Why are so few women awarded OAMs?

“In the Australian honours system, appointment to the Order of Australia confer the highest recognition for outstanding achievement and service.”

So opens the Australian government website devoted to the Order of Australia, It’s An Honour: Australia Celebrating Australians. Established in 1975, the system of honours and awards is designed to recognise achievement or ‘meritorious service’ in the citizenry. Unfortunately, while Order of Australia Knight and Damehoods were abolished in 1986, our Prime Minister recently reinstated them.

Regardless of whether or not our monarchist Prime Minister is gunning for a Knighthood one day, the Order of Australia is supposed to be the ‘pre-eminent way Australians recognise the achievements and service of their fellow citizens’. So why, since their establishment, have over 90% of the awards across six categories gone to men?

2013 Order of Australia awards ceremony in Canberra -  Brigadier Dianne Gallasch is awarded the Conspicuous Service ...

2013 Order of Australia awards ceremony in Canberra - Brigadier Dianne Gallasch is awarded the Conspicuous Service Cross by former Governor General Quentin Bryce. Photo: Lyn Mills

You could argue that the 1970s were a different time and that we’ve moved on. We’re all equal now! But in the period between 2001 and 2013, 68% of the general division awards went to men compared with 28% for women.


In specific award categories like Engineering, Building & Construction, Transport, Primary Industry and Architecture, men accounted for more than 90% of the award winners. In fact, there were only two categories in which women dominated, and then only barely - Library & Related and Disabled. You know, the women’s topics. (Figures from the ABS.)

Now, this isn’t necessarily a reflection of how the awards committee views women and their capacity for meritorious service. Interestingly, nominated women were more likely to win in their categories than men - 62% of women nominated ended up taking home awards as opposed to 56% of men. But even that is a slightly misleading comparison when you take into account the fact that men make up more than twice the number of nominees than women across all six categories.

Why are so few people willing to or even able to see the vast contributions women make to their communities, workforces and fields of expertise?

Today, as yet more Orders of Australia are awarded to recognise the contributions made by people to this country (with presumably a handful of ridiculous Knighthoods and Damehoods thrown in for good measure), it’s important to consider once again why Australia is so resistant to considering the achievements of women as anything other than niche. Why, when women outnumber men in Australia, hold more university degrees and are generally more law-abiding, do we still struggle to be recognised? And even more galling, why do we face so much derision and criticism when we question this?

We’re all too familiar with the argument of ‘merit’. To wit: we can’t go about giving out awards and jobs to women just to satisfy a nefarious quota system designed and enforced by the feminist mafia. Women have to earn these things. We have to prove that we deserve it. That men are never asked to justify their worthiness for particular honours is curiously ignored. Men’s merit is already assumed because it’s been reinforced by centuries of structural sexism and patriarchal systems of power. White men in particular are given the luxury and respect of succeeding on their own terms without broader society labeling their recognition ‘tokenism’.

When Tony Abbott appointed his Cabinet, his supporters barely blinked at the fact that Julie Bishop was the only woman included in it. No one questioned that a roomful of mostly white, mostly male politicians were anything less than ideally suited to the challenge because being a white man is the default setting for human achievement. But can you imagine the uproar that would have ensued had Julia Gillard done the same but in reverse? Very few people would accept the argument that such a selection was made according to merit - because how, when there are white men available to choose from, could you possibly settle on 18 out of 19 representatives being women unless there was some kind of feminist conspiracy at play?

Many people will deny that such an undercurrent exists, instead choosing to fixate on the word ‘merit’ like a comforting mantra to protect them against the realities of their own prejudices. But we’re operating in a conservative environment which gleefully embraced the phrase ‘handbag hit squad’ to describe a group of Labor women who had the temerity to do their jobs and not take any misogynist bullshit for it - pretending that these things haven’t infected society at a core level isn’t just ignorant, it’s intellectually dishonest.

If we are to truly believe that merit is what contributes to the recognition of people, we have to be clear about why it is that men account for double the number of nominees for a prestigious award like the Order of Australia: because the majority of people either default to the assumption that men and their interests are more meritorious and therefore worthy of reward or they actually believe it. Either is a concerning outcome, and completely indefensible.

And this is where we all come in. Nominations for the Order of Australia come directly from the community. We all have a responsibility to recognise the contributions of women and we can all play a part.

Next year, make it a point to nominate at least one woman you know who has given outstandingly to her community.

Just ... no Dames please. We’re not British.