Juliet Dunlop: Gender respect needed more than ever

Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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KEVIN Rudd must be worried. After ousting Australia’s first female prime minister, laughing at all the sexist jokes, belittling her whenever possible and then taking her job, he’s unveiled a Cabinet that’s full of women.

And just in case anyone thought it was because he didn’t have much choice after a series of ministers resigned, he made it clear that the Sheilas – sorry, women – all 11 of them, were appointed on merit. “This is a good time and a good day for Australian women” Rudd declared this week. It must have felt like the ideal opportunity to kill two birds with one stone – one of the birds being Julia Gillard and the other, the notion that politics is a man’s game.

The problem of course, is that politics is still – by and large – a man’s game. In fact, it appears that women may know less about politics than men, are less interested in politics than men, and have less time to care about politics than men. Women, it seems, find politics a bit of a turn-off. If research published this week is to be believed, they’ve tuned out, glazed over and given up the world over. It’s not just Julia Gillard.

The depressing findings stem from a global current affairs study. Researchers tested the knowledge of domestic and international news in Australia, Canada, Colombia, Greece, Italy, Japan, Korea, Norway, the UK and the US. They found that more men than women could identify Angela Merkel, the UN Secretary General and Vladimir Putin. In fact, men knew more about everything from the Taliban to Tiger Woods. Even country specific questions tripped women up. In the UK, women weren’t as clued up as men were about stories ranging from tabloid stings to spending cuts. While men scored an average of 58 per cent, women could only manage 39 per cent. And no matter how wealthy the country, the trend seems to persist. Indeed, the difference is greater in more advanced economies. From Canada to Colombia, women know less.

This bold statement is only based on a quiz of course, but it paints a rather gloomy picture, revealing the sort of dispiriting gender gap that should make women everywhere feel queasy. So, on the basis that the results are accurate, the question is: why are women so deeply disengaged? Sociologists say the results simply reflect how marginalised women feel; that public life is still dominated by men and women don’t feel part of the debate.

That’s why the treatment of Gillard is so damaging. During her three years in charge, she was called among other things, a “witch”, “a bitch” and in one memorable put-down, “deliberately barren”. Her achievements – important social and environmental reforms and the 532 pieces of legislation she guided through a hung parliament – were completely overshadowed by the out and out misogyny she endured. (It won’t surprise you to learn that in Australia, women have been tuning out for some time, according to the study.) After her shock defeat Gillard said she hoped it would now be easier for the next woman and the woman after her, but it’s doubtful. And anyway, what if they’re not interested?

The study certainly supports the argument that they’re not. This, it claims, may be down to how women are portrayed in the media, that female role models are thin on the ground. News coverage is dominated by male voices, male pundits and male experts. There’s a sense women only really make an appearance when producers and editors need someone to talk about so-called soft topics, such as health and childcare. And, as long as women are substantially under-represented in public life, they’ll be less likely to engage with politics. Remember, even in the UK, where gender equality ratings are high, only 23 per cent of MPs are women.

So, has a new political divide opened up? No, probably not. But this research does confirm an important fact: that women are in danger of turning their backs on the big debates that decide how we all live our lives. And if the constant chipping away of Julia Gillard is to teach us anything, it should be that treating women in public life with same respect accorded to men, is more important than it has ever been.