What does a 'woman of calibre' look like?

Tony Abbott visits the Little Learner's Autism Centre in Maidstone yesterday.

Tony Abbott visits the Little Learner's Autism Centre in Maidstone yesterday. Photo: Penny Stephens PKS

For a woman in her thirties, there are a few pesky things to consider when contemplating parenthood. There is the career factor, of course.  Emotional readiness is another, and having a partner almost always helps. But of all the things that I thought might keep me awake at night wondering whether motherhood is for me, I've never imagined Tony Abbott’s voice would be one of them.

It’s an unsettling bedtime image, I know. But not nearly as disturbing as the sound bites that emerged from Abbott’s paid parental leave press conference yesterday. In a move that claims to empower the mums-to-be of Australia, the Opposition Leader has somehow managed to insult thousands by focusing on just what kind of women he’d like to help.

A quick glance at the scheme reveals an offer that seems almost too deliciously attractive to be true: six months paid leave at full replacement salary for women who earn up to $150,000 per year. The plan includes superannuation contributions and is funded through a levy on about 3000 big businesses.

This appears to be a notable improvement from the government's current policy -- which provides 18 weeks' leave at the minimum wage (about $31,000 a year), funded by tax payers.

So why the social media outrage? For one thing -- his sales pitch. According to Abbott, the scheme is all about encouraging women "of calibre" to reap those benefits should they choose to have children.  

''We do not educate women to higher degree level to deny them a career,'' Mr Abbott said.

''If we want women of that calibre to have families, and we should, well we have to give them a fair dinkum chance to do so. That is what this scheme of paid parental leave is all about.''

When the policy was announced initially, many were suspicious of Abbott's motives and his ability to deliver on his generous promises – not trusting what looked to be a feminist-friendly policy from the country’s most notorious misogynist. Has he proved them right?

In terms of the public's reaction at least, there are some interesting parallels in Abbott’s “woman of calibre” comment and Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” gaffe leading up to the US election last year. Both politicians tried desperately to solicit the ‘women’s vote’, yet when it comes down to proving just how female-friendly their policies are, it’s their clumsy male-centric interpretation of gender equality that let them down respectively.  

In Abbott’s case, by shining a spotlight on high-earning, tertiary educated women as the only rightful benefactors of the scheme, he has let slip two vexing assumptions.

First, that women’s contribution to the society is chiefly measured by her education level or the career that she has chosen. (Never mind unpaid full-time carers or volunteers.)  Second – perhaps more worryingly – that motherhood is best left to “women of calibre”, and they alone should be adequately compensated for the time and professional opportunities they sacrifice for it.  

It’s a sad day in politics when we’re forced to ask ourselves whether or not every woman deserves the chance to reproduce without incurring crippling financial loss. While the Coalition's PPL scheme does offer a more attractive alternative to Labor's current policy, it's hard to ignore the sentiment that some jobs, apparently, are more equal than the others. 

As health Minister Tanya Plibersek observed, Abbott’s comments gave us an insight into ‘‘his lack of respect for low income workers and women in particular’’.

‘‘Who exactly does Mr Abbott think are women of calibre? What does he think about women who are child care workers, nurses and community sector workers?’’ asks Plibersek. 

Perhaps Abbott will do well to listen to Finance Minister (and new mum) Penny Wong who offered the most sobering retort of all, “A woman’s calibre is not determined by what she earns.” And as a journalist of modest means, I couldn't agree more. 




  • Wong and Plibersek may want us to believe they see themselves as the same calibre as nurses, community workers etc but do THEY believe it. Their actions would suggest they have tickets on themselves.
    By leaving out factory workers and the like are Plibersek and Wong suggesting those women are of a lower calibre?

    Date and time
    May 08, 2013, 3:00AM
    • The reference to nurses etc was just an example, do you seriously think they should have listed all jobs that you don't require a degree for?

      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 8:59AM
    • "Wong and Plibersek may want us to believe they see themselves as the same calibre as nurses, community workers etc but do THEY believe it."

      They said, or impiled, no such thing. That was all your doing, and your political bias.

      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 9:14AM
    • Well put Cam. It's easy to pounce on his clumsiness, but it doesn't help tackle the deficiencies in the policy.

      Ms jane
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 3:09PM
    • Where is Nicola Roxon? Or is she out of the Labor handbag hit squad now that she is no longer a minister?

      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 12:30PM
    • The irony is that Nurses and Teachers make more than minimum wage and would benefit just as much from the PPL scheme than anybody else. Although the comment "women of calibre" was unfortunate, everything else he said is completely valid. Every woman making more than the minimum wage will be better off with this scheme, and even those making minimum wage will be better off because at least they will get more time off, instead of the sad 18 weeks currently available.

      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 6:24PM
  • Looks like the handbag hit squad are back out again. You sense that they have just been waiting for something, anything, to re-ignite their faux outrage - and to the casual observer this looks like a very long bow indeed.

    So now we don't value educated and high achieving women in society? Everyone is the same are they? Let the disecting and deliberate misinterpretation of these comments begin - we should be able to get at least a week of outrage over this issue.

    And this is coming from someone who thinks Abbotts scheme is way too generous. But that is a policy debate - this "misogynist" debate is nothing but confected crap.

    Act Rationally
    Date and time
    May 08, 2013, 5:53AM
    • It all smells of the hypocracy that is Labor.

      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 8:30AM
    • "...it’s their clumsy male-centric interpretation of gender equality that let them down..."

      I laughed and laughed at this. As 60% of all graduates are women, all political leaders understand that any pay gap which is due to sexism -if that is indeed a cause- will not endure. A key inhibitor to participation in the workforce is flexibility about childcare arrangements, and Tony Abbott is to be applauded for what he has proposed here. The word Candice was looking for is misandry, not misogyny ;-(

      Irony City Arizona
      Date and time
      May 08, 2013, 11:10AM
    • @Act Rationally - way to go alienating at least half of the readership of an article in a designated feminist section of the SMH just by your opening line and the use of the term "handbag hit squad". Your comment can't be taken seriously when you resort to petty name calling.

      It is because of people like you that that mysogyny thrives in Australian society.

      Date and time
      May 09, 2013, 7:50AM

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