Month: March 2018

by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

Let’s talk about sexism in politics

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.

by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

Council collides with #MeToo

This week the global #MeToo movement of women speaking about their experiences of sexual harassment smashed into Australian local government. The fallout from this collision will forever change the way councils respond to sexist behaviour.

Across local government, CEOs, Councillors and governance staff are scrambling to see if their council Code of Conduct would pass ‘the Doyle test’ and peak bodies are calling for change.

As background, the former lord mayor of the City of Melbourne, Robert Doyle was one of the most well-known, and important councillors in Australia. Following an investigation into complaints about his conduct, investigators this week found that Doyle had indeed sexually harassed two councillors; Tessa Sullivan, who resigned after making a complaint in September, and current Councillor Cathy Oke.

My hope is that the courage of Tessa Sullivan and Cathy Oke speaking up, will result in real change for women in local government across Australia.

How bad is it for women councillors?

No records are kept on the levels of harassment experienced by women councillors in Australia however, the experience of the Melbourne councillors is not unique. As a Local Government coach, I support many women councillors in their demanding role as community leaders. As women describe the challenges of public office, inevitably stories of bullying and harassment surface. The offensive behaviour comes not only from fellow councillors but also from members of the community.

It’s a difficult fact of political life but most women in public office will have #MeToo stories of sexual harassment or sexist behaviour directed towards them.

In the past when women complained they were often told “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, toughen up!”, “it’s just a joke’, or “that’s the way he is, just ignore him.”  However, as a result of the report into harassment at the City of Melbourne, I think we’ve reached a tipping point where things must change.  Time is indeed up for sexism in politics.

 Councils need to be safer for women

The report on the sexual harassment allegations at the City of Melbourne has highlighted the need to make councils safer workplaces for women. This will mean changes to Councils’ Code of Conduct which are silent on sexual harassment. As Tessa Sullivan said this week on ABC Radio

Out of 79 councils, you would presume there would be harassment or sexual harassment of some kind. To completely lack a policy leaves women vulnerable and open to what happened to us and furthermore gives them absolutely no outlet for complaint”. Tessa Sullivan

Across the sector, there is recognition by the peak bodies that things need to change. The Municipal Association of Victoria said the City of Melbourne report “highlighted the need for better processes to deal with allegations of sexual harassment and maintain a safe workplace for all councillors and staff”. A call echoed by the Victorian Local Governance Association who want the state government to “include sexual harassment and discriminatory behaviour as grounds for serious misconduct by councillors”.

The organisation representing women councillors, the Australian Local Government Women’s Association (ALGWA) are also calling for fundamental changes to be made including a complaint handling process similar to the UK where a Local Government Commissioner receives and investigate complaints and then makes recommendations to an independent body.

“There needs to be an overhaul of the Code of Conduct complaints process and it needs to be independent of individual Councils.” ALGWA President Cr Coral Ross

The timing is right not only with the growing confidence and boldness women have to come forward with  #MeToo stories, but also with the review by the Victorian Government of the Local Government Act, which currently makes no specific mention of sexual harassment relating to misconduct.

The Doyle Test

Codes of conducts that seek to regulate Councillors’ behaviour have been put on notice that from now on they need to pass ‘The Doyle Test’. I encourage Councils to assess the efficacy of their code to deal with similar allegations by asking two questions:

  1. “If Robert Doyle was our Mayor and a female councillor made sexual harassment allegations against him, how would this have fairly and swiftly been handled by our code of conduct”? and
  2. “Where do we need to improve our code to make our workplace safe for all councillors?”

The courage of Tessa Sullivan and Cathy Oke must be acknowledged with lasting changes so that when harassment happens it can be confidentially reported, swiftly resolved and ultimately prevented. I hope their pain from speaking out, will not be in vain but leaves a legacy where:

  • From now on women councillors no longer have to put up with the “rough and tumble’ of politics which makes excuses for sexist behaviour and harassment,
  • The next Local Government Act addresses these types of behaviours and
  • Soon, every council code of conduct will pass the ‘Doyle Test’.

These brave women who called out the behaviour of the most powerful councillor in the state, deserve no less. #TimesUp in local government.

