Glass ceilings smashing? We need quotas to close the gender gap

The participation of women in the Australian film and television industries hasn’t been steadily increasing in all fields. ABC

So Tony Abbott thinks women have “smashed just about every glass-ceiling” in Australia – and yet, the ceiling still bears down on many of us.

During the recent G20 summit the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, appeared on the ABC’s Q&A , during which she showed support for quotas.

I have said it before and I will say it again. As a young women I used to be opposed to quotas but the harsh reality of working in a large international law firm changed my mind.

Lagarde said she backed quotas for women on boards because they “change the landscape”; adding that there was a role for men in such reforms:

I believe it is not something that will be a women’s business or a women’s affair, but it is going to be a human affair.

Despite overwhelming evidence and recognition that gender inequities persist as a feature of the Australian employment landscape, there are mixed feelings about the idea of quotas – whether for board membership or more broadly. Many women (and women’s advocacy groups) are divided on the issue of gender quotas; indeed some feminist groups don’t support them.

Everyone wants women to get opportunities on their merits — but the problem is that they don’t, and that is the reason quotas are needed. The Abbott Government, we all know, could only line up one woman in Cabinet. Women make up only 17.6 % of board members on Australia’s top 200 companies. That is not equality.

The problem caused by quotas is that they create the impression, or allow it to be said, that a woman might have got somewhere not because of her talent, but because of her gender. But it is time to bite the bullet and go to quotas anyway because otherwise, nothing will ever change.

Yes, companies now have to report on the numbers of women on boards; yes, we have seen programs such as the Women’s Film Fund – established in 1976 and ended in 1988 – but, as I’ve argued before, many of the women recipients felt everyone thought they’d had their hand held by the government rather than achieving success along normal commercial lines.

Anecdotally, it is often assumed a lot of women are in the creative industries. But in the Australian film and television industries, the participation of women hasn’t been steadily increasing in all fields, and in some it has actually declined. Figures published by Screen Australia show that in 2006 24% of directors for film, TV, radio or stage were women, but by 2011 this had declined to 23%.

This is a solid increase on 20 years ago – in 1985/6 women made up only 7% of film and TV industry directors – but the advances seemed to stall somewhere around the new millennium.

This situation is echoed globally. There weren’t any women nominated for Best Director in the 2014 Academy Awards, and Kathryn Bigelow remains the only woman ever to win one, in 2010 (and she is only one of four ever nominated, including New Zealand’s Jane Campion, for her 1993 film The Piano).

So what are the benefits of having quotas for more women? Drawing on all our available talent rather than just half of it offers a higher quality workforce and increases innovation. Greater diversity also has implications for the range of possible leaderships styles and approaches.

In film and TV industries, when women hold the key creative roles of producer, writer and director, they create more female protagonists. Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, brought to the screen by Deborah Cox and Fiona Eagger, with a large number of female writers and directors, and Offspring, created by Debra Oswald, Imogen Banks and John Edwards, are examples of this.

Stories from female viewpoints better reflect their audience, and promote greater social diversity and inclusion. These productions have proved innovative and popular, so there is a business case for increasing women’s participation—and it seems, to increase the numbers of women, you need to start by getting greater female involvement.

In Australian audiovisual industries senior women have lobbied extensively for women to take up more leadership positions. Producer Sue Maslin (Japanese Story, The Dressmaker) noted that women made up just 4.9% of all directors of media companies in 2010 and argued, quoting Naomi Milgrom, (Owner of Sussan Retail Group):

Women in leadership roles never come about spontaneously. It requires a culture that supports women. It only happens when leaders of companies create policies and initiatives to stimulate such a culture.

Lots of people, men included, argue that they want equality.

While acknowledging that quotas cause some problems, the time has come to institute them. It isn’t acceptable that gender is a barrier to advancement. Quotas currently exist in numerous European countries such as France, Norway, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium, and they are improving the participation of women, so we are trailing behind.

If we don’t establish them, Australia has less chance of achieving the diverse, innovative, socially inclusive and ethical qualities a civil society of 2014 should embrace.


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