Female quotas a step toward tackling toxic workplace culture — inside and outside parliament

When it comes to the federal Coalition government's cabinet, its a case of jobs for the boys.

There’s another blue in the Liberal Party — and this time it is about quotas and the bullying culture towards women.

Federal MP Ann Sudmalis’ decision on September 17 to out NSW Liberal Gareth Ward for his alleged pattern of “narcissistic revenge” towards her has added fuel to the fire that erupted during the leadership challenge.

When Liberal senator Lucy Gichuhi threatened to reveal the bullies who wanted her to sign leadership aspirant Peter Dutton’s death warrant for Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister Scott Morrison tried to make light of it all, describing it as a “muppet show”.

He might have been able to bully Gichuhi into staying quiet, but he has not silenced others, with minister for women Kelly O’Dwyer and former deputy party leader Julie Bishop having spoken out about the bullying culture inside the Liberals.

It would be wrong to believe that female MPs are incapable of bullying or that parliamentary quotas will necessarily deliver more progressive policy.

However, there is value in pushing for a deeper national discussion about how gender inequality can help reinforce a toxic workplace culture (and vice versa), and what can be done to change this.

So far, Craig Laundy, a Turnbull supporter, seems to be the only Liberal MP to support quotas. He has been roundly opposed by deputy PM Josh Frydenberg and Morrison, who said: “I believe in any political organisation it should be a matter of one’s own credibility, exertion, work and merit … I don’t think quotas are a way of removing obstacles.”

Morrison instead favours programs to help women win preselections and to help them “understand what’s expected of them” once they reach parliament.

What? As one commentator asked, “How’s it feel to be PM-splained?”

Morrison believes the Liberal Party will achieve a 50:50 target by 2025, although that is looking pretty doubtful given the exodus of women and the preselection of a man in Wentworth.

Currently, less than 25% of federal Liberal MPs are women, and that figure has declined since the Howard years. Labor, with a quota system, has 48% women’s representation.

The argument that quotas eliminate merit is a furphy.

Who believes that all male MPs got their position on merit?

Under a quota system, women would still compete for any given job based on their experience and qualifications.

Quotas can be a form of progressive discrimination that can break down the entrenched discrimination and stereotyping that deny women positions on merit.

Importantly, it can help in the battle against bullying and misogyny in the workplace.

Granted, looking at the current parliament this is hard to imagine.

But it is still a recommendation by the Australian Human Rights Commission. Its 2017 paper, Gender segregation in the workplace and its impact on women’s economic equality, found that mentoring women on “how to get ahead in a male dominated world” (Morrison's solution) had little impact unless systems and practices were “disrupted”.

It found that gender segregation in the workplace has been a persistent feature of the Australian economy for more than 20 years, and this is not reducing over time.

Women are also still “significantly under-represented” in senior leadership positions across the public, private and community sectors and in parliament.

It also called for a report to be prepared for the federal parliament on “special measures to reduce gender segregation” in the workplace.

Quotas will not — on their own — eradicate sexism and misogyny from parliament or any other workplace. But they can help to redress the effects of systemic workplace discrimination against women in hiring, training and promotion.

Quotas can also be an essential part of tackling the institutional barriers that relegate women to lower-paid and less secure jobs.

Requiring organisations to remove barriers to women’s participation in their structures to meet the quota can also lead to other steps towards eliminating intractable sex segregation in employment.

Rectifying women’s under-representation in public positions — which quotas can do — can help chip away at the walls of misogyny that are ferociously defended by those currently hugely overrepresented in parliament.