Managing gender: The 2010 federal election

Marian Sawer, The Australian National University

The 2010 federal election was the first in Australia in which a woman prime minister was campaigning for the re-election of her government. Paradoxically her party had no women’s policy, or at least did not launch one publicly, and when her new ministry was announced the status of women portfolio was overlooked and the number of women ministers fell (slightly). Despite the avoidance of any policy focus on gender issues, gender was a significant undercurrent in the election, as reflected in consistent gender gaps in public opinion and voting intention. Unusually, the management of gender turned out to be more of a problem for a male than for a female leader.


Fewer women than men approved of Abbott, and this gap increased during the campaign.

Gender was expected to feature importantly in the campaign, given the contest between Julia Gillard as Australia’s first woman prime minister and Tony Abbott, a hyper-masculine opposition leader and ironman triathlete noted for his opposition to abortion. Abbott’s persona was as an ‘action man’ always ready to don lycra and a helmet for some strenuous sporting activity (the Coalition campaign slogan was ‘Real action’) quite apart from his previous inclination to tell Australian women how they should live their lives. While the Abbott persona might have been useful in a contest with Kevin Rudd, who was to be framed as ‘all talk and no action’, it was less useful in a contest with Julia Gillard. It required various forms of softening, particularly through references to the women in his life but also through less aggressive presentation.

Considerable attention was paid to the gender gaps in approval of Gillard and Abbott during the campaign, particularly the relatively low female approval for Tony Abbott. For example, Newspoll showed consistent gender gaps on the ‘better prime minister’ question. Fewer women than men approved of Abbott, and this gender gap increased during the campaign (see Table 1). More women than men approved of Julia Gillard, but the gender gap was smaller (Newspoll and The Australian 2010). Nielsen showed similar gender gaps in approval of Abbott and Gillard, with Abbott having the wider gender gap (Nielsen 2010).

Table 1: Gender gap on ‘Who would make the better Prime Minister?’, 2010
  Date Male Female
Julia Gillard 23–25 July, 30 July–1 Aug 49 52
30 July–1 Aug, 6–8 Aug 47 52
Tony Abbott 23–25 July, 30 July–1 Aug 38 31
30 July–1 Aug, 6–8 Aug 39 30
Source: Newspoll and The Australian (2010)

In general qualities associated with leadership (strength, authority, decisiveness) are regarded as male traits and double standards are often applied to women displaying such traits (as illustrated by the ‘Attila the Hen’ description of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher). Women leaders generally have to work harder to manage their gender. If they are consultative and consensus-seeking they will be regarded as feminine and not tough enough for leadership. If they mimic what is regarded as a masculine leadership style they are regarded as strident and overly ambitious (Kellerman & Rhode 2007, p. 7). The fact that there was a larger gender gap in approval of Abbott than of Gillard suggests that, unusually, the male leader had the greater problem in managing gender. His portrayal of invincibility and invulnerability did not work in his favour, at least among women, while Gillard’s leadership style was more likely to appeal both to men and women, even if particularly to women.

Gillard studiously avoided gender issues.

Roy Morgan’s ‘polligraph’, used on Channel 7 to show gendered reaction to the Leaders’ debate on 25 July, attracted considerable attention. The polligraph (pink and blue worms) showed women reacting more favourably to Gillard than men and less favourably to Abbott, except when Abbott was talking about his paid parental leave package. The Leaders’ debate was promptly followed by what looked like an attempt to counter Gillard’s advantage among women voters. Veteran political journalist Laurie Oakes was the recipient of yet another leak, this one to the effect that Gillard had opposed paid parental leave and the rise in the age pension when they came up in cabinet. Gillard’s response to this leak—that she had simply been being ‘financially responsible’ when querying the cost of paid parental leave and the old-age pension increase—was in accord with much of the tenor of her campaign, which seemed to be aimed primarily at male voters. Her focus on financial competence or ‘managing the economy’ accorded with the policy priorities usually identified with male rather than female voters, who generally place more emphasis on health and education (that is, on social expenditure rather than cuts to it) (Roy Morgan Research 2010). It may well be that given the continuing gender gap in voting intentions (Figures 1 and 2) there was a conscious decision to focus on male voters. The ‘modern gender gap’, with women to the left of men on voting intentions, has appeared both in North America and Europe (Inglehart & Norris 2000) and has been evident in New Zealand since 1996. While the Australian Election Study has been showing less male than female support for the Coalition since 2001 (Bean & McAllister 2009, p. 209), the commercial polls continued to show a ‘traditional gender gap’ (women to the right of men), for example in 2007.

