Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Article in the Age

Too little honour for the world and work of women

Carol Schwartz

February 8, 2012

Caring professions are being ignored in our awards system.

Another Australia Day, another round of fireworks and another honours list. Another evocation of the qualities Australia admires and the fields that Australians look up to, from which we can deduce that Australians think the things men do are twice as worthy as the things that women do.

As in previous years, fewer than a third of the names on the Australia Day honours list are women. As in previous years, women are given more awards in the lowest grades than in the higher.

When Gough Whitlam brought in Australian honours in 1975 to replace knights, dames, the Order of St Michael and St George, the British Empire Medal, and all the baggage of the British court, he wanted to show the world that Australians had a proud record of achievement, a vigorous culture, and a diverse society. In those first years the proportion of women on the list was less than 20 per cent, yes, but back then that was a progressive achievement. Half a lifetime later we've painfully inched up to 30 per cent, nearly all that gain coming in the 1990s.

What's particularly discouraging is that the situation is now actually getting worse. The peak came in 2003, and the trend line is now dropping by about 2 per cent a decade. Just sitting back and hoping for women to achieve fair, equal recognition is not going to be enough.

Much of this disproportion arises from the unquestioned fact that recognition of women's contributions lags in other areas of Australian life. About a tenth of the list are professors, and women make up nine out of those 43. Doctors make up about another eighth, and women make up 11 out of that 54. About an eighth of the awards are for services to business or industry, and women make up just two out of those 55. If those three sectors rewarded women at the current average rate - not half-and-half, just no worse than other sectors - we would already be a third of the way to full equality.

It's also notable that the areas of Australian life where women are dominant are almost completely missing from the awards. If we turn our minds to people who do good for others, just about the first images that come to mind would be nurses and teachers. Both professions are weighted towards women. Yet nursing gets a bare four mentions in the Australia Day honours list, while teaching gets three (all of them in the field of teaching the arts rather than firing the imaginations of 20 unruly schoolchildren desperate for recess). There's one therapist on the list. There are no social workers. It would be easy for a foreigner to come away with the impression that Australia had more professional sportspeople than care workers.

Nobody is suggesting a conspiracy. Women who are nominated are given awards - even if they are predominantly the less elevated awards - at a higher rate than men. It's just that women simply don't get nominated often enough. Australians - men and women - get their impression of the kind of people who should be nominated for awards by looking at people who received the awards in the past, and the stereotypes are self-perpetuating.

Public role models are to be found in more than a few sectors, and at every level of every hierarchy.

Only by widening our concepts will we be able to open up the field, and it's only by opening up the field that women are going to have a chance to reach equality in the presentation of gold wattle brooches with a little crown on top.

Women who make it in this society have had to do much more to reach the same elevation as their male peers, and deserve their weighting in the nomination process. There's no theoretical reason why women should not make up half the honours lists.

Women's Leadership Institute Australia and Our Community are doing something to help rebalance the situation, but we can all do much more. There's nothing stopping any one of us from picking out from our acquaintanceships the women we most admire and filling out the forms on their behalf.

True, the disproportion of awards is only a symptom of an underlying fault - but if we get together to fix this, that will get us a large part of the way to the kinds of organisational infrastructure we need.

Australian women are not less talented than Australian men, or worse leaders, or less public-spirited. What we are, unarguably, is worse at organising networks for official recognition of those in our networks. Come on, let's just do it. If every thousandth woman in Australia downloads the nomination forms now, we can get this thing sorted overnight (quicker still if men get on board, too). And there aren't many social problems that are that easy to fix.

Carol Schwartz is chair, Women's Leadership Institute, Australia.

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