explainer

The reality for women in politics in Australia.

This International Women’s Day, Mamamia is creating the world we wished we lived in via our website and socials. That’s why today on Mamamia, you’ll see headlines we wish existed. But we cannot write these stories. Instead, the story will reveal the reality of what the world really looks like for women in 2022. You can read more about our pledge to #BreakTheBias this IWD here.

This is the headline we wish we could write on International Women's Day: Gender quotas scrapped as 50/50 gender representation reached in the Senate and the House of Reps for 50th consecutive year. 

But this is still the reality for women in politics today:

In 2010, Julia Gillard became the first woman to be Prime Minister of Australia. 

On whatever side of the political divide you sit, it arguably heralded a time of renewed optimism for women with strong political (or professional) aspirations. A watershed moment, it appeared that Australia was progressing towards a society that looked to value gender equality – even just a little bit more. 

The power of representation. We know, "you have to see it to be it", and as a 22-year-old university student, I felt the excitement of possibility. And I know a lot of women, across different generations and backgrounds did too. 

Julia Gillard's famous misogyny speech. Post continues after video.

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Video via Mamamia.

In Women and Leadership, Gillard's 2020 book co-authored with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, she reflects on her time in power: 

“What was different was that the go-to weapon in hard political debates became the kind of insults that only get hurled at a woman. That emerged as a trend alongside what was already a highly gendered lens for viewing my prime ministership. Every negative stereotype you can imagine - bitch, witch, slut, fat, ugly, child-hating, menopausal – all played out.”  

But Gillard’s prime ministership ended nine years ago. So surely a lot has changed since then. 

Right? 

Let’s look at the stats.

Overall, women make up 38 per cent of federal parliamentarians. 

Women are 53 per cent of Senate members, with gender parity achieved for the first time in 2019.

Meanwhile, women form just 31 per cent of the House of Representatives.

In March 2021, The Guardian took a closer look at the numbers, breaking them down by party. It found Labor had the most improved representation of women in the Lower House, with the party nearing parity at 43 per cent. Conversely, the Liberals sat at just 21 per cent. 

But what about the experiences of women?

Last year, political journalist Annabel Crabb presented Ms Represented, a documentary mini-series which examined the history and experiences of women in Australian politics. 

The one issue they all had faced? 

'Gender deafness'. 

"It happens if you're the only woman in a room and you come up with an idea or you say something," said former Foreign Minister and former deputy Liberal leader, Julie Bishop.

"So often, there's no response. And then the next person speaks. And then the next one actually appropriates your idea. And then all the men around the table nod and say, 'What a good idea'. And you'd be there, 'Didn't I say that? Did no one hear me?'."

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Gillard, Labor Senator Penny Wong, Former Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and Former Liberal Senator Amanda Vanstone all concurred they too had experienced 'gender deafness'. 

Misogyny, harassment and toxic culture.

Brace yourself. Here are just a few instances. 

  • One year before Gillard came to power, Labor MP Kate Ellis denied vicious rumours that she and her female chief of staff were having a sexual relationship with a male advisor. She was forced to answer the allegations to the editor of a major newspaper. 
  • In 2018, Liberal MP Julia Banks called out “bullying and intimidation” within the Liberal Party, and announced her resignation. This marked a period of “reprisals, retribution and abuse,” she said.
    “I really believe our federal Parliament House is the most unsafe workplace culture in our country,” Banks told the ABC
  • Also in 2018, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was told she should “stop shagging men,” by then-senator David Leyonhjelm. She later successfully won a defamation case against him. Hanson-Young was also criticised for her dress choices, and said she regularly had the names of men she was rumoured to have slept with whispered to her as she walked through the Senate chamber.
  • In March 2021, vice-president of the NSW Liberal Division Mary-Lou Jarvis said that upon returning from the Parliament House prayer room while mourning the death of her mother, she was asked “Who did you go there with?”. She later told The Drum, “There was a suggestion that I’d gone up there for sex. That’s when I thought: What the hell?”
  • In the same month, claims surfaced that Attorney-General Christian Porter had allegedly raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988, who later took her own life in 2020. Porter vehemently denied the allegations. He resigned from the front bench in September 2021. 
  • Photos and videos were leaked from a group chat where male government staffers were seen to be masturbating on the desk of a woman MP, Nola Marino in March, 2021.

And of course, there was Brittany…

In February 2021, Liberal Party junior staffer Brittany Higgins went public with claims that she had allegedly been raped late one evening in the office of then-Defence Industry Minister Senator Linda Reynolds in 2019 by a male colleague. Her bravery was the tipping point of reckoning.

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These examples just skim the surface, never mind the slew of anonymous testimonies of alleged rape, sexual assault, harassment and bulling as detailed in the Jenkins Review released at the end of 2021. 

Indeed, it found that more than 37 per cent of people currently in parliamentary workplaces have experienced bullying; and 33 per cent have personally experienced sexual harassment - both within the parliamentary workplace. 

So, where to from here?

Recommendations. Speeches. Words. They're all good and well, but now is the time for actual action. 

Change begins with genuine accountability and acknowledgment of the systemic inequality that exists. 

It means a sincere commitment for an overhauled culture and conditions – and actually following through on it. 

It means zero tolerance and swift ramifications for bad behaviour. 

It means authentic initiatives that foster women's political interest, and affirmative action that actively encourages women to funnel ambition into a political career.

And it means safer, inclusive working conditions for women parliamentarians – so they can just get on with doing their job.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

At Mamamia, every day is International Women’s Day. We fund the education of 300 girls in school every single day with our charity partner Room to Read, and our goal is to increase that number to 1,000. To help support girls’ education in developing countries, you can donate to Room to Read and contribute to a brighter future.