Figure 1: Voting intention by gender, Coalition and Greens, 2007–2010
Source: Newspoll and The Australian (2010)

Others were more concerned at the possible effects of the leak on women’s votes and the boost it provided to Abbott’s campaign. In Victoria, 45 prominent women signed a letter to The Age (published 10 August 2010) warning that Abbott’s views and past policies would undermine the respect and equality women had fought to achieve and that there was good reason to fear that he would again try to impose his religious beliefs. Various incidents during the campaign seemed to confirm such fears, such as Abbott inappropriately seizing on the anti-rape campaign slogan ‘No means no’ to attack Julia Gillard. When the media, in turn, seized upon his repeated reference to the slogan, Abbott accused Labor of a smear campaign to discredit him with women voters (Leslie 2010).

Figure 2: Coalition two-party preferred vote by gender, 2010 election campaign
Source Nielsen, courtesy John Stirton

Gillard herself studiously avoided gender issues including this one. She did benefit from the glamorous cover stories provided by Women’s Weekly, Women’s Day and New Idea and from the enthusiasm among many women, in particular, that a woman had at last reached the top job (see Figure 3). Was Gillard, nonetheless, singled out for gendered criticism? Her private life was subjected to an extraordinary level of scrutiny, with even her ‘de facto’s’ traffic offences becoming a front-page story in The Daily Telegraph (30 July 2010). Tony Abbott’s references to knowing what it was like to bring up a family (for example his first words in the Leader’s debate) and his use of his eldest daughter Louise in the campaign were seen as a reminder to voters that Gillard was unmarried and childless and hence supposedly out of touch on family issues. In 2007 Coalition Senator Bill Heffernan had suggested that Gillard was unsuitable to lead the nation because she was ‘deliberately barren’ (Sawer 2009, p. 171).

Figure 3
Source: Pam Debenham, Canberra artist

Some went further, for the benefit of those who might forget that Gillard was not only out of touch with Australian families but also living in sin. While religious leaders largely abstained when asked to comment on Gillard’s ‘de facto’ status, Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby was quick to say both that it would be ‘a factor in the way that many Christians vote’ and that Christians would be hoping ‘her own arrangements’ did not preclude Ms Gillard from empathising with traditional families wrestling with ‘issues integral to raising children’ (Morris 2010). The leader of the Family First Senate ticket in Queensland proclaimed that a prime minister in a de facto relationship was ‘not role-model material’ (Caldwell 2010).

Neither major party appeared to produce a women’s policy for the 2010 election.

The emphasis on Abbott’s family credentials and Gillard’s supposed lack of them is strongly reminiscent of the television advertisement used by the New Zealand National Party in 1999, which introduced its Leader as ‘mother of Ben and Anna, a wife and the New Zealand Prime Minister’. The intention was to remind the electorate that the Labor Leader, Helen Clark, was not a mother and hence couldn’t understand traditional family values or the issues involved in running a family (Dore 1999). Clark differed from Gillard in that she did marry her partner, academic Peter Davis, before entering parliament, under pressure from senior Labour Party officials. Gillard not only did not marry she did not cook, leaving that to her partner. However her lack of interest in the kitchen was not interpreted as contempt for the values of ‘homemakers’, as had happened to Hillary Clinton in 1992. Clinton was forced to repair her gender image by entering a recipe in a ‘bake-off’.


Despite the advent of Australia’s first woman prime minister neither the Coalition nor Labor appeared to have produced a women’s policy for the 2010 election nor any overall plan for achieving gender equality. This was in a context where the gender pay gap was widening, where there had been a major childcare crisis and where the participation of women in public decision-making was going backwards relative to other democracies. However, in one of the best-kept secrets of the campaign Labor did actually produce a policy, called Equality for Women and released it the day before the election, but without telling anybody. It was not included in the list of policies on the ALP website, but could be located if you knew the name of the policy, although perhaps none did outside the Minister’s office before the actual election.

Labor also launched two specific policies. At a conference on ‘Women, Management and Work’ in Sydney, on 29 July, Minister for the Status of Women Tanya Plibersek announced a policy to increase the number of women on boards through scholarships in the private sector and a 40 per cent target for federal government boards. On 9 August she launched in Melbourne ‘Federal Labor’s National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children’, a plan resulting from two years of consultation and evidence collection. There was a funding commitment of $44.5 million over four years, maintaining spending in this policy area (previous funding included $50.3 million for the Partnerships against Domestic Violence Strategy 1997–2005, followed by $75.7 million for the Women’s Safety Agenda 2005–09).

