Young women are being deterred from politics. It's time for change.

Young women are still being deterred from political careers. It’s time for change.

“Picture this: a young girl in a study of society class being told that as of 2015, female representation in parliament was a mere 30 per cent and that all the media could care about was the way each of those women looked. Too old. Frumpy. Ugly. A slut. She took this as her call to action.” These are the words of Gillian, a 21-year-old young woman from Queensland, recently amplified by Senator Larissa Waters as part of the Raise Our Voice in Parliament campaign.

Gillian was one of the young Australians who contributed over 600 submissions to the Raise Our Voice in Parliament campaign earlier this year. The campaign invited those aged 21 and under to submit a 200-word speech for the opportunity to have their voice amplified in our Federal parliament. Of these submissions, 61% came from young women, many of them expressing frustration with our lack of progress on gender equality, including in our parliaments. All of them called for change, and for a better future for young women.

Numbers aren’t everything

Last year, Annastacia Palaszczuk became the first female Premier to be elected for a third term. This wasn’t Palaszczuk’s first time in the history books either, in 2012 she became the first woman to be elected from being the leader of the opposition to being Premier. In mid-October 2020, the ACT elected a majority female Parliament– shortly followed by the appointment of a female leadership team of the ACT Liberal Party. Across the ocean, Jacinda Ardern led New Zealand Labour to a majority rule for the first time in almost 50 years, and in the US, Kamala Harris made history as the first female Vice President-elect.

Even in Victoria’s 2020 local Government elections, 43.8% of councillors elected were women – the highest of any State or Territory, and contrasting NSW, which has just 29.5%. 23 Victorian councils elected a majority of women, with 47 councils have more than 40% female representation, and only one council, Mansfield, with no women at all.

But, as the last eight months highlighted, we have a long way to go before we will see gender equality in our political spaces.

Of the major parties, The Greens is the only party with a woman in its leadership team (Senator Larissa Waters as co-deputy leader). Neither the Labor Party, Liberal Party nor the Nationals has a woman in their leadership ranks. Unless these parties conduct a reshuffle prior to the election, it is highly likely that our next Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister will be men, leaving us with just one woman in a line-up of 47 Prime Ministers.

Victoria, South Australia and WA continue to be led by a male Premier and Leader of the Opposition. Recently, New South Wales saw Dominic Perrottet succeed Gladys Berejiklian, emerging victorious from a grouping of white men who were vying to step up as the next NSW Premier. While the NT, Tasmania and the ACT have female leaders of the opposition, all their Premier counterparts are male.

So what’s going on?

Despite the conversations we’re having about the benefits of diversity in leadership, we’re just not seeing the shift away from a pale, stale, male status quo.

The last year has shone a bright light on the unique challenges female politicians, staffers and candidates continue to face, including masculine cultures in parliamentary workplaces, and gendered commentary in media outlets. Too many remain challenged by women in leadership, and have no hesitation denigrating women for their ambition. These challenges are exacerbated for people of colour, those who don’t identify on the gender binary, First Nations persons, persons with a disability, or from migrant or refugee backgrounds. And yet, we continue to hear that “women just don’t want to be leaders”, a claim often made by the same men who close ranks around each other to keep women out.

Young women are watching these discussions. They’re listening to these comments. And they’re calling for a better standard.

It’s time for change

In September, Raise Our Voice Australia had its second cohort graduate from our training program, which focuses on getting more diverse young female and nonbinary voices to lead conversations in policy and politics. Working with this group, I was reminded every week that young people are passionate, engaged, and want to be included. But in their drive to make change, young women are also weighing up their way forward, deciding which pathway to tread, and evaluating the spaces they want to be in. And their feedback was clear, “politics doesn’t feel like a place where I can make change.”

Polling conducted by Plan International Australia in April 2021

found that 73% of young Australian women aged 18-21 do not believe that women in politics are treated equally to men; rising to almost 78% among women aged 22 to 25. Just 12% of young women said they would pursue a career in national politics, while 72% say they would never want a career involved in politics. This is a damning reflection on our political culture, and has implications not only for a future generation of leaders, but for the future of our representative democracy. After all, how can we claim to be making the best future possible for all Australians if 51% of the population remain under-represented, hamstrung by a political culture that doesn’t encourage or welcome their participation? Without their input, we risk entrenching our current inequalities as we are design our post-COVID world.

Young women want to be leaders. We want to influence the future – and are already doing so. Young women are on the forefront of the climate movement, and have been making strides in the campaign for consent education.

If we don’t change our political culture and actively welcome the next generation of young women, we will further alienate these passionate young leaders — leaders who have a vision for our country and who want to be part of the change.

In her submission to the Raise Our Voice in Parliament campaign, 16-year-old Arya wrote “We need, as a society, to change our perception of women in politics – that we foster an inclusive environment that lifts them, rather than one that tears them down. It is through education, equity and positive role models that will allow that young girl of colour in 20 years to represent the great country of Australia.”

I couldn’t agree more. Young women deserve better. And we owe them that change.

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