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Women in politics: Rethinking the face of power

Reach for the stars, we tell young girls. Break that glass ceiling. Start your own business. But how vigorously do we urge them to use their talents to affect change by entering politics?

Not vigorously enough, according to the Women for Election (WFE), an Australian for-purpose organisation that provides practical support and guidance for women seeking to enter politics. Plan International reports that just 12 per cent of young women say that they would pursue a career in national politics.

Forty-nine per cent of Australians don’t think today’s political leaders represent their voice, but many women are dissuaded from entering politics because of Canberra’s well-publicised toxic culture.

Believing that workplace opportunity must be matched with political clout, Dynamic Business recently talked to Licia Heath, CEO for WFE, and a cross-section of Australian female politicians. Those at the coalface discuss why it is so important for Australia’s future that we have more women considering a career in politics and the steps we can take in our homes and communities to encourage their participation.

Licia Heath, CEO of Women for Election

Women in politics: Rethinking the face of power
Licia Heath, CEO, Women for Election
What are the current impediments to women entering politics? 

“Women certainly suffer more ‘barriers to entry’ than men regarding entering politics and that has been well researched both here and overseas. Women for Election have simplified these barriers to the “5 Cs”: Cash, Caring responsibilities, Culture, Candidate Selection, Confidence. 

“It’s important to note that women of colour face even greater barriers when they run, including having to deal with, in too many cases, racist attacks. But as a collective, we all spend too much time focussing on the impediments for women getting into politics (as important as they are) and not enough time discussing all the positives that can come when more women, of all backgrounds and lived experience, sit in equal numbers to men in our council, state and federal chambers. 

“When women are able to exercise political leadership in a manner that is authentic to them, there are gains not just for women and girls but for the whole of society.” 

How can these best be overcome? 

“Women for Election has been working hard to address the lack of gender diversity in our Parliamentary chambers by providing non-partisan training courses, support and networking events that address the “5 C’s”. Our mission is to inspire and equip more women to run for public office, across all parties and all levels of government in Australia. We make what is currently a very opaque process (how to run for office) more transparent so that more women feel comfortable stepping into it. Our recently released Power Like You’ve Never Seen campaign encourages Australians to rethink the face of power and support a new era of female political leadership. By calling on Australians to question their ideas about what power looks really like, a new paradigm is created that urges more women to become political representatives.” 

Does recent coverage of the culture that exists in Australian politics deter women or inspire them to enter the fray and bring about change? 

“We’ve had just over 2000 women register for our training events in the last 18 months, so it would appear that recent coverage has mobilised women. Rather than turning away from politics because of the “toxic” political system, women are signing up in droves to enter politics. There appears to have been a reckoning for women in Australia (and many men) where they KNOW that women are needed to fix the problem. 

“This was seen at the NSW local government elections in December 2021 where a record number of women ran – and were elected – to local councils all over the state. This year we’ll have state elections in SA and VIC, local government elections in Tasmania and a federal election thrown into the mix as well. We’re in a ‘peak election’ phase and there are plenty of opportunities for the Australian public to look for a woman’s name on a ballot sheet and vote for a woman.” 

What are your thoughts on quotas as a way to achieve increased representation? 

“Ultimately, it’s political parties that decide on whether they implement targets or quotas and in what way they’re implemented. There are many different ways that quotas are implemented in overseas political parties – from determining who runs in a pre-selection contest to establishing gender rules on who can vote in pre-selection contests. Gender quotas in politics are controversial – but global experience seems to show they work. 

“In terms of the percentage of female representation in Parliament, Australia keeps falling behind other OECD countries that also have an equivalent two major party system, because their two parties implement gender quotas, whereas only one of our major parties does. It’s important to note that gender quotas increase representation, but they’re also slow to work. After all, a woman can only replace a man if he retires or steps down from a seat. So, whilst quotas have a place, we have to think about other, more immediate solutions to reach gender parity in our Parliaments, and that is where Women for Election has a role to play. “

Ashley Edwards, WFE Alumnus and Greens Councilor, Albury, NSW 

Women in politics: Rethinking the face of power
Ashley Edwards,Greens Councilor, Albury, NSW
What are the current impediments to women entering politics? 