The lack of focus on women’s policy was highlighted when the Prime Minister forgot to allocate the Status of Women portfolio when releasing the details of her new ministry on 11 September. By the time the ministry was sworn in by the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, Status of Women had been added to the Employment Participation and Childcare portfolio of Kate Ellis. There was some comment on Ellis’s lack of previous involvement with gender equity issues (Vasek 2010). On the other hand, things were little better on the other side: the previous Coalition Status of Women spokeswoman, Sharman Stone, lost her front-bench position and the portfolio was given to shadow parliamentary secretary, Senator Michaelia Cash, from the Right of the party.

Over the years the status of Status of Women has slipped in Australia.

Over the years the status of Status of Women has slipped in Australia: originally the portfolio was located in the prime minister’s department and carried by the prime minister, with the help of a minister assisting the prime minister (also usually of cabinet rank). In 2004 the portfolio was demoted to a line department but the prime minister continued to have nominal responsibility for it, assisted by a cabinet minister. Under the Rudd and Gillard Governments, the prime minister has no longer claimed the portfolio, which has been left with a junior minister (Tanya Plibersek and then Kate Ellis from September 2010).

The Equality Rights Alliance (ERA), based in the YWCA, represents over 50 women’s advocacy organisations and is one of the six women’s alliances funded by the Rudd Government in 2010 to support policy engagement by women at the national level. Its mode of operation is similar to preceding women’s peak bodies, with its policy work being open to endorsement (or otherwise) by its member organisations but not requiring unanimity. For the election it undertook the kind of rating of party policies previously the domain of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL), which still conducted its own rating exercise. The ERA ratings were arrived at by assessment against policy priorities, which had achieved consensus among member organisations. There were some methodological difficulties caused by late release of funding commitments or inability to provide them, and it seems likely that ERA will switch to the WEL methodology for the next election. On the ERA ratings matrix the Greens did best and the Coalition worst, with the Coalition failing to make any commitment to stronger sex discrimination laws or the improvement of government data collection, meaning data disaggregated by gender, age, location and disability to enable better response to particular needs.

The Coalition’s paid parental leave proposal was more generous than Labor’s, at least for women earning more than the minimum wage, and included superannuation payments as well as being for a longer period (six months rather than eighteen weeks). Nonetheless there was distrust among women’s advocacy organisations of the sudden policy turn-around by the Coalition on the issue. There was also criticism of the Coalition’s proposal that the leave payments be made through the welfare system rather than by employers, on the grounds it would be seen as a form of welfare rather than an employment entitlement. Labor fuelled this distrust through repeated reference to Abbott’s earlier statement that paid parental leave would only happen ‘over this Government’s dead body’ (Knight 2002). It should be noted that in 2003 Abbot was also responsible for the abolition of the Work and Family unit in his Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, accepting the position of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry that such matters should be the subject of negotiation between employers and employees rather than of government policy.

The Greens continued to field most women candidates.

Interestingly, one of the most progressive elements of the Coalition policy, one that was highlighted by the shadow minister in her second reading speech on the government’s Paid Parental Leave Bill, was barely mentioned by Tony Abbott. Sharman Stone stressed that the Coalition would follow Sweden, Iceland and Norway in introducing a ‘use it or lose it’ paternity leave component, to encourage fathers to bond with their new-born babies and to share and diminish what would otherwise be the ‘mother-only experience of an interrupted career’ (Stone 2010). During the election campaign Labor appropriated the Coalition’s ‘use it or lose it’ component and committed to introducing it by July 2012.

The Coalition did not produce a women’s policy for the election but did have a page on its website entitled Advancing Women, which offered women a ‘direct say’ in Coalition policies: ‘We know time is precious for all women … So we are making it as easy as possible to be involved. Send us your views directly by email’. The content or effect of this ‘direct say’ was not at all clear. Abbott’s conversion to paid parental leave, for example, was repeatedly said to have come about because he listened to his wife and children (‘some of us have them’ as Liberal front-bencher Bronwyn Bishop interjected in one of her male-identifying moments in parliament).

The top item in the ERA’s election priorities was ‘Closing the gender wage gap’. This priority was signally absent from campaign debate despite two immediate issues being on the table. The first was the overdue response to recommendations of the House of Representatives inquiry into pay equity, Making It Fair (House Standing Committee on Employment and Workplace Relations 2009). The second was the commitment to funding the increase in wages for community sector workers resulting from the equal pay test case being conducted by the Australian Services Union. In fact from the secretive Labor Party women’s policy we learn that: ‘The Gillard Labor Government has committed to work through the funding implications of any increase in wages awarded as a result of the Australian Services Union’s national pay equity case’ (Plibersek 2010). This was less than a commitment to funding the increases but more than the Coalition silence on the issue.


