It’s loud, aggressive; a theatre of spin, insults and manufactured outrage, orchestrated by grown men who should know better. Yes, I’m talking about our Federal Parliament’s Question Time. On a visit to Federal Parliament in Canberra this week, I couldn’t help but wonder
Would politicians’ behaviour be improved if we had equal representation of women in politics?’
Alas, Australia still has a while to go until we reach gender equality in federal politics. Men currently outnumber women 4:1 in the House of Representatives and about 3:1 in the Senate. Here’s the latest stats as compiled recently by Women’s Agenda.
- in the lower house, women occupy 44 of the 150 positions, almost 30% of seats.
- In the Senate women now hold 32 seats out of 76, or roughly 42% of the chamber
- women represent 48% of Labor MPs
- women hold 19 of the 84 Liberal MPs and senators in parliament, around 22%,
It was 124 years ago when South Australia became the first polity in the world to grant equal political rights to both men and women, not only allowing them to vote but also to stand for parliament. All Australian states had followed by 1908. Since then, there have been 206 women in federal politics and 76 of them are in our ‘big house’ right now. Path-breaking women doing their best to represent their constituents in this masculine-dominated field of public service. But why is equality in representation taking so long?
Perhaps it’s because of entrenched sexism which is delivering a political system inherently biased against female politicians
Sexism in politics
It’s a difficult fact of political life but most women who have been elected to public office will have stories to tell of when they have been directly or indirectly subjected to sexist comments and behaviour.
As an example, think of media reporting on politicians. Why is it only women who receive comments on their marital status, age, parenting situation, clothes, looks or even their voice? When was the last time you read or heard a comment about a male politician’s outfit? Apart from the ‘red or blue’ commentary on his tie choice, probably never. Unlike their male peers, women in politics inevitably experience sexist comments about their hairstyles, clothes, body shape and shoes. Remember the judgemental comments on Teresa Mays infamous leather pants and comments she was out of touch with the average voter because her trousers were ‘so expensive’. No such comments about her peers in their Saville Row, bespoke-suits which went quietly under the sartorial radar.
Wives and mothers first; pollies second
Over the past century community and media expectation has been that female politicians should be wives and mothers. However, history shows that even if a mother runs for office, she is inevitable questioned about how she will continue to care for her children. For example, the creepy comments recently asked of NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on 60 minutes about “Can you have a baby, be a mother and still do the job?” At least there was a collective groan when that interview was aired earlier this year.
Sexism is everywhere
It’s not only parts of the media that push sexism in politics. Women politicians may also be put down by their opponents or even by their own colleagues. Recall the national cringe moment when former Prime Minister Tony Abbot said he was ‘complimenting’ the then federal MP Fiona Scott for her ‘sex appeal’ while on the campaign trail? She later said the comments were offensive and ‘sexually objectified’ her. Ms Scott also reported that the comments lead to a lack of credibility with some of her male colleagues when she was elected.
Sadly, women can also be subjected to even more severe threats from members of the public. Australia’s former Prime Minister Julia Gillard said that for women in public life the “threats of violent abuse, of rape, are far too common. A woman in public view may expect to receive them almost daily”.
Women push on
Despite the widespread sexism that inevitably seems to come with the job of being a politician, women are pushing on; making a difference, representing their communities and advocating on issues they feel strongly about. Programs such as Melbourne University’s Pathway to Politics are aiming to improve diversity in representation. As a fellow of the 2017 program, I was privileged to hear a range of excellent speakers including many female politicians from a range of political views sharing their stories about what it is like to be a woman in politics. These inspiring politicians shared their achievements and reflections on how they made a difference – despite often harrowing tales of sexism and discrimination.
This week, while visiting Australia’s Parliament house I looked down and noticed millions of dents spreading across the wooden floors of the vast hallways.
Millions of grooves on the polished parquetry give me hope that one day we will have gender equality in our federal parliament
Because, if you look closely, every one of those marks was put there by a woman politician (or her female staffer) striding out in high heels and subtly leaving her mark on the corridors of power. And I am forever grateful to all those women in public office, making their mark, pulling free the grip of sexism on political power and making it easier for the women to come.
Ruth McGowan OAM is a gender equity advocate and champion for women in local government through her work as a consultant and coach. Ruth is currently writing a book to assist candidates to get elected to public office.