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Women make up just one-third of today’s Australia Day honours recipients, the same as they have every year for almost two decades.
Little is known about the decision-making process behind the honours and neither of the bodies responsible for running them was able to cite any action they have taken to shift the gender imbalance.
The Council for the Order of Australia, which chooses who receives the honours, itself comprises 14 men and three women.
On today’s list, women make up just 30 per cent of nominees and 30.3 per cent of recipients, the lowest proportion since 2007.
A spokesperson for the Office of the Governor-General – which oversees the honours – referred the ABC to comments made in 2014 by Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, the current chairman of the Council for the Order of Australia, encouraging the public to nominate more women.
“If people out there see a woman who is excelling in any way, then they should put a nomination in,” he told Fairfax.
The spokesperson pushed responsibility back to the Australian public, noting the council was constrained by the nominations it received.
“The Council for the Order of Australia can only consider and make recommendations based on the nominations it receives from the community,” he said.
Associate Professor JaneMaree Maher, director of the Centre of Women’s Studies and Gender Research at Monash University, agreed the root of the problem was societal due to ‘women’s work’ being less highly valued.
But she said change would require action from those running the awards.
“I think the notion of critical mass does require a significant change in the council – a commitment to look at women, or to move women’s applications up and to start to say, okay what’s happening here, much more pro-active. I think [that] is required in order to make some change.
“Because otherwise, that pattern that the department identified, ‘oh, well people don’t nominate women’, is not a magic bullet that’s going to make people start nominating women unless there is specific action on the part of the bodies calling for nominations and in the constitution of their judging panels and in the way that they think about these things.”
The council has no formal role in honours policy or promotion and “is simply tasked with assessing the nominations that come to before it”, the spokesperson said.
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is responsible for providing advice on the honours system to the Government. Asked what the department had done to change the gender disparity, a spokesperson said it had “recently begun using Twitter to promote www.itsanhonour.gov.au“, though its Twitter stream contains no tweets specific to the issue.
Women do marginally better on a per-nomination basis
Women who are nominated for an honour are slightly more likely to be awarded than their male counterparts.
On average since 1998, nominations for men are successful 57 per cent of the time while 63 per cent of nominations for women succeed.
This could be interpreted as some form of affirmative action by the Council for the Order of Australia to ensure that women are as well represented as possible given the smaller pool of nominees.
However, Associate Professor Maher offered an alternative explanation, suggesting the pattern matches other scenarios where there is underrepresentation of women.
“In universities across Australia the statistics routinely show that academic women do much better than men when they apply for promotion,” she said.
“But they tend to wait two to three years longer before they apply. So they really wait until they have absolutely ticked every single box off, and often ticked it off twice.
“I think the more likely explanation is that when women’s work in this context is recognised it is because they’re doing an absolutely exceptional job – and so their applications are very, very strong.
“For a woman to get noted as meritorious she has to be extraordinary.”
Even though the women being nominated and awarded may be “extraordinary” they’re still not receiving the highest levels of recognition nearly as often as men.
The awards received by women skew significantly to the lower levels of merit. Since 1998 only 20 per cent of people admitted as a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC), the top award level excluding Knights and Dames, have been women.
That’s a total of just 42 women compared with 166 men.
In comparison, women make up 35 per cent of recipients of the Medal of the Order of Australia since 1998.
The level of honour being awarded to an individual is entirely a decision of the council, under an assessment process shrouded in secrecy.
This may be something the council is looking to improve. The distribution in 2016 is much more even, with approximately 30 per cent of awardees at all levels being women – numbers which are in keeping with the nominations.
Calls for change, transparency
There have been repeated calls over many years to reform the way the Australian honours system works.
In 2013, Anne Summers – herself an Officer of the Order of Australia – wrote an article critical of the secrecy surrounding the process.
“So we, the public, are not allowed to know what criteria are used to select awardees,” she wrote in reference to a 2012 Federal Court decision rejecting a Freedom of Information Act request for documents pertaining to policy and criteria used in the awards process.
In 2011 the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia released a booklet outlining many of the issues that continue to be evident in the 2016 Australia Day round of awards. The booklet goes on to provide a detailed guide for how to nominate someone for an award and provides strong encouragement for the nomination of more women.
Despite this kind of strong advocacy from prominent women and the continued encouragement of the council itself, little change, if any, has occurred.
Associate Professor Maher agreed with Summers that significant change would likely be required for women to be nominated and awarded in a more representative way.
“I think that hoping for incremental change is probably not going to get the job done,” she said. This is a position supported by the data, which shows little change in nearly two decades.
“We’re not seeing women’s progression in a range of professions the way that we should. We’re certainly not seeing women’s progression in terms of wage equity, in terms of representation on boards, and a whole range of other contexts, and I think we’re not seeing it here.”