What Needs To Be Done To Get Equal Numbers Of Women In Politics

Marian Wright Edelman once said, "you can't be what you can't see."

Last week, data released by PLAN international confirmed what, sadly, many of us already felt to be true: zero percent of young adult women in Australia have any desire at all to work in politics.

The data isn’t surprising. The type of sexist behaviour directed at Senator Sarah Hanson-Young on the floor of parliament last month is not an anomaly, and if Julia Gillard had been treated as badly as she was in any workplace other than Parliament House, she could have taken them to court for workplace bullying and harassment. It’s par for the course for female politicians in Australia to be bullied and belittled.

Why would any woman want to enter a workplace like that?

The Hanson-Young-David Leyonhjelm saga sparked a lot of commentary over whether women have a right to feel mistreated, and how sexist politics really is – with many calling on the government to do something about it. But it seems a strongly worded tweet is the only weapon at most punters' disposal.

The reality is, it will take a lot of work for politics to be a safe, welcoming workplace for women, and while data and commentary is an important part of addressing the issue, nothing will actually happen unless government pulls up its socks and gets to the business of implementing real change.

And that is exactly what the Victorian Government is now urging local government to do.

On Friday, it released its comprehensive guide, ‘Best Practice for Gender Equity in Local Government.’

As Minister for Local Government Marlene Kairouz said, “gender equality is good for everyone. It’s good for organisations because it makes them more efficient and productive. It’s good for communities because it makes them stronger. And it’s good for men and women, because it creates new opportunities and choices.”

Women make up just 38 percent of our state and federal MPs on average. (Image: Getty Images)

The Victorian Labor government has set the goal of achieving 50 percent female representation in local government by 2025. To secure that number, Victorians must elect an additional 75 female councillors in the next seven years.

By breaking down the importance of gender equity in politics and the best ways to promote gender equity through elected councillors and in local government administration, the new guidelines provide concrete steps that all local governments should take to level the gender playing field.

The guide itself is being promoted to local governments in Victoria in the hopes that it will help to boost representation of women within its own ranks.

Recommendations for best practice include:
  • Integrating training in gender equity, unconscious bias and bystander training into councillor’s professional development
  • Reaching out and supporting potential women candidates
  • Celebrating women leaders
  • Emulating best practice support for family-friendly cultures
  • Leading and arguing the case for gender equity
  • Measuring progress

There is no guarantee that these recommendations will be adopted by any of the local governments in Victoria. But Victoria's governments should take them on – as should local governments in every other state and territory in Australia.

Equal gender representation (and also the equal representation of minority groups) in politics is a national problem.

On average, women make up just 38 percent of our state and federal politicians.

Percentage of female members of state and federal parliaments
NSW 27.4%
VIC 39.8%
QLD 32.3%
WA 30.8%
SA 26%
TAS 50%
ACT 56%
NT 48%
Federal Parliament 31.8%

Females represent half of our community members, and women represent half of our workforce, half of our volunteers, a third of our business owners, 80 percent of our primary school teachers, 60 percent of our secondary school teachers, 90 percent of our nurses, half of our motorists, and on average spend twice the amount of time caring for their children than male parents, among countless other roles within our communities.

Decisions local governments make have profound effects on communities and all of their members, and local government is the level of government we have the most intimate interactions with. It should therefore be the most representative of our communities.

It is important that organisations, and political parties, adopt and actively implement policies that will welcome more women into their ranks. Not only do young women need positive role models, but studies show that the more women you have in a workplace, the less chance there is of corruption.

On top of that, Commissioner Kate Jenkins of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission said in a speech earlier this year:

“Research has shown that gender inequality and community attitudes about women and their role in society contribute significantly to sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence against women.”

Given the sexual slurs thrown at female politicians, promoting gender equality in politics might act as a preventative measure against this treatment.

"Governments across all states and territories should implement Victoria's 'Best Practice For Gender Equity' recommendations." (Image: Getty Images)

To create safer workplaces for women in politics, we need to get more women involved in the first place. And given how sorely politics is lacking female representation in every state, we need to do it quickly.

If young women don’t see any positive role models in politics, last week's statistic – zero percent of young adult women in Australia have any desire to work in politics – won’t change. Every state and territory in this country should begin to implement all the Victorian Government's best practice recommendations, if we ever want to achieve true gender equity.