Empowering women – Australia

Reflecting on Australian women’s representation in political office and public life

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This month, the UK celebrated the 100-year anniversary of The Representation of the People Act, which led to some women being granted the right to vote. Rather than fond remembrance, however, many commentators were quick to point out the suffragette movement failed to represent or respect the voices of marginalised queer, disabled and working class women, and harboured racist views towards women of colour.

It also happened more than a decade after Australia first granted women the right to vote, although this was not extended to indigenous women until 1965. It is worth reflecting then on whether there have been significant improvements in the representation and participation of Australian women in political office and public life, especially as the country became a global exemplar for expanding franchise in the late 19th century.

As a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Australia is bound by international law to ensure women can fully participate in politics if they choose to. Women have the right to access equal opportunities to participate in public life, stand for election and hold office. Australia adopted the UN’s Beijing Declaration, which set a target for women to make up 30 per cent of all parliaments. In business, this magic number is the tipping point where women in leadership positions are proven to positively impact on an organisation’s performance.


'Women in Australia have the right to access equal opportunities to participate in public life and hold office.'


The reality in Australia is, that despite the number of women in political office hovering at 30 per cent, and double-digit growth in the percentage of women in office between 1980 and 2014, Australia’s comparative ranking for women in national parliaments has declined. Less than a third of senior ministers in cabinet are women. This is not new. Since Australia’s federation in 1901, the number of women in cabinet roles has been well under 50 per cent, despite this being the same percentage of the population who are assigned female at birth.

These statistics reflect the barriers for women entering political life. As with all people who are oppressed by patriarchal norms, women experience greater discrimination – from inflexible family and child-care responsibilities to the working practices of political parties being exclusionary and non-feminist. Some of those who choose to lead also do so at great personal cost.

Australia’s former Prime Minister Julia Gillard – of the ‘misogyny speech’ acclaim – explained how threats of abuse, rape and violence were all too common: ‘A woman in public view may expect to receive them almost daily,’ she said in 2016. In her memoir My Story Gillard outlines the inexcusable sexism she experienced during her political career, from a colleague describing her as ‘deliberately barren’ to a political fundraiser menu calling her ‘Julia Gillard Kentucky fried quail – small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box’.

Indigenous women are at a double disadvantage then, being on the receiving end of both race and gender stereotyping. It should come as no surprise that indigenous women are even more underrepresented in Australian politics. This is especially concerning given the lack of meaningful dialogue with indigenous people throughout Australia’s colonial history, coupled with the alarming institutional racism that affects everything from indigenous mortality, education attainment and incarceration rates.

Nova Peris, who was the first indigenous woman to enter Australian parliament in 2013, resigned after just one term. While she said she was comfortable being in the spotlight, she didn’t realise the toll that politics would take on her family. In a tearful resignation speech, she announced Australia had a ‘long, long way to go’ in treating indigenous people equally and addressing disadvantage.

As with women of colour, LGBTQI+ women and women with disabilities also face stigma. Gay senator Penny Wong said her main discomfort with being prime minister is that ‘there’s too much sexism and homophobia and racism in our society for me to want to expose myself, and my family, to that.’


'Indigenous women are at a double disadvantage, being on the receiving end of both race and gender stereotyping.'


For Kelly Vincent, the first woman with a disability elected to state parliament in 2010, this exclusion was physical. As a wheelchair user, she was unable to enter her workplace through the front door. ‘It actually takes someone getting appointed to parliament for the conversation to start about how do we make the people’s buildingaccessible to more and more people?’ she asks.

Given these challenges, what hope is there for Australian women seeking to enter into public life and hold office in 2018?

Launched in 2016, Melbourne University’s Pathway to Politics programme aims to encourage female participation in government through a capacity building programme that equips women with speech-writing, networking and policy-making skills. Although the course is free, you do have to be a graduate of the university to apply, which excludes women from working class, rural and indigenous backgrounds who are not well represented in tertiary education.

Linda Burney, the first indigenous woman to be elected to lower house of parliament in 2016 has alternative ideas: ‘… what major political parties need to do is pre-select Aboriginal people into winnable seats. That's the trick of getting Aboriginal people into the House of Representatives.’

Only when the major political parties tackle the lack of diversity, access and representation head on, including mainstreaming gender across politics as a whole, can women from all backgrounds in Australia be the key influencers and drivers of change in political and public life.