“My advice was to give two votes per farm, initiate time-limited leadership positions, and introduce gender awareness training for industry bodies. The most radical recommendation I gave was bodies that do not represent gender equity should not be given government funding. Now that is the one that will really shake them up.”
Professor Margaret Alston, Director of Charles Sturt University’s (CSU) Centre for Rural Social Research is talking about her recommendations to the Federal Government’s Inquiry into Women’s Representation on Rural and Regional Bodies of Influence.
The report is expected to be released next week.
“I have a lot of confidence in Senator Judith Troeth [who is chairing the Inquiry] to deliver something that will be valid and viable. She may have some problems convincing her colleagues, but I have a lot of faith in her presenting something that may rattle a few cages. Because it is very complacent up there at the top. And agriculture is very much a male-dominated industry that doesn’t operate to its full potential.”
The Government says the Inquiry was necessary because despite efforts since the 1990s to increase women’s participation, the proportion of women on decision-making bodies has not improved.
Why did these programs fail? Professor Alston, author of Breaking Through the Grass Ceiling, was invited to present to the Inquiry earlier this year.
Professor Alston says leadership programs for women can backfire. “We don’t have leadership programs for men. It seems to me that women have to do a leadership program before they will be accepted as leadership candidates. And it is focussing on women as the problem rather than the organisational structures as the problem.”
The Government cites the range of factors inhibiting change as a relatively conservative social environment, women’s qualifications not being utilised to their full extent, and organisational structures and cultures. Professor Alston agrees. “I call it the culture in agriculture, something as basic as farms being passed down from male to male will automatically shut women out of industry politics.
“The Minister appoints on advice from industry bodies, for example NSW Farmers. And they have almost always had an all-male board, partly because there is only one vote given per farm. A lot of the industry bodies hold meetings in pubs after hours, again that is women unfriendly. No time limit on executive positions is a really effective way to keep power in exclusive hands. The barriers are extraordinary.”
Women in rural Australia are more likely than men to have higher formal qualifications, and contribute 48 per cent of real farm income. As well, overseas research has found that companies with diverse boards that included women have better business returns and better corporate governance. Professor Alston says equity alone should be a strong enough argument to increase women’s representation on bodies of influence, but economic rationalists often required more.
“So the second argument is that economic performance will improve if you draw on the potential of your entire constituency. And you can go to a third level where you would argue that women bring a perspective that is much broader. Rural health for example is the sort of issue that tends to occupy women’s minds because they are more engaged in community affairs. Health, education and social issues are brought to the table.”