It is tempting to be resigned in the face of Kate Ellis’s resignation from politics.
To use it as proof that, deep down, mothers just want to be with their children.
To accept, as a consequence, that politics will remain a realm dominated by men. Hell, we can extrapolate beyond politics and use it as a justification for the ongoing diminutive representation of women across the board.
It wouldn’t be the first – or last – time biology has reared its head in a discussion about increasing the proportion of women in any field.
“But women have children…” is wheeled out often as a complete argument. It is the default piece de resistance used to justify why women, who comprise half the population, struggle to secure a decent set of seats at the decision-making tables.
In law, medicine, business, politics, academia, science, technology. You name a sector or an industry, and I will show you a decision making table that presents women as a rarity.
The ‘women have children’ argument is flawed. Men also have children and, despite it being a widely held view, there is no evidence to support the notion that women are preternaturally equipped for every aspect of parenthood. (Handy though that might be, particularly in the early weeks with a newborn, it’s false.)
Parenting is learned on the job. We merely assume women are better at it because, historically and currently, they do more of it.
Notwithstanding its flaws, ‘the women have children’ argument has some application. It presupposes that women can only have one or the other, and, frustrating though that may be, it’s an apt assumption because, too often, women can only have one or the other.
Many women do not “choose” to leave work in the proper sense of the word. They are forced to leave work because it has proved too difficult to combine with their life outside work.
Half of Australian women are discriminated against while pregnant or returning from maternity leave, which makes the “choice” for them.
It’s estimated that 165,000 women in Australia work less than they would like because either they can’t access childcare, or because the cost of that care renders working more an energy-consuming, logistical battle they aren’t willing to commit to for no net gain.
Would we describe this as a “choice”?
They are told they earn less because they don’t ask for more, but recent research shows that women are just as likely to ask for a pay rise but they are 25% less likely to get one.
Women do not lack competence, confidence or education, but in too many workplaces they remain underrepresented, underpaid and overlooked.
Is it any wonder they leave?
We cannot divorce the choices women make from the circumstances in which they make them. And we cannot pretend that the circumstances aren’t stacked against them.
It is no victory when someone has to leave a job they love because it isn’t compatible with their life outside of work. Kate Ellis opting to leave politics isn’t a win: it’s entirely lamentable and understandable at once.
And the temptation to frame it as inevitable must be resisted.
If keeping a politician as dedicated and qualified as Kate Ellis is impossible, then the representation of women in parliament is doomed. And it’s already pretty dire.
A report in the Financial Review today shows the number of female Liberal MPs is at its lowest in 20 years: just 18 of the 84 Liberals in the federal Parliament are women. The Labor Party has 43 women in Parliament.
The conversation we need to have is how can we make it easier for more women to choose politics? And before anyone suggests tweaks to “fix” the women, let’s consider the system.
If Kate Ellis can’t make it work, it’s proof the system is broken, not the woman.