Around 120 years ago, Australia became the second country where women won the right to vote. But its political arena is still struggling with sexism, as underlined by a series of sexual-assault allegations around the government and lewd acts within Parliament House itself. Tens of thousands of women rallied in March to demand greater female representation and tough action against sexual violence and discrimination. Whether a tipping point has been reached in a long history of sexism in the workplace depends in part on how conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison handles the fallout.

1. How badly are women treated?

In 2012 Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the nation’s first and so-far only female leader, drew global attention when she stood up in parliament and launched a blistering attack against what she called the misogyny of then-opposition leader Tony Abbott. Among the things she cited were signs at a rally he attended labeling her a “bitch” and a “witch.” Yet despite that landmark speech, on quitting politics two years ago, former foreign minister Julie Bishop said she had put up with male behavior that wouldn’t be “tolerated in any other workplace across Australia.”

2. Does that reflect wider issues in Australian society?

While Australia quickly followed New Zealand in extending suffrage to women -- almost two decades before the U.S. did the same -- the following century saw only incremental improvements to their rights. The first woman was elected to Australia’s parliament in 1943, and it wasn’t until 1973 that an equal minimum wage was granted. A 2017 government report cataloged Australia’s mixed record on gender equality; even pubs were segregated until the 1960s. Partly as a legacy of such discrimination, women still earn 13% less than men. Even bleaker statistics show that one in six women has experienced violence from their partner; a similar ratio have been sexually assaulted. Still, figures regarding gender pay gaps and sexual violence are similar to those found in comparable liberal democracies such as the U.S.

3. Has the business world made progress?

Some. Female representation on boards hit 30% in 2019 following a years-long push. Research released in March found that organizations that set targets had added women at twice the pace as those that didn’t. But it also said such targets are becoming less common and less ambitious. Australia is above the average of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, but behind other members such as Italy, France and New Zealand. One group of investment firms, which together manage more than A$1 trillion ($761 billion), is pushing for at least 40% of senior leadership roles in Australia to be held by women. Companies are looking at these targets as one way to address systemic inequalities, spurred on by allegations of misconduct that hit financial giants including wealth manager AMP Ltd. and QBE Insurance Group Ltd. last year. Australia polls fairly high against fellow Group of 20 countries in terms of the share of women in middle and senior management positions.

4. Why is the political world different?

Unlike in the U.K. and Canada where MPs face sanctions for failing to adhere to a code of conduct, no such doctrine is in place in Australia. Past attempts to address sexual discrimination in politics have faltered, as have efforts to include lawmakers in the Sex Discrimination Act by expanding the definition of “workplace participant” and removing the current exemption for public servants. What’s more, unlike in the business world, opinion is divided about quotas in the political arena. On one side, the Labor opposition has had a quota system since 1994, and today has about twice as many female lawmakers in the lower house as the government. But they have been out of power for almost a decade. Morrison’s conservatives have resisted a similar program. Overall women make up under a third of the House of Representatives and just over half the Senate. By comparison, women make up about a quarter of the U.S. Congress.

5. Why is this coming to a head again?

Since mid-February, there’s been a stream of ugly revelations involving lawmakers and their staff. It started when a former media staffer in the Defense Ministry said she had been raped by a colleague in Parliament House. Then Attorney-General Christian Porter was accused of raping a 16-year-old girl during a debating tournament when he was also a teenager in 1988 -- a claim he denies. Soon after Australian media reported that male government staffers had shared images of lewd acts in parliament, including masturbating on a female lawmaker’s desk; Morrison called the behavior sickening. A week later, lawmaker Andrew Laming announced he would quit politics after he allegedly used social media to bully two women.

6. What has Morrison done?

Morrison -- who tries to craft an image as an affable suburban dad -- was panned for his handling of the initial rape allegations in February, especially after saying his wife helped him realize their gravity after telling him to consider the issue as the father of two girls. He then reshuffled his Cabinet to add one woman -- lifting the tally to seven out of 22 -- and promote Michaelia Cash to attorney-general to replace Porter (who remains in Cabinet). Morrison also created a Cabinet-level taskforce to focus on women’s equality, economic security, health and wellbeing that’s helmed by Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, who he said would effectively become “the prime minister for women.”

7. What else could he do?

He could seek changes to the Sexual Discrimination Act to include lawmakers, or introduce a code of conduct. A national report that was handed to the government last year recommended 55 measures to reduce workplace sexual harassment, but has been largely ignored. Polls show Australians overwhelmingly support gender quotas for political parties, as well as the report’s recommendations. Meanwhile, the women’s movement has grown and mobilized under a new “March 4 Justice” banner. Morrison’s personal popularity has plunged and his government now trails Labor ahead of elections expected next year.

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