In the run-up to this month's Australian election, Tony Abbott was called everything in the feminist lexicon: a misogynist, a sexist, blokey, you name it. And that's just by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, never mind the half of Australia's 23 million people wondering why their new leader seems to be stuck in the "Mad Men" era.
You would think Abbott, being a politician in this 24/7 news cycle world of ours, would immediately set out to buttress his gender bona fides. Instead, on Monday Abbott announced a new Cabinet that included precisely one woman. The prime minister Abbott replaced, Kevin Rudd, had six. Chris Bowen, the interim leader of Rudd's Labor party, was quick to point out that the government of Afghanistan has more women in its Cabinet than Abbott. Ouch!
As the week wore on, observers curious about who would oversee women's policies and programs were surprised to learn that it would be, well, Abbott. He will get some assistance from West Australian senator Michaelia Cash, and that's great. But all this raises an obvious leadership question: Seriously, Mr. Prime Minister, could your political ear really be this tinny? You'd think the father of three young women might be getting a little flak at home after his first wave of staffing choices.
Jenna Price, co-founder of the feminist movement Destroy the Joint, put it best in a Sydney Morning Herald op-ed today: "At first appearance, it is not exactly like appointing a rumored climate-change denier as the Minister for Science. Or an anti-vaccination fruit loop -- if those people still exist -- as the Minister for Health. It's much worse. Here's why. Mr. Abbott believes men and women have different abilities –- and he considers that position to be evidence-based."
There's a long and cringe-worthy paper trail of Abbottisms about the opposite sex. The gist of all too many is that women lack the aptitude of men. It's just a fact, gals, his attitude suggests -- just deal with.
Sure, in appointing his Cabinet, Abbott can argue he's just being consistent with his philosophy of merit-based appointments. He has indeed railed against tokenism in politics. And, yes, his coalition party is sometimes accused of lacking a strong pipeline of female talent. But Abbott couldn't look outside the party to find some strong ministerial candidates? And does he really think this first week in office is going to encourage lots of able women to join his party?
Gender discrimination dents economic growth. Studies from the International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and McKinsey & Co. all show that nations with high percentages of women in politics and upper management in the corporate sector tend to be more vibrant and entrepreneurial. Sexism is a problem everywhere, the U.S. and U.K. included. But it should bother officials in Canberra that the World Economic Forum ranks Australia behind Burundi and Mozambique in gender equality.
Much of Abbott's focus is on aiding the mining industry to dig ever more resources out of the ground to ship to China. He should think more about a treasure that exists aboveground: Australia's vast store of smart, ambitious women. The "Mad Men" era makes for great TV, but dismal economics.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)