Women in politics need visibility and voice not just votes

Women in politics need visibility and voice not just votes

Tamsin Simounds & Amy Chandler 

As Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s feet come down to earth after his ‘miraculous’ win, he now begins the process of reshuffling his front bench. Based on the fact that during the federal election campaign women’s voices were overshadowed, can women expect the same treatment when it comes to Scott Morrison’s new-look front bench?

If in doubt about how absent women’s voices were during the federal election, new data released by Streem and published in digital newsletter The Squiz last week, reveals the extent of the gender-biased news reporting pre the federal election.

Of the top ten most quoted politicians in digital and print articles, there was not a single woman.

The graph below shows the 10 most quoted politicians in major metropolitan print and online publications since the start of the campaign.


To find a female quoted voice one needs to extend beyond these results to the top 20, where four women appear. Tanya Plibersek, who was at the time our potential next Deputy Prime Minister, came in at number 12. Followed by appearances by Penny Wong, 16, Sarah Hanson-Young, 17, and Zali Steggall, 18.

In Australia, where less than one-third of all parliamentarians and one-fifth of all ministers are women, this near invisibility of our female politicians is doing nothing to boost numbers.

Even when a woman does a great job, their profiles are often considered ‘unworthy’ of senior positions on the front bench.

For example, Sky News’ Chief Political Reporter, Kieran Gilbert merits Marise Payne with managing the military’s top brass and earning their respect with her understated approach yet carries on to say:

“While Marise Payne is widely praised for her intellect and work ethic, she simply doesn’t have the profile a government needs in the Foreign Affairs portfolio,” he said.

“Australia needs a prominent and articulate advocate of the nation’s foreign policy to compliment the PM of the day, particularly at a time of such uncertainty in our region and more broadly.

“Payne is much better suited to Defence where her low-profile is not a problem.”

This lack and indeed reversal of female representation was emphasised in March this year, when Julie Bishop spoke at Hobart’s Frankly Women Leadership Forum citing second generation gender bias and reluctance of women to put themselves out there as major contributors.

“Australia started so well. Twenty years ago we were ranked 15th in the world in terms of female representation in our national parliament. Today we’re ranked 50th and numbers haven’t changed, it’s about 30 per cent, but so many other nations have increased their female representation in their parliaments,” she said.

“We can have quotas, we can have laws, we can mandate equality, but attitudes can be entrenched, can be ingrained for cultural, social, religious issues.”

“The issue of quotas versus targets is one that will continue for some time. The point is this: you need a critical mass of women to ensure that they can fulfil their ambitions. The talent is there. You might have to dig a little deeper for women notoriously don’t put themselves forward and women often think that somebody might be better in the role than they would be, under selling their achievements in a way that men invariably do not do.”

It goes without saying that the media go a long way in shaping, steering, and influencing cultural, social and religious beliefs and norms. In this case, unfortunately, the media is doing more ingraining than shifting.

It needs to change. So, what can we do?

We need more visible female role models

The first step is to promote more women. We need more bums on seats. Without women to comment, women can’t comment. There are two main issues that inhibit women in leadership:

  1. We don’t take up opportunities and therefore never realise our full potential
  2. We do take up the opportunities… but spend the entire time suffering imposter syndrome, waiting for someone to tap us on the shoulder and tell us we’re actually not cut out for the job.

So, how can women rectify these issues? By providing more female role models but until then, we need to be actively seeking qualified women to fill the seats.

Make politics more attractive as a career choice

We need to make politics more attractive as a profession. Right now, many women probably couldn’t think of anything worse than putting their hand up to run.

While there’s an explosion of female entrepreneurs and change makers who are choosing to find their own way of influencing via business and social enterprise there are few stepping into the seemingly uninviting world of politics. An outcome that’s not surprising, given the events of the last term of government which saw a mass exodus of female politicians, like the legendary Julie Bishop who received an unbelievably low number of votes in the Liberal leadership contest, and the horrendous treatment of Greens’ Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

Get the media on board so they can actively seek out female sources

Reflecting on the wise words of civil rights and education activist Marian Wright Edelman “you cannot be what you cannot see”, we need examples of high-visibility leaders to role model and we need existing female politicians to be equally represented in the mainstream media.

By doing so, when a young girl picks up the newspaper or watches the news they see capable and smart women adding to the public discourse and holding successful careers at the helm of Australian politics.

As human beings, one of the biggest stories we run in our heads that influences the way our lives play out is “people like me do things like this.” Because we tend to relate more easily with those we perceive as similar to us, it’s essential that we have these high-visibility leaders. If we’re not seeing women in parliament, we’re far less likely to put our hands up. If there are no role models, it’s hard to picture ourselves in that space, and even more difficult to put ourselves there.

We need young girls to read and watch media and think “people like me enter politics.”

The media need to be educated on this. And men need to have the mic taken off them.

Banish the second generation bias

This is the kicker. On the rare occasion that we do see our female politicians commenting, it tends to end badly. Our female politicians have it tough as they try to navigate what society traditionally expects of a woman. They need to be attractive, but not too attractive. Dress well, but not too well. Be exceptionally clever, but down to earth. Be strong, but not too hard.

We can only influence this by a) calling it out as we see it, and b) like Julie Bishop says, get a critical mass on board so that we simply get used to this new way of being.

Our brains haven’t quite caught up with the changes in society, and often without even knowing it we can find ourselves back in the 1950’s…. Some more than others.

For the immediate future? For as quiet and ‘in the background’ as female politicians have been during the pre election, let’s hope that Scott Morrison uses his brain as well as his eyes and ears when it comes to drawing up his new front bench. ScoMo might have got the votes, but now, more than ever,  let’s hope he makes them count.

Tamsin Simounds is a leadership strategist and modern psychology practitioner. Amy Chandler is public relations manager-turned consultant who works with leaders to raise their profiles.

Together, they run The Edge PR, a strategic PR and leadership agency helping leaders step up, speak up and show up.

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