“Having children, for those who choose to do so, is a huge impediment to women entering politics. With women in heteronormative relationships traditionally taking on more caring responsibilities than their male partners, young women are often juggling work and caring responsibilities with not much time or energy left for anything else. 

“Political workplaces are also not exactly parent-friendly. I can’t believe it took until 2017 for women to be able to breastfeed their babies in the Australian parliament, after years of women being told to remove their babies from the chamber. While this has thankfully changed and the recent pandemic has taught us that remote and flexible working can also apply to politics, there is still a long way to go.” 

How can these best be overcome? 

“Politics as a career choice for women with children could be better supported by closing the gender pay gap, setting gender quotas on boards and in executive roles in the public and private sectors, establishing a free universal and high-quality early learning system and introducing government-funded paid parental leave at the minimum wage for 26 weeks, shared between partners to support bonding and establish equal and shared parenting right from the beginning.” 

Does recent coverage of the culture that exists in Australian politics deter women or inspire them to enter the fray and bring about change? 

“I think it probably does deter many. The culture that has been recently exposed as being rife in Australian politics is truly toxic and unacceptable and has no place in any workplace, in any home or anywhere in Australian society. However, with the emergence of inspiring young women such as Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame, comes a strong demand for change that is starting to be answered. I look forward to more women answering that call and being inspired to effect meaningful change in politics. 

“I also look forward to cultural and behavioural change in the places where decisions are made along with the full implementation of all 55 recommendations from the Australian Human Rights Commissions’ Respect@Work report.” 

What are your thoughts on quotas as a way to achieve increased representation? 

“There are fewer women in politics at local, state and federal levels, with younger women being particularly underrepresented. You can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying goes. Gender diversity means better decisions. 

“More women in politics can absolutely be achieved by political parties setting gender equity quotas and taking affirmative action to ensure that more women get preselected. More women preselected means more women have a chance of being elected. These steps are already being taken by the Greens and to some extent by the Labor party. However, we need gender equity across the political spectrum and at all levels of government, including representation from the LGBTQIA+ community.”

Heidi-Lee Douglas, WFE Alumnus and Independent Councillor, Bayside, NSW

Women in politics: Rethinking the face of power
Heidi-Lee Douglas, Independent Councillor, Bayside, NSW
What are the current impediments to women entering politics? 

“There is a saying, you have to see it to be it. I believe this is true. If we don’t have role models if we don’t have mentors, if we don’t have people opening the door for us, how do we find the courage to step, and step through? One way I found that support to step up was to have a team of community members around me that share my values. They have been helping me every step of the way to step up and now navigate the political system with integrity. 

“I also think women stepping into politics get extra maltreatment – bullying, harassment, gaslighting. I’ve experienced it myself, and not just from men, but from other women. “Because there is unconscious bias against women speaking out and taking space. I am lucky to have a team of supporters around me who always have my back and offer me advice when I experience these behaviours. Honestly, I find when I experience this mistreatment is only galvanises me to stand up and take the space.”

How can these best be overcome? 

“I am reading a great book called the 48 laws of power, which has been very insightful. I also talk through issues I’m facing with mentors and friends who act as advisors, seek advice from other councillors in other councils, and from experts in their field in governance. I do my research. I am also watching a kick-arse female-led Korean gangster series at the moment that I find super inspiring. As a storyteller and filmmaker myself I think strong female role models are really helpful – in whatever format you find them.” 

Does recent coverage of the culture that exists in Australian politics deter women or inspire them to enter the fray and bring about change? 

“Good question. I was horrified when I saw how Prime Minister Julia Gillard was treated by Tony Abbott and his party. But I did not have political aspirations then. I was already considering running for council when many revelations about how women are treated in Australian politics became public early last year. At that point I decided I had to step up to make the change I wanted to see in the world. We owe it to other women to break down barriers and create better leaders. I also owe it to my young sons to make the world the best it can be for them.” 

What are your thoughts on quotas as a way to achieve increased representation? 

“Since I ran for council, I have had quite a lot of men telling me that I have inspired them to consider running for council too. I feel a bit conflicted that not more women are saying the same thing to me. Why is that? Do they need more active encouragement? Are quotas one of those ways to ensure women are actively encouraged to run for politics? As I am not part of a political party but am Independent, quotas don’t really relate to me. I would instead encourage more women to run as Independents and encourage community members to back them to do so.” 

