‘In the long run, won’t our community be a stronger, better-balanced and more intelligent community when the last artificial disabilities imposed upon women by centuries of custom have been removed?’ – Robert Menzies’ ‘Women in War’ broadcast, 1942.
Often in politics, it seems like women get the short end of the stick, finding themselves far removed from decision-making levels and significantly out-numbered by men. For a number of reasons, like the beliefs and biases associated with the role of women in society, our political systems continue to have a significant gender imbalance.
In its current state, the representation of Australia’s parliament hovers around 30%, the bare minimum level necessary for ‘women as a group to exert a meaningful influence in legislative assemblies’, according to a 1995 report by the United Nations Development Programme. In January 2016, women made up just 30.5% of federal parliamentarians in Australia—the same percentage as in January 2015.
These statistics are further compounded by the fact that Australia has slipped from 15th place in 1999 to 56th place on the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s ranking of national parliaments for the representation of women.
Despite continuous progress in women’s political rights and inclusion, structural barriers continue to limit women’s participation in political systems which are largely monopolised by men. Whilst it is true that individual women have managed to overcome a number of these obstacles, for women as a whole, significant inequalities persist, highlighting the need for a level playing field.
Since the political arena is largely dominated by men, a masculine model of politics is particularly prevalent—that is, it’s often organised according to male norms and values. This is reflected in the lack of support for working mothers. In 1988, Australia’s Parliament House featured a pool, a gym, a snooker room and a meditation room—but it did not include any childcare facilities, despite campaigning by female senators, which lasted another 20 years. Further, the presence of homophily among political parties has made it harder for women to integrate themselves into their parties’ work. As a result, there are significantly fewer women in politics than men, and therefore fewer examples for young girls to aspire to.
Gender quotas are just one way of achieving a greater gender balance in political institutions. The ALP currently has a quota of 40% female MPs and last year unanimously adopted a resolution which will have women make up 50% of Labor parliamentarians by 2025. The Liberal Party, on the other hand, released a report last year stating that gender quotas are ‘entirely inconsistent with the argument for merit’ but recommended an aspirational target of 50%.
The problem with this is that an aspirational target does not necessarily create change. Whilst gender quotas and targets both aim to improve the representation of women in political institutions, targets are voluntary and can take significantly longer to be effective. Because quotas are mandated, women must constitute a certain number or percentage of the members of a political body within a particular timeframe. And thanks to quotas, the percentage of women in parliaments globally has nearly doubled in the past 20 years.
In addition, the argument that women lack merit in politics raises important questions about why men have ‘greater merit’ than women. If men and women were given equal opportunity from childhood, why would there be any difference in their merit?
More importantly, the potential positive impact of equal gender representation in politics is often overlooked when arguments against quotas are made.
For young girls, greater representation of women would mean a change in their educational outcomes and career aspirations. We need women role models to look up to in politics, and, perhaps more desperately, a change in attitudes towards women as leaders. Women make up approximately half of the population, yet the political sphere in Australia is far from equal.
By placing power in the hands of men and only men, society cannot hope to include the various perspectives of our diverse populous. Not to mention there are a whole range of benefits that come with gender equality and women’s participation in parliament.
While not a homogenous group, the shared experiences of women can affect the priorities of political issues; women parliamentarians can better express the concerns of women and share them on the parliamentary agenda. By having a greater representation of women, parliaments can work towards policies that are equitable and fair to both men and women. Furthermore, women tend to prioritise social issues—such as childcare, equal pay, and parental leave—as well as physical and developmental concerns. In short, the interests of women should be represented by women, especially when it comes to policy development.
Unequal representation isn’t a reflection of the values men and women consciously try to live their lives by; instead, it is the result of a culture which, in the past, has placed the work of men in higher regard than women and perpetuated stereotypes about gender roles.
In a society where men are privileged, without choice or intention, there needs to be some way to even out our political representation in order to achieve a greater level of gender equality.
Whether this is through the legislation of gender quotas or some other equaliser, the privileges afforded to men in parliament and politics disadvantage women and their talents; women can be men’s equals when it comes to politics—but only if they are given the same opportunity.
Alyssia Tennant is currently studying a Bachelor of Journalism (Social and Digital Campaigning) at the University of Canberra. Formerly, she was the sub-editor for BMA Magazine, a breakfast radio producer with Radio Adelaide and she previously coordinated the University of South Australia’s student radio station, UniCast. Her writing has been published with Right Now Inc., Curieux, BMA and Verse Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @alyssiatennant