There has been much consternation both at home and abroad about the lack of women in Prime Minister Tony Abbott's ministry, announced this week.

The Washington Post, following the lead of the AP wires, billed the cabinet numbers story as a ‘rekindling’ of the Abbott sexism debate, a line that was also picked up in Canada and the UK.

It’s a fair reflection of the domestic reaction in Australia: Penny Wong, Finance Minister under the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments, alluded yesterday to Mr Abbott’s comments during his student days that 'it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons'. One of Abbott’s own, Liberal MP Sue Boyce, expressed embarrassment at the announcement of the ministry and said the ‘merit’ argument was a smokescreen for sexism.

However, before despairing of ever achieving gender balance in Australian politics or sheeting the imbalance home to a particular political leader, it’s worth reviewing some numbers and comparisons.

The Abbott cabinet has one woman out of 19 members (5%), and there are five women in the Abbott ministry (17%). This is less than in Julia Gillard’s first cabinet, which had four women out of 19 in 2010. It’s also less than the last Howard ministry, which had six women of 32 ministers (19%), with four in cabinet (21%).

The composition of the Australian parliament, though, doesn’t look dissimilar to parliaments in places we’d regard as alike in culture and democratic systems. Take the US: only 98 of the 535 seats in Congress are held by women (18%), a record high for American politics. This compares with 25% women in Australia’s House of Representatives in the last (43rd) parliament and 37% women in the Senate, numbers which are almost identical to those in the 41st parliament in which John Howard was prime minister.

In the UK, 22% of parliamentarians are women and 19% of the ministry are women. 

Compared with business, things look more promising for female politicians. There are only 12 women CEOs of ASX 200 companies (6%), although 16% of non-executive board positions are filled by women. There are 21 in the Fortune 500 (4.2%), and a similar proportion (4.5%) in the Fortune 1000. 

Whether examining the Australian parliament or the Abbott ministry, Australian female politicians fare no worse and perhaps even slightly better than their counterparts in the US and the UK, and better than their corporate sisters, at least in executive roles.

Looking across the globe, though, Australia ranks quite poorly, coming in at equal 45th with Canada out of 142 nations in the Inter-parliamentary Union’s database on women in parliaments. Rwanda tops the list with 56% women in parliament, having recently overtaken Sweden with 45%. The IPU data shows that, where quotas are implemented by parties or parliaments to enforce female representation, the number of elected women almost doubles. So while quotas are a divisive issue, it might be on the agenda in Australia following the reaction to Mr Abbott’s controversial ministry decisions

Timor-Leste, one of the world’s newest nations, ranks 16th on the IPU ranking with 38% female representation in its parliament, a noteworthy achievement which Fergus Hanson and I observed in our 2010 study on leaders in Pacific nations, most likely stemming from the crucial role women played in the nation’s fight for independence at the end of the last century. That’s a result achieved (dare I say it?) in the context of the dominance of the Roman-Catholic faith and a leadership which drew heavily from those with Jesuit backgrounds.

The experience of Timor-Leste illustrates that a war of independence is one way to achieve healthier gender balance in national parliament. Quotas would be better.

Photo by Flickr user rudolfhelmis.