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.