Politics is where change happens. We must get more women involved: Carol Schwartz

Politics is where change happens. We must get more women involved: Carol Schwartz

Five years after the launch of Pathways to Politics, which was set up by leading business figure and women’s rights campaigner Carol Schwartz to “empower women to lead Australia”, Women’s Agenda caught up with Schwartz to take stock of the landscape for women in politics – then and now.

Schwartz had just celebrated the anniversary of Pathways with an event in Melbourne featuring an in-conversation between her and Australia’s original political glass ceiling smasher, Julia Gillard.

What was the landscape like when you founded Pathways to Politics five years ago and how did you come to the view that a program of this kind could address some of the key obstacles that resulted in women’s under-representation in political life? 

I, along with many other Australians, was absolutely outraged when we only had one woman around our cabinet table. That caused a great deal of angst among many, many people. You only have to read various reports of the political landscape at that time — I was not the only one who was outraged.

I had been a member of the Harvard Women’s Leadership Forum and the director was in Australia at the time. I was chatting to her, and I had been through some of Harvard’s women in public policy materials.

I noticed that there was a program From Harvard Square to the Oval Office and I said to her: “We have a situation here where we have only one woman around our cabinet table… we have a Prime Minister saying ‘yes there are women but they’re not quite ready for the roles around the table’. We need a program like this. Women need to be able to hit the ground running. They are more than ready to assume senior political roles.”

We adopted it to Australia, and I approached the University of Melbourne to partner. We formed a committee, we had Harvard on the end of the phone whenever we needed them, and within six months we had a pilot program and a critical path towards launching that program…and we were off and running.

It was record timing for Melbourne University. They were absolutely with me on wanting the program to happen.

You’ve had several successes along the way, with a track record of women who’ve completed the program running for local, state and federal office. Five years into the program, what have you learned and what would you say we need more of to promote women into pollical life.

What I’ve learned along the way is the need for enormous resilience.

The women who come into the program have that in absolute spades. They’re wide open as to what a life in politics for a woman looks like in reality, which can be horrific.

But the speakers we have, most of them female (some male), say that politics is absolutely the place where you can make big change happen. The participants in the program are very excited about that.

It’s true we’ve had a situation in the last couple of years where there’s been a lot of dissatisfaction among female politicians as to their treatment – by media, by colleagues. Given that, I have been so incredibly and pleasantly surprised by the resilience and tenacity of participants in the program who say, “Look, we understand the environment we’re operating in. And we’re going to go forward notwithstanding the negatives that are there.

Picking up on that broader environment and that resilience you say is required, politics has what is referred to in any industry as a “leaky pipeline”. You have women entering, but maybe they don’t stay. What, in your view, are some of the structural solutions that will change that and make politics a welcoming and more inclusive place, not just for women but for a broader and more diverse group of people?

I think that women are more used to having multi-faceted lives than men. If you look at someone like Kelly O’Dwyer, she was a lawyer before she was a political advisor and politician. She worked her way through politics and sees herself — after 15-20 years in politics – as having an opportunity for another phase in life.

Former Liberal MP and minister for women, Kelly O’Dwyer

We should have more politicians representing us who have had broader experiences beforehand and don’t necessarily see politics as a career for life. They are then representing the world outside of politics (which is most of us) and have a broader understanding and more empathy for how the rest of the world works.

I don’t want to use the phrase “the real world” because politics is part of the real world, and a world unto itself. But I mean a broader connection to the broader world and how people are living their lives and how they are making decisions.

There have also been practical changes mooted over the years, like meetings by teleconference, ending Parliamentary sitting weeks earlier.

Absolutely. Every workplace is struggling with that stuff. We are still mired in 19th and 20th century workplaces. Workplaces are struggling with what a disruptive 21st century workplace looks like. So is Parliament.

But I think the most disruptive thing we could do for politics at this time is mandate that we have representation that represents society, which means the fact that 50 percent are women.

Part of the broader debate about women’s treatment in politics is what experts would call “political violence”, the nature of the debate, particularly in media and social media, and the threats that women receive. Is that something that you talk about in the program?

Absolutely. This is a huge issue for women. We go through it a number of times. It’s quite interesting: at last night’s event Julia Gillard said, “We know this is our reality as politicians and we need to prepare for it.” If you’re prepared for it, it’s less of a shock. She said, “prepare yourself, do scenario planning how you will react to particular situations, for certain sorts of media, social media.”

How could you ever prepare yourself for some of the more extreme scenarios, the rape, the death threats. We had a lot of women recently in the UK, for example, leave politics and specifically cite that as a reason. I take your point that it is important to prepare yourself for the world as it is, but what about the world as we’d like it to be?

The only thing we can do about it is for those who control social media to regulate it so you cannot anonymously publish these things. I think it’s inevitable. It will happen. But as always, regulations flag reality. Those very unbalanced, sick people can no longer hide behind the cloak of anonymity.

Are we also seeing a change in community standards? When the Sunshine Coast Daily published a photo of Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk in the crosshairs of a rifle, there was a rapid community response to that. Does that signal that community standards are changing?

Absolutely. And in the same way it’s no longer acceptable to hold conferences without female speakers is being called out, unacceptable behaviour towards women is also being called out.

Have you been following some of the new initiative abroad, like the Equal Power Coalition in the UK, a coalition of women’s and civil society organisations doing something very similar to what you’re doing at Pathways? And then there’s the Vote Mama initiative in the US founded by Representative Katie Porter, who is the first woman with young children to ever serve in Congress. She’s trying to get more women with caring responsibilities to enter politics.

There are definitely others in this space here, like Women for Election in NSW. There’s Broad Agenda at Canberra University. Both doing fantastic work. There is definitely a zeitgeist around this. In business we have Goldman Sachs saying they are no longer going to IPO companies that don’t have women on their boards. And Laurence Fink from Black Rock saying they’re not going to invest in companies that don’t have women on their boards.

The case for gender diversity in leadership levels in all walks of life has absolutely been made. It’s now about spreading the word and making it mainstream.

Are you proud at Pathways to Politics you were at the forefront of that?

It’s always very exciting. I am an entrepreneur and a problem solver. That’s what I do in my business life and that’s how I’ve always operated. I’m in the fortunate position that when I see there’s a gap or an issue to solve, I can tackle that problem through creative partnerships and backing the ideas myself to actually produce an outcomes. So, I’m not just complaining about something, I’m actually doing something about it.

When I do see those problems, I gather around these fabulous partners who are great at execution. It’s not me on my own, but a whole lot of partners and collaborators who feel the same way.

It’s about enabling us all to create the solutions.

Pathways to Politics Program for Women is a collaboration between University of Melbourne, Trawalla Foundation and Women Leadership Institute Australia and is open to all female graduates of Victorian universities. Applications are open now. For more info visit this link.

Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica





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