Jennifer Barrie, WFE Alumnus and Liberal Councillor, Newcastle, NSW 

Women in politics: Rethinking the face of power
Jenny Barrie, Liberal Councillor, Newcastle, NSW
What are the current impediments to women entering politics? 

“In the world of politics in NSW, it continues to be dominated by males of all ages, who can be at times very politically ambitious, ego-driven, and are often in a pack of mates e.g., a boy’s club.

“Many inspirational women have a lack of financial backing, as self-funding is required across all levels to stage a campaign. Juggling priorities with family demands for younger women, work commitments, and existing hobbies for all ages. Social impacts occur on women’s personal time to balance everything in a woman’s life. Women need a support team to nominate for preselection in political parties, and to develop a network of people to assist when campaigning and on election day, a small army is required.”

How can these best be overcome? 

“Ask for help and support from family and friends and like-minded people. Plan fundraising events, ask for donations, join community groups, build a profile on social media, promote yourself by writing to the local paper on local issues, publish media releases. Become a leader in a Lions or Rotary Club, join a sporting club. Join a political party or an independent alliance group. Gain knowledge and support from women in leadership, like the wonderful Women for Election or NSW Liberal Women’s council, who run mentor programs and support female candidates as much as possible.”

Does recent coverage of the culture that exists in Australian politics deter women or inspire them to enter the fray and bring about change? 

“If you don’t put your hand up and challenge your male counterparts, there will always be gender inequality. To inspire other women to battle in a local preselection and work diligently to change the culture by strong leadership is the only way forward to combat the existing imbalance and bring on change to the male-dominated culture that continues to exist even with younger political aspiring males. However, many strong women decide that there are too many negatives and are deterred from entering politics as not to damage their integrity and business acumen.”

What are your thoughts on quotas as a way to achieve increased representation? 

“Political parties, like the Labor Party, have quotas and already have a very high number of women in political roles in my local Hunter region for example there are 3 x female Mayors, many Labor MPs, and Councillors. 

“Many Liberal women feel they do not want a quota, as they want to be preselected on merit and treated as an equal. However, recently there seems a powerful push by males in high political standing interfering with the processes of preselection’s in winnable seats, regardless of gender and they are impacting on Liberal member’s free spirit and competitive nature. Many members are reckless with their own agendas for political gain and continue to tamper with NSW Liberal Party member’s aim to encourage more women into all levels of government, local, state and federal.”

Tamira Stevensen, WFE Alumnus and City of Sydney Labor Candidate, 2021 

Women in politics: Rethinking the face of power
Tamara Stevensen, City of Sydney Labor Candidate 2021
What are the current impediments to women entering politics? 

“I prefer to call them “challenges” rather than “impediments” to running for public office, although they are sometimes supercharged challenges. From my experience as a candidate in the NSW local government elections, I have no doubt women generally face more challenges to becoming a candidate for public office, being elected, and being promoted once in office. Of course, the perceptions and experiences of everyone would vary, depending in part on if they are independent or running for preselection by a political party and then which party they join. 

“The first challenge for women generally is to have the confidence to go for it. The gender difference in approach to applying for high-level positions in the private sector reflects what happens in public life. The data shows that men will go for a role when they meet about 60% of the selection criteria and may even view some criteria as “non-essential.” In contrast, women generally wait until they meet about 80% – 90% of the selection criteria before applying. By that time, she may have missed out on several good opportunities. 

Being a politician is more than a full-time job! Speaking to voters, consulting with community groups, attending party room meetings, and Parliamentary or council meetings all adds up. Unless a woman has a very supportive partner at home, a woman with school-age children may delay or not run for public office because she believes she does not have time to do so. 

“In Australia, women are still predominantly the primary caregiver to children in families. A man who is the breadwinner of a family with kids would have higher remuneration than a woman working in a part-time or less senior role, typically to accommodate her caregiver role in the family. Without access to affordable and good quality childcare, women in this situation may hesitate before putting themselves forward for the night meetings and long hours involved in becoming a candidate and then working as a politician. It truly is more of a balancing act for women generally than men. 

