"Get thee to a workplace" was the budget's message to women

<i>New York Times</i> executive editor Jill Abramson.

New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson.

"Get thee to a workplace" was essentially the message to women from Treasurer Joe Hockey in the budget.

"Staying at home should be a parent's choice but there are limits on how much support the taxpayer can give," Mr Hockey said as he announced a raft of measures to effectively force women out of the home and into employment. 

I have long advocated women being able to enjoy the economic independence and self-esteem that comes with being in the workforce, especially the full-time workforce, but the lengths to which this government was prepared to go to get women into employment were surprising.


Slashing family tax benefits and putting a work test on the paid parental leave scheme were the sort of things you'd expect from a champion of women's employment such as Julia Gillard (remember how much trouble she got into for her efforts to nudge single parents into employment) rather than the stogie-smoking blue ties of a conservative government.

This is the side of politics that had made the stay-at-home mother an ideological cornerstone, that introduced the dependent spouse rebate and the baby bonus. 

Now they are the ones who are abolishing these inducements to be a stay-at-home mum.

Just how effective the measures will be remains to be seen. After all, the evidence is irrefutable that what stops mothers working are a lack of affordable childcare and the punitive effective tax rates that apply when family benefits are withdrawn as income is earned.

So if you wanted women back at work, you would not be cutting $230 million from childcare subsidies as Mr Hockey did on Tuesday.

Women are also discouraged by lack of equal pay (why bother if you are earning less than the bloke sitting beside you!) and by a culture in way too many workplaces that is discouraging, often hostile and sometimes downright misogynist. 

If you want to encourage women into the economy, it would make sense to acknowledge and address the pay gap as well as some of these less tangible obstacles to women being able to enjoy employment parity with men.

Instead, the government has now announced yet another set of consultations into the gender reporting requirements of the Workplace Gender Equality Act legislated by the Labor government and administered by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA). 

Employment Minister Eric Abetz had to retreat earlier this year from his blitzkrieg against the legislation. He wanted to abolish WGEA – something the National Commission of Audit has also recommended – and now he seems determined to consult it to death. A government that really wanted women to work would be enthusiastic about a law that required organisations to report on how many women they employed, what levels they worked at and how much they were paid.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of the sudden and inexplicable sacking this week of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, the first woman to hold this exalted position, was the revelation that she had been paid less than her predecessor.

As a result, according to media reporter Ken Auletta writing on Thursday in The New Yorker, " 'She confronted the top brass,' one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management's narrative that she was 'pushy,' a characterisation that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect."

Even her own newspaper could not confirm the reasons Abramson was fired: "The reasons for the switch were not immediately clear," said the NYT breaking news email alert announcing that she had been sacked.

The same week, another top female editor left her job. Natalie Nougayrède, the first female editor-in-chief of French daily Le Monde, left after what was reported as a power struggle with senior staff who staged a protest last week over her plans to revamp the newspaper.

All in all, it's been a pretty tough couple of weeks for quite a few high-profile working women.

Christine Lagarde pulled out of delivering the commencement address at Smith College after protests about the way the IMF conducts itself, former US former secretary of state and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice similarly withdrew from delivering a speech at Rutgers University following protests about her role in the Iraq war. A few weeks before this, students and faculty at Brandeis University forced the cancellation of the awarding of an honorary degree to Somalia-born activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her attacks on the treatment of women under Islam.

Not all of the episodes can be attributed to gender, but the sheer visibility of these still rare examples of female accomplishment can make them targets and also ensures high-voltage publicity when such incidents occur.

But gender abuse is regrettably still an almost constant companion for high-achieving and aspiring women.

Abramson, who is 60, was constant fodder for tabloid trashing: she was rumoured to be pregnant, nude photos of her were circulated, she was labelled (ironically) "the sexiest journalist alive", even reported as being dead.

But of course the woman who cops the worst of it – and who, if she decides to run for US president, will need a special form of feminist kryptonite to withstand the inevitable onslaught – is Hillary Clinton. 

Clinton has been called everything from a murderer to a lesbian, is now being accused of concealing a brain injury and just recently had to endure the charge that she had made her daughter get pregnant so she'd have a cute little baby to drag around on the campaign trail.

It goes with the territory. Women know that. But that doesn't mean we aren't tired of it and angry about it, and that we don't think it would be nice if the blue ties, for once, showed a little empathy and stood shoulder to shoulder with us to help end gender sledging and other inequalities – instead of being part of the problem.

Twitter: @SummersAnne

Anne Summers is editor and publisher of the Anne Summers Reports