On 17 June 1911, five days before the coronation of King George V, the British suffragettes organised the largest women’s suffrage march ever held in Britain. The date was strategic, as the coronation had centred world attention on London that week. Some 40,000 people marched from Westminster to the Albert Hall that day and at the very front of the march were contingents from New Zealand and Australia. It was a great endorsement of Australasian emancipation of women, for we were the first countries in the world to respectively give women the right to vote and to stand for parliament. (The Australian banner was rediscovered in the 1980’s and was bought by our government. It now hangs in Parliament House, Canberra.) Just three years later this focus on women’s rights was lost as nationalistic fervour and jingoism precipitated us into World War 1.
Fast forward over a century and Australia has made pitiful progress. Australia, once the trailblazer of women’s emancipation, now lies 48th in the percentage of women in their national parliament at just 30%. Worse, in Cabinet, where the power resides and the big decisions are developed, women are outnumbered five to one. It should be therefore not be surprising that Australian women are disadvantaged. From sexism, pay inequality, higher hours of work and family violence, Australia is found wanting. As a Christian, I find this inequality morally unacceptable, but morality aside, the side-lining of women robs society of perspective and wisdom. The correlation with business success and inclusion of women on management boards is a well-recognised example of the acumen that women bring to the table.
The management of Coronavirus is another good example. While Australia has done well in addressing the pandemic, arguably because National and State leadership cooperated so well with a single vision based on expert science, for me the global standouts have been the success of countries with women at the helm. The women who lead Taiwan, Germany and New Zealand have shown us that you don’t need aggressive, macho behaviour to deal with difficult, particularly emotional issues. Jacinda Ardern, in particular, seems to have brought to politics a kinder, more honest and inclusive style that stands in stark contrast with the strident, bullying and untruthful model that has held sway in some quarters in recent years. If you haven’t seen them already, I’d encourage you to look at two short videos of Ardern where she talks about and demonstrates empathic leadership.
She seems to me to reflect elements of that revolutionary mystic who criss-crossed Palestine in three whirlwind years some 2000 years ago, advocating for the poor and marginalised and, long before it was acceptable, the inclusivity of women as equals in society.
My hope is that leaders around the world and those who vote for them might see that there is a kinder more inclusive way to lead us to a better sort of society. Perhaps we can job share or have a four day week. Perhaps we can live more simply, consume less, waste less and not feel we have to tick off those ‘bucket list’ must do’s. My gut feeling is that this will not be achieved while we are under-represented in our parliaments by women, who qualities of empathy, gentleness and collaboration will be sorely needed in the post-Coronavirus world.