The new head of Diversity Council Australia says more must be done to address a “deficit of women in leadership” in the federal parliament while suggesting Tony Abbott should begin by removing himself as the minister for women.
Lisa Annese, who will begin her tenure as the council’s CEO at the beginning of next month, says debate over gender equality and the need for more women in senior roles, and in the parliament more generally, had waned after Mr Abbott came to power.
While the gender debate came to the fore during the term of former prime minister Julia Gillard, culminating in her “misogyny speech” in reaction to perceived sexism from the then opposition leader, Ms Annese said public discourse had since reverted to the “status quo”.
“I think just by nature of the gender of the prime minister that we’re not talking about his gender, which I think is very telling,” she told AAP.
“There was so much focus, because Julia Gillard was a woman, on language that was used and the way she was treated. I suppose we’ve been returned to the status quo, and that’s comfortable for people, and they’re not confronted or challenged in terms of their values.”
Ms Annese said there remained an obvious “deficit of women in leadership” in Australia, and in particular in politics, which must be addressed.
“I think if anyone was to look at the make-up of our parliament, regardless of political persuasion, they would have to look at it and say it doesn’t really represent the fact that 51 per cent of the population is female.”
“In any other context, you would think that disproportionate ratio was a bit alarming.”
Ms Annese also criticised Mr Abbott’s decision to appoint himself as the minister for women, despite having talented women at his disposal, such as the West Australian senator Michaelia Cash, who she described as “a bit of a dynamo”.
“My personal view would be that the minister for women should be a woman and we actually have a fabulous minister assisting Tony Abbott in Senator Michaelia Cash,” she said.
The comments came as the Greens on Thursday called for Mr Abbott to step down as the minister for women after controversy on Wednesday when the prime minister winked and smiled while taking a radio talkback call from a woman who revealed she worked on a phone sex line to make ends meet.
Mr Abbott has said he will not resign from the position.
Asked her opinion of Mr Abbott, Ms Annese said it was of concern when people in a position of power made “unfortunate comments reflecting women” whether or not they are malicious or because of a lack of understanding.
“We need to keep having the discussion so that we can continue to educate our leaders into understanding what is a respectful discourse and how do we truly value women in the same way we value men,” she said.