“A well-worn path of entry into political office is working as a staffer for a party politician. Many are younger women without child-raising responsibilities, assisting with electoral work, organising diaries, and preparing briefing papers. As well as the long hours and fast-paced work environment, as became more publicly known last year, women staffers and politicians more predominantly face a culture of sexual harassment in the parliamentary environment. Undoubtedly, those experiences would lead some women to decide political office is not for them, even though they may be excellent candidates. 

“A challenge for many potential candidates is lacking the money to run a campaign. Due to the gender difference in earnings in the Australian workforce, women generally have less capacity to self-fund a campaign. Also, if you cannot tap into a network of high earning individuals prepared to make political donations, you will need to have the time and grit to seek support and smaller donations from many more people. Even with a grassroots campaign staffed predominantly by volunteers, you need financial backing to run as a candidate, whether you are an independent or running as a party candidate.” 

How can these best be overcome? 

“I think there are specific steps that directly address some impediments; however, some more systemic issues preventing women’s full workplace participation, such as lack of affordable childcare, will require government action. A real bugbear of mine is that the current tax system combined with the current structure of government childcare subsidies continues to penalise many women who work more than three days per week. 

“I believe that non-partisan training programs for women are invaluable not only in skilling them up but giving them the confidence to run and support their endeavours through online networking and information sharing. It can also promote greater comradery across party lines. 

“Also, I would like to see more fundraising groups for specific purposes, like Emily’s List for women candidates and the “Voices” supporting independent candidates for climate change. 

I think greater utilisation of technology to help candidates comply with electoral funding disclosure rules quickly and efficiently, without significant candidate resources or time. It may involve developing new fundraising and accounting software customising existing fundraising platforms such as My Cause or Go Fund Me. 

“A great mentor is helpful for males or females. It also helps for a woman to have a mentor with clout who can essentially be an experienced sounding board for the candidate throughout the preselection and election process and then encourage or sponsor women taking on more senior roles when in office. Still, I believe women need great mentors to face more significant barriers (internal and external) in running and being elected for public office. It’s not just about having more female politicians but having greater public prominence and thus becoming a role model for other women. 

Does recent coverage of the culture that exists in Australian politics deter women or inspire them to enter the fray and bring about change? 

“The first step to achieving meaningful change is naming and defining the thing needing change. So, the recent expose of abhorrent conduct in public office is an unfortunate but necessary step in stopping it. 

“In a sense, the damage has already been done to specific individuals who have previously worked as staffers and had a bad experience and decided politics was not for them. 

I think redress starts with real action – implementing Kate Jenkins Set the Standard report in full, not just cherry-picking what sounds good in the media cycle but achieves little in protecting staff from harassment. 

“For me, the sexist elements make me even more determined to run for office and be the change. I want public office to be where things get done and not merely an arena for petty party politics and lousy workplace culture. 

What are your thoughts on quotas as a way to achieve increased representation? 

“I ran as a Labor candidate, so I’m also aware of the impact that party policy can have on political participation by men and women. 

“Women members of the Liberal Party or the National Party face the challenge of their party rooms not supporting gender quotas to increase the number of women in Parliament, reflected in women comprising only 25% of the Coalition members of the Federal Parliament. In contrast, the ALP introduced an affirmative action policy in 1994 that set a target of preselecting 35% of winnable electorates being with female candidates by 2002. 

“Since then, the ALP increased its female representation in that Parliament to about 48%. It’s for the conservative side of politics to discuss the merits and good politics of representing our communities in all their diversities. 

“I think each political party needs to have a frank discussion about not just satisfying gender quotas but also supporting the preselection of women in non-marginal seats, if necessary, by targeted quotas. Becoming a politician with a senior decision-making role involves achieving longevity of service, not possible when you are a member of a bellwether seat, which changes according to a change of government. Also, being the MP for a marginal seat involves more intensive electoral work to hold onto the seat, which is excellent for the community but can forestall an MP from being promoted to more senior roles, such as becoming the Minister for a portfolio. 

“We need more women in senior political positions as role models for other women. As the saying goes, ‘you cannot be which you cannot see.’”

To find out more about the WFE campaign head to: Power Like You’ve Never Seen.

Read more: Why embracing authenticity is the key to removing gender bias in the workplace

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Clare Loewenthal

Clare Loewenthal

Clare is an author, business commentator and passionate contributor to Dynamic Business. She was the Founder and Publisher of Dynamic Small Business magazine, which became Australia’s largest small business publication.

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