For more than 47 years men have dominated the Order of Australia, receiving, on average, over 70% of the awards. In recent times, work has been done to redress the balance.
Thanks to campaigners and community organisations like Honour a Woman and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency we have seen a steady improvement over the last five years in the number of women recognised (from 33 per cent in 2016-17 to 41 per cent in 2020-21). On average, over the past five years, women received 38 per cent of all awards
What will the percentage of female honourees be in 2022?
Women on Boards has also successfully nominated, and supported nominations for women for awards over the years.
WOB Founders, Claire Braund and Ruth Medd, said they recognised a long time ago that an activist approach was required to get women onto the list.
They said that the reason many men were successfully nominated was two-fold:
Because they were the overwhelming majority in the fields of endeavour that were annually recognised (eg, military, politics and the clergy).
In more general fields of endeavour (eg business and community) there was a well organised process to recognise and support male nominations via companies and clubs.
"To those doing the nominations, women were often largely invisible and their contribution went un-noticed. However if you look at the Australian Women's Archives Project, created in 1999 to recognise the social, cultural, historical and economic contribution made by Australian women to public and private life, there is no shortage of suitable women to nominate", Claire and Ruth said.
"We are proud of the Women on Board members who have been awarded the Order of Australia and of the small part we have played to ensure women who deserve recognition receive their due rewards. But not enough is being done to make sure women are being represented fairly."
Speaking last, Governor General David Hurley said the individuals recognised with an Honour ‘collectively speak to who we are as a nation’.
“It is important that the Order of Australia represents the diversity and strength of Australia,” he said. “For this to happen we need to ensure outstanding women, members of our multicultural community and First Nations people are nominated by their peers in the community.”
'Systemic, structural change
But according to Honour a Woman co-founder, Elizabeth Hartnell-Young, the problem is there are still not enough women being nominated in the first place. Speaking to Women on Boards’ Geraldine Cardozo, Elizabeth said more needs to be done than just telling people to nominate women, and that systemic, structural change is required to get a more gender-balanced, diverse mix of recipients.
“Honour a Woman started in 2017, and we soon realized that you can't go around telling people to nominate women and expecting the whole thing to change. It’s about embedding change in the process. Early on, we decided we have to shift our focus; while we still encourage people to nominate women it’s got to be more structural, for example getting Boards to consider a standing item of nominations.”
She said states and territories have a role to play. “The solution doesn’t actually live with the community, the solution lies with decision-makers in the states and territories and the Commonwealth.”
She also believes there needs to be more marketing around the Australia Day Honours, which often get overshadowed by the Australian of the Year awards which are announced on the same day.
“There’s confusion in people's minds with the Australian of the Year happening at the same time which is very well marketed, and there are a lot of diverse nominations as was seen last year.”
The greatest improvement over towards gender balance over the last five years was in the Community, Law, and Disabled categories; while the lowest female representation is in the Veterinary Science, Transport, and Surveying and Mapping categories. Elizabeth said other sectors which are lagging behind in terms of female representation are Architecture and Health.
“There are a lot of women architects and very, very few, have ever received Orders of Australia. And in Health, awards often go to medical professionals, such as neurosurgeons, whereas perhaps midwives and allied health workers need to be recognised.”
Why is it so important to get more women recognised in the Australian Honours?
According to Elizabeth, it’s about making sure the history books reflect the contribution of women and valuing that contribution.
“Some people say, ‘we’re just doing our job’. But my argument is that it's history that we're creating here. In the future, people will look at these long lists of people who received these awards, and say, where are the women?”
Nominating “a hindrance”
She also said the process of nominating can be a hindrance, often relying on information published about that person’s achievements (ie on Wikipedia or the internet).
“For women only around 18 per cent of its bios are about women. You have to give the nominations panel as much information as possible about that person’s contribution to the community and how they have gone over and above what’s expected. But trying to find evidence for that can be quite difficult because you are mounting a case, writing an argument.”