The Greens continued to field most women candidates while the gap between the ALP and the Coalition widened slightly due to the continued decrease in women Coalition candidates (Table 2). While the number of Coalition men in the House of Representatives rose by 8 (if we count Tony Crook as an Independent) the number of Coalition women remained constant at 14. The number of Labor men fell by seven and the number of Labor women fell by four, although the success rate of Labor women candidates was slightly higher than for male candidates (Smith 2010, Table 3). Overall, the number of women in the House of Representatives fell to 24.7 per cent, while the number of women in the Senate (as of 2011) rose to the record level of 39.5 per cent, thanks largely to three new women Senators for the Greens, although the Nationals also had a second woman Senator (Tables 3 and 4).

Table 2: Gender breakdown of 2010 House of Representatives nominations, selected parties
Party Female Male Female (%)
Greens 62 88 41.3
Australian Labor Party 47 103 31.3
Family First 32 76 29.6
Liberals /CLP 23 88 19.8
LNP 6 24 20.0
Nationals 1 15 6.2
Independents 17 65 20.7
Source: Australian Electoral Commission

Table 3: Gender breakdown of the House of Representatives after the 2010 election
Party Male Female Female (%)
ALP 49 23 31.9
Liberals/LNP/CLP* 47 14 21.8
Nationals/LNP 11 0 0.0
Independents 5 0 0.0
Green 1 0 0.0
Total 113 37 24.7
* MPs allocated in accordance with their party room (Crook allocated to Independents, Griggs to Liberals)
Source: Parliamentary Library

One of the problems with allowing the number of women in parliament to slip is the reduction in the pool of women available for entry into ministerial positions. Although the drop in the House of Representatives was partially compensated for by a rise in the Senate, from whence women ministers have been disproportionately drawn, the tradition of senators only supplying about one third of ministers puts limits on this source. Australia already has a smaller proportion of women in its national cabinet (20 per cent in the current Gillard cabinet) than any comparable democracy apart from the new Cameron government in the UK (17 per cent).

In some countries, such as Finland and Spain, women, are a majority of cabinet members, while they are about half in Norway and Sweden, 37 per cent in Germany and a third in France and New Zealand. This is the case under either conservative or social democratic governments, as seen in the 2008 change of government in New Zealand. Interestingly, women tend to be ‘over-represented’ in cabinets in other countries (relative to their presence in parliament), as they once were in Australia (Moon & Fountain 1997, p. 458). In Australia the opposite is now true. For example, women are 36 per cent of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party but only 20 per cent of cabinet. One economical explanation is that while quotas apply to Labor parliamentary preselections they do not apply to ministerial selection.

Table 4: Gender Breakdown of the Senate as of 1 July 2010
Party Male Female Female (%)
ALP 17 14 45.2
Liberals 20 8 28.6
Nationals/CLP* 4 2 33.3
Greens 3 6 66.7
Other 2 0 0
Total 46 30 39.5
*Senator Scullion sits in the Nationals’ party room.
Source: Parliamentary Library

While it was a difficult time for the most likely new candidate for cabinet responsibility (Tanya Plibersek was expecting a baby in October) the general outcome was disappointing, with the number of women in cabinet remaining the same and falling by one in the ministry as a whole (from seven to six). On the other hand, the allocation of the finance portfolio to Senator Penny Wong was the first time that a woman had held an economic portfolio in a federal Labor government. (Senator Margaret Guilfoyle had become the first woman Finance Minister at the federal level 30 years before, in the Coalition government of Malcolm Fraser.)


It was paradoxical that while Australia had at last joined other democracies in having women in the positions of both head of government and head of state, Australia was slipping down the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s ranking of countries on representation of women in the national parliament. Australia dropped from 15th place in 1999 to 34th place before the 2010 election (a place it shared with Afghanistan) and is now probably at 44th place. And this was at a time when there a large number of gender issues requiring the attention of both government and parliament, most notably perhaps the widening gender gap in wages and the urgency of funding equal pay for community service workers. Australia was prioritising gender equity in its international development assistance to perhaps an unprecedented degree, but closer to home these issues were struggling to gain attention.


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Thanks to Gillian Evans, Kirsty McLaren and John Stirton for assistance with the public opinion data cited here.

Marian Sawer is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University and Vice-President of the International Political Science Association. She has published widely on gender and politics including, most recently, the co-edited book Federalism, Feminism and Multilevel Governance (Ashgate 2010).

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