07 July 2013

Labour's gender woes

Which is worse? Reporters speculating about a change of party leader, or a pointless public row about gender-exclusive candidate selection? Either way, the Labour Party has been the author of its own woes (again!)
Maybe another day I'll venture into the tricky territory of the party leadership. Today, I'll navigate the minefield of gender-inequality and politics...
First, some facts about the numbers in the Labour caucus. Fourteen out of 34 Labour MPs are women. That's 41%. Not bad, as it's above average for Parliament as a whole (in which one third of MPs are women).
There's surely some merit in aiming for a 50/50 gender balance: it makes the caucus more representative of the population, and it signifies that selection processes do not discourage women from participation. But the problem is how to get there. Looking at the difference between Labour's list and electorate MP's is instructive. Among the list MPs it's 50/50 male/female (six of each). But among the electorate MPs, there are eight women (36%) and 14 men.
You don't need a degree in maths to see that the area needing attention, if an overall gender balance of numbers in caucus is the aim, is the electorates. Why should the party list have to be used as the 'ballast' for getting an equal weighting of women into the House? There's a range of competing 'diversity' and other aims that the list has to meet.
The selection of electorate candidates is a competitive process. There are likely to be internal factions and favourites, but selectors also have to think about which candidate voters will back. A smartly-dressed, articulate wasp-ish male may look like the 'safest' bet, if thinking about appeal to local voters. But, by no means all of Labour's electorate MP's fall into that category, so not all electorate selection processes can be conservatively biased in that way.
A gender bias in the way we perceive others means that both men and women judge women more harshly than men for adopting tough or authoritative opinions and behaviours. Women university lecturers, for instance, get judged more harshly by students (of both genders) for being 'tough'. Women, it seems, are expected to be 'nice'. Men get away with 'tough'.
Then there's the Gillard experience. Julia Gillard bravely said recently that, in spite of the hatred and misogyny aimed at her, she has made it easier for the next woman, and the next etc. Well, yes, but her experience is also highly off-putting for the potential 'next woman leader'. In business and in politics, women leaders are publicly scrutinised in quite different ways from men. Her looks, her figure, her sexuality, and even the sexuality of her partner, become matters of intense speculation for male and female reporters and readers, in a way that would not apply to a white man in a dark suit. This double-standard is unfortunately coupled with an alarming animosity that spews forth from the loony minority of embittered cave-men who simply hate any powerful woman. These men are so insecure that any form of feminine power makes them fear castration. Freud would understand; but Shane Jones's recent reference to geldings illustrates the point well enough for now.
Further, it has become fashionable to dismiss any kind of affirmative action these days. Many women (let alone men) disavow or reject anything that might look or sound 'feminist'. Indeed, one gets a lot of mileage in the media if one ridicules any such ideas. After all, women can cut it in the real world of competitive business and politics, and it is argued that they don't need protective or special measures any longer. Such opinions are upheld even in spite of the evidence of real-world inequality of outcomes across gender.
Back to Labour, then: A provision allowing local electorate committees to ban male candidates from selection processes is too blunt a means to achieve the stated goal; and it could have negative consequences if the selection process gets a bad press and voters lose confidence. Surely there are other means to develop and encourage women candidates and leaders, without inviting ridicule.


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