Ruth McGowan is a former Mayor and Councillor. She works as a consultant and coach in local government and runs training and programs to support women to stand for council. She was recently contracted by the Victorian Government to develop the Best Practice Guidelines on Gender Equality in Local Government.  

by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

Press Fast Forward for Gender Equality

Sometimes when I want to catch a movie that’s been scheduled to play on free-to-air TV, I will record it. Then, later on, I can watch it at my leisure and fast-forward the advertisements with my remote control in hand and skip to the good bits. I’ve been thinking about this as a strategy in the lead up to International Women’s Day.

Right now, I wish I had a great big remote control and could press a fast-forward button on advancing gender equality and skip the bad bits.

Because, despite advances, we still have a long way to go in terms of reaching equality for women. On many measurements, it is likely to take decades to reach parity. I want things to swing into fast-forward mode and to speed up legislation, systems, policies that deliver fairness and equality for women.

#IWD2018 a time for reflection

Thursday is International Women’s Day, #IWD2018. It’s a chance to celebrate women’s achievements and contributions. The day also provides an occasion to reflect on the barriers to equality and consider how far we still need to go to reach gender parity for women not just in Australia but all over the world.

Last year, the IWD theme was #BeBoldForChange. And boy did we see some sassy fem boldness in 2017! With movements like #ItsTime and #MeToo as well as the #WomensMarches we witnessed women all over the world standing up in their hundreds and thousands for equality, fairness and a better deal.

In 2018, the theme is #PressforProgress. But, with this theme, it’s not about just pressing the ‘play’ button – that’s basically a ‘business as usual’ approach. When it comes to seeking gender parity, I think it’s time to hit the fast-forward button!

The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates it will be 118 years before women around the world can expect equal pay. I’m not going to be alive in 2136. Neither will you. We can’t wait that long, for the sake of our daughters and granddaughters.

We can’t wait another 100 + years for gender equality.

Oh no – we’ve hit the Rewind button!

Sometimes it feels like we are making little progress on gender equality in this country – and on this, the statistics back me up.

Reflect on these trends:

  • Analysis of the Gender Pay Gap shows women still earn less than men, 15.3% in fact. However, in 2004 it was slightly better, at 14.9% according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. We’ve gone backwards on equality of pay.
  • In terms of political representation of women in our 45th Federal parliament, female politicians are around 28% of members, well short of the minimum 30% necessary to influence decision making and the political agenda. Further, the International Parliamentary Union ranks Australia as 49th in the world. We were previously ranked20th in the world in 2001. We’ve gone backwards on women’s representation.
  • Australia is now 35th on the Global Gender Gap report, an international measure of the relative gaps between women and men across four key areas: health, education, economy and politics. We’re definitely going backwards here. Only three years ago in 2014, we were 24th.
  • The progress of women on top ASX 200 boards is glacial. A report by KPMG found that“Among the top 100 companies, the percentage of women in CEO and COO/deputy CEO roles did not change between 2011 and 2016, while female representation at CFO level reduced’. Stalling here.

These statistics reflect the status of women across the board. I would guess they would be much worse for women with disabilities, for rural women and older women, women identifying as LGBTI or from culturally diverse backgrounds as well as Aboriginal women.

Forget press forward; it’s time to hit Fast Forward

 Five actions to fast forward fairness

 Last year, the Workplace Gender Equality highlighted actions that organisations can put in place to measure operational progress on gender equality. These actions can be measured. They can be reported.  They can assist an organisation to stay accountable for their policies on gender equity, diversity and inclusion.

  1. Conduct a gender pay gap analysis of your organisation
  2. Make managers responsible for KPIs related to gender equality
  3. Appoint women to manager roles (including promotions)
  4. Develop and promote flexible work policies
  5.  Appoint women directors on boards and governing bodies

How is your organisation going on implementing these measures? Or, is it just paying lip service to gender equality? Because if there are no specific actions pressing forward for progress, things will go backwards and HR may as well be pressing the rewind button.

This International Women’s day the focus will be on what we can to be active for equality. I hope we don’t have to wait a hundred years for a fair and equal world for women everywhere.

Will you join me in doing what you can in your sphere of influence to improve equality and fairness for women? Will you take action to press the Fast-Forward button on gender equality?

Ruth McGowan OAM is a gender equity advocate and champion for women in local government through her work as a consultant and coach. In 2014 she was recognised for her outstanding leadership in her community with an Order of Australia honour.