Adelaide. Manning described “At Home With Julia” as voyeurism and low-rent comedy.
Some political analysts, such as Nick Economou at Melbourne’s Monash University, say Gillard’s slumping popularity has more to do with her broken election promises and her party’s decision to dump Kevin Rudd in her favor in June last year.
“You have to accept that when you get the prime ministership in the way that she did, that when you fail as miserably in a federal election as she did, and when you lead such a poor government as she does, that the press are going to give you a hard time,” said Economou, co-author of “Media, Power and Politics in Australia.”
Economou disputes the notion that Gillard is marked harder because she is a woman, saying former Prime Minister John Howard “copped it mercilessly” from the press.
“Chaser’s War” would ambush Howard on his morning walk, once with a comedian wielding an axe to parody an earlier security lapse when a student holding a screwdriver embraced the prime minister. In the 1980s, “Rubbery Figures” and the Gilles Report lampooned then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke, Treasurer Paul Keating and opposition Liberal leaders.
Female politicians have led every Australian state government except South Australia, all from Gillard’s ruling Labor party, where women now represent more than 36 percent of federal lawmakers.
“I don’t think it’s a particular challenge in Australia” to be a woman leader, Gillard said in the interview. “In my lifetime I have lived through a revolution in women’s prospects, outlooks and opportunities. So much has changed.”
Marie Coleman of the National Foundation for Australian Women in Canberra, and the first woman to head a Commonwealth Government statutory agency, said a male prime minister like Howard and his wife wouldn’t be subject to the type of ridicule in the series. “They would never have commissioned something as puerile as this and called it ‘At Home With John and Janette,’” she said.
Gillard told ABC radio on Sept. 21 that she watched only the first episode, in which her character, played by Amanda Bishop, and partner, portrayed by Phil Lloyd, have their plans for a romantic dinner spoiled by alliance politicians.
“I’ve got more to do than sit around watching ABC TV,” Gillard said.