It’s time to talk about the real reason we don’t have enough women in politics | Women's Agenda

It’s time to talk about the real reason we don’t have enough women in politics

Every once in a while, when the latest media story bubbles to the surface, we are again prompted to reflect on the role of women in politics.

We discuss Julia and Peta and Hillary and we wonder whether the world is really ready for powerful women.

We deliberate over whether it’s sexist for a female politician to have hair, her body, her clothes, her ear lobes, dissected.

We engage in a debate over a “lack of merit” and how there are, apparently, only two females with enough intelligence and skill to be included in our Federal Cabinet.

And then, after all of this, we wonder how we can possibly have an under representation of women in politics.

Recently, we saw the debate return again, after Australian Labor’s National Conference voted for a 50% target of women in Parliament and in our Party structures.

As a member of Labor’s Affirmative Action Working Group, it was a victory hard fought for. But it meant, at last, that we have acknowledged that our parliaments need to be representative of our community – and that means 50% female.

It was a change achieved through the support of our leader Bill Shorten, encouraging hope that those on the other end of the political spectrum might be prompted to also take action. Instead, the Liberal Party responded by doing a whole lot of, well, nothing.

As part of its 2014 review, the Australian Parliamentary Library found that across Australia’s parliaments, women continue to be significantly under-represented.

Despite comprising half of the population, less than one-third of all parliamentarians and one-fifth of all ministers are women.

If, as the United Nations suggests, it is necessary to have a 30% minimum in order for women to influence decision-making in parliament, we as a nation – across parliaments and parties – are barely scraping by.

And while the numbers are clear cut, the debate about why this is the case is less so.

Certainly the way these conversations happen in the media don’t help – it’s undeniable that women are still being treated differently.

Our society also doesn’t always afford women the same opportunities. Many face latent prejudice, particularly a belief that somehow women are not able to survive in the rough and tumble of our political system.

I found that much of this was masked by a sense of paternalism – “you’re too young, politics is tough, are you sure you can manage your family and politics?”. Had I listened, had I not had that sense of worth and drive, walking away would have been the obvious option.

But instead I fought, I was preselected, elected and made a Minister. And I vowed that I would continue to fight for the women who would come next.

I was 21 when I first spoke on a motion to achieve Victorian Labor’s 30% target and while I might be aged 54 before we reach our 50% target in 2025 – we will get there.

We’ll get there because of the passionate Labor women who have advocated for this for years. We’ll get there because the next generation of Labor women see it as non-negotiable. And we’ll get there because Labor women and men understand that if we are to be the Party that believes in equality, the Party that recognises not everyone is given the same advantages in life, then we must be the Party that brings women with us.

It’s in contrast to those in our Federal Government who argue that the under representation of women is about merit. I’m still waiting to see the merit test that men are apparently sitting.

Quite simply, this position ignores that women still face significant barriers. And the underlying message is that if we can’t reach gender equity in our parliament, then women only have themselves to blame. They must be, according to this line of thinking, less equipped, less talented, less worthy. It’s utterly offensive.

In her resignation speech, Julia Gillard said that she hoped that it would be easier for the next female Prime Minister and the next. And hopefully, with her having made trod the path first and less prejudice and preconceptions, it will.

But it won’t happen until women know that they can do so, and without their gender considered to be a problem. That if they face criticism, it’ll be because of their policies and not their physique. And that political parties – across the spectrum – believe that not only are women entitled to have a place at the table, but that our nation benefits when they do.

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