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Addressing the woman drought in politics



Headlines celebrating Gladys Berejiklian as the first female elected as premier of NSW exemplify how far we have come and still have to go with women in politics. That women are held to a different, higher standard than men is evident in all facets of society, but in the political sphere it is a test of worthiness.

Gladys Berejiklian is greeted by former PM John Howard and current PM Scott Morrison on election night. (Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)The media and politicians see the need to differentiate between women 'being elected' by the public and those 'being imposed' on the public.

Kristina Keneally, the first female premier of NSW, rolled her Labor predecessor Nathan Rees in a leadership ballot and is often painted as being a 'puppet' of right-wing factional warlords — a claim she defiantly denied. Despite her popularity and meritorious performances as an effective campaigner and excellent communicator, Kenneally's reign is tainted with shades of betrayal and outright scandal.

A similar stench of treachery and untrustworthiness marked Julia Gillard. Australia's first female prime minister came to power by knifing Kevin Rudd in a leadership spill — in which she was elected unopposed. It's no secret that Rudd was uncooperative and a nightmare to work with, but the question of whether usurping him was the right move lingers. On top of frustrations regarding her role in the leadership coup, Gillard faced disgraceful gender based attacks, which plagued her performance. She was admired but not respected.

Commentary about Berejiklian has been kinder than it was to Kenneally and Gillard — she took the reigns of government cleanly from Mike Baird when he stood down as premier. But still she can't escape being defined by her relationship to others. An article this week said Berejiklian 'lacks a spouse and children'. Like Gillard, the reportage of a female leader being unconventional in her family choices has an air of suggesting a deficiency in her personality, and that she is different from 'ordinary Australians'. In truth, the marital status and number of children a politician has shouldn't be seen as a measure of their capability.

So why don't we have more female leaders? Well, history has not been kind and neither has society. The pressure for politicians to return to the job after childbirth has created an either/or mentality for some. Labor deputy Tanya Plibersek has remarked that she returned to work 'too early' after the birth of one of her children, while outgoing minister Kelly O'Dwyer is leaving Parliament to have more kids. The womb does not make the woman, but in politics it is seen as potency.

The unequal playing field in which women in politics are judged extends beyond the family unit. Female politicians are judged on everything from the warmth of their style to the height of their heels and the details on their dress. Berejiklian has been described as 'not photogenic', while remarks about Gillard mentioned her 'big arse'. In spite of the sexism they face women are expected to walk an impossible line between carrying themselves with charm and commanding credibility.


"The next female prime minister or premier is listening and she deserves to be seen for her own worth, not as an attractive embellishment."


Some of the worst and most overt sexism can come from within politics itself. Outgoing Senator David Leyonhjelm had a defamation action brought against him for making disgusting comments about Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young's sex life. Meanwhile, former Labor opposition leader Michael Daley in his concession speech referred to deputy Penny Sharpe as 'an ornament to the party'. It seems far too often women are condemned for what they do with their bodies and congratulated for the 'softer' optics they add to a political party.

Even the statistics show we are still far from parity. About a third of candidates in the NSW election were women — a Sydney Morning Herald report found women made up 34 per cent of those running for a seat in the Legislative Assembly and 37 per cent of those running for a spot in the Legislative Council.

But things are changing slowly. Federal Labor are likely to reach 50/50 gender representation in Parliament at the next election. Meanwhile some former and current Liberal women are speaking up and challenging the merit argument that has long curbed their progression in politics. However, it must be said that politics is still largely a white woman's world.

Addressing the woman drought in politics requires a multi-pronged approach: reducing barriers that prevent people who don't have immense privilege and connections from standing as candidates; breaking up the 'boys club' in the youth wing of political parties; and cracking down on unparliamentary behaviour in the 'bear pit' that requires women to 'roll with the punches'.

Additionally, newsrooms can do much to ensure they don't contribute to a culture of 'othering'. There is a clear link between media reporting and attitudes and beliefs about women.

The next female prime minister or premier is listening and she deserves to be seen for her own worth, not as an attractive embellishment.



Eliza BerlageEliza Berlage is a Canberra based journalist and podcast producer with a background in sociology. She currently works in the Parliament House press gallery as a researcher for The Conversation's chief political correspondent Michelle Grattan.

Main image: Gladys Berejiklian is greeted by former PM John Howard and current PM Scott Morrison on election night. (Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)


Topic tags: Eliza Berlage, NSW election, Gladys Berejiklian



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Existing comments

Although I didn't vote for Gladys' Party at the recent election, Gladys Berejiklian has been a first class performer in NSW. She is a very decent and dedicated woman with considerable educational background to back up her position. She is tough and uncompromising as a good leader has to be but not abusively aggressive as many (including women) in positions of authority seem to think they must be in order to compete. Unlike Rudd and some current members from all parties (both male and female), the best men and women are, like Gladys Berejiklian, not abusive. Throughout the world, when the record of women in power in the political sphere over the last half century is critically examined without bias, the record is far from inspiring. Women have outshone men in sheer abuse of power and incompetence - and this country is certainly not backward in that regard. To select parliamentary representatives on gender is inanity of the first order - rather, selection on ability and human decency as with Gladys Berejiklian and Jacinda Ardern is far more rational. Equality of representation in all things would mean, for instance, that since a vast majority of voting adults are parents the majority of selected reps should be parents and that since trade unions now represent only 6% of the population , unionists should not exceed 6% of the parliament. Selection based on equality of numbers rather than ability and dedication is nonsensical.

john frawley | 01 April 2019  

See John, this is what Eliza is getting at. Gladys is, in your words 'a first class performer' a 'decent and dedicated woman' and then you go on to say that world wide, women have been in the majority regarding 'abuse of power' - 'outshone' was the word you used. reason we are concerned about the lack of representation of women in politics is that half the population are women (to begin using parenthood and trade unions as equal kinds of markers is insulting) and one would think that politics, to be representative and to use the gifts of all, should be more balanced.

Jorie Ryan | 01 April 2019  

Eliza I agree with John Frawley that parliamentary candidacy should be based on merit rather than gender. These days it also seems to be based on wealth of the candidate or the candidates spouse's wealth. Increasingly its a rich boys club, or has been eg: Dutton, Rudd, Turnbull, Shorten are all millionaires. Increasingly the top jobs are for the very well heeled in Australia. No spots for battlers. But if you consider the comparison to the Catholic church, then Australian women in Parliament are well represented. Though Pope Francis favors an increasing role for women, he has slammed the door on female ordination, which effectively means the hierarchy of the church will remain exclusively male. In the Vatican only 3% of women have any positions of real power eg Head of a University. In the Catholic church ironically, Men decree, Women pray. How good is that? Of course its not as bad as Saudi, where women are theologically still regarded as a sub human species though they can now drive cars and play soccer.

Francis Armstrong | 02 April 2019  

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