Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Five principles of feminist governance: A personal story

Dec 1, 2020 | News, Feature

Written by Tanja Kovac

Being deeply involved in EMILY’s List leadership for the last 11 years is singularly the most amazing thing that I have ever done. A life changing opportunity, that has opened doors, enabled me to create real policy changes for women that improve their lives and delivered me lifelong friends.

I met my sheros in this job. The late Joan Kirner of course, Victoria’s first and only Premier. And Julia Gillard. Moira Rayner. Anne Summers. Jocelynn Scutt. Sharan Burrow. Natasha Stott Despoja. Hillary – albeit from a distance.

But while I value these experiences, the lasting legacy of involvement in an autonomous feminist organisation will be the insights I have gained about what works to achieve gender equality.

Though I have always been a women’s rights activist – I was a Women’s Officer in 1996 at Monash University before being President of the Student Union a year later – until EMILY’s List Australia my work life had been in service to men. As a lawyer and a lobbyist, I had to fit into worlds created by men and for men – whether it was the heady, adversarial combat of litigation or rising through the ranks of law firms or the informal blokey back scratching necessary to influence political outcomes – I found myself squeezed into the rigid confines of male-dominated workplaces and male leadership.

EMILY’s List Australia introduced to me a different kind of workplace with a style of leadership modelled on collaboration, consensus building and inclusivity. All while underpinned by an ethic of care for staff, board members and volunteers as whole human beings.

Julia Banks moved to the backbench and eventually resigned over bullying.

EMILY’s List Australia is a financial, political and personal support network for progressive Labor women in Australian politics. Women use their wits, wealth and work ethic to deliver better outcomes for other women, by helping lift the numbers of pro-choice women in parliament.

EMILY is not an Emily. She’s not a person but an acronym that stands for Early Money is Like Yeast.

What does dough have to do with gender equality and women in politics? Everything. Because money is everything.

What does dough have to do with gender equality and women in politics? Everything. Because money is everything.

Australian women are at a major disadvantage in election campaigns because of gendered economic insecurity caused by pay inequity, an inadequate childcare system and generations of gender segregation at work. An early boost of campaign funds raised by women for women helps candidates buy their first campaign letterhead, first corflute posters and to host an inaugural fundraiser. Early money creates more money needed to win an election.

EMILY’s List Australia survives almost exclusively on women donors. A small group of feminist men are allies in their giving but agree to forgo any role in influencing the expenditure.

Since its launch in 1996, EMILY’s List has raised over $6 million, supporting 555 progressive women to run for parliament and, ultimately, electing 267. This support has enabled the Australian Labor Party to boast 46.7% representation of women across Australia, compared to 27.2% in the Liberal Party and 26.8% in the Nationals. Only the Greens have a better record at 58.1% (though their 18 women MP’s is a long way from Labor’s 177).

Anne Aly, Labor MP from Western Australia, is a ‘graduate’ of EMILY’s List.

The influx of women into Houses of Parliament across the last 20 years has resulted in demonstrable policy impact, including law reform such as the decriminalisation of abortion, strengthening responses to gendered violence and, in Victoria, the creation of the pioneering Gender Equality Act. There have also been boosts to investments in women’s health, sport and jobs, the creation of new entitlements such as maternity leave, and the establishment of public gender equality institutions, such as the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

While there is an extraordinary list of achievements delivered by a critical mass of women in parliament, sadly, there remain impediments to women fulfilling their true potential as policy makers.

I had enough personal experiences and disclosures of sexism and sexual harassment from other women during my EMILY’s List tenure to last a lifetime.

The incidents of sexual harassment and gendered power dynamics in the Australian Parliament revealed recently by Four Corners revealed a creepy misogyny at the underbelly of parliamentary behaviour. And then there is the sexualised violence towards Julia Gillard during her Prime Ministership, the abuse of Sarah Hanson-Young and the bullying of Julia Banks. These and other incidents too numerous to mention tell me that unhealthy masculinities exist within Australian Parliament. I had enough personal experiences and disclosures from other women during my EMILY’s List tenure to last a lifetime.

It has been, at times, dispiriting, to discover that the next generation of male political leaders – who I thought had the back of the sisterhood – are also making choices that diminish women into sex objects, using power exclusively for their own gain in the same ways as generations of men have done before them. No political party – Liberal, Labor, Greens or more – is immune from the toxicity of a broken boys’ club.

EMILY’s List Australia works to provide a counter point to this culture. It does that through a national mentoring program for candidates, training and development sessions on everything from fundraising to gendered policy development to cutting-edge gender-based campaign techniques, as well as scholarships or young women and programs for emerging indigenous political leaders.

It also has started to take on bad behaviour head on. EMILY’s List Australia women led the push for state and national codes of conduct. And while there is more work to do to embed this work into party rules nationally, behavioural change is coming. The culture of bullying, harassment and sexualisation of women in politics will diminish over time.

Terri Butler, another EMILY’s List ‘graduate’.

I believe EMILY’s List has been so successful at transformative gender equality because of a commitment to five principles of feminist governance. These principles are useful for any gender equity advocate working in any organisation, but particularly within male-dominated spaces:

  1. Use gender targets to drive change for gender equity. EMILY’s List doesn’t muck around apologising for what works in gender equity design. We know that affirmative action targets work in transformational ways. Because of targets championed by EMILY’s List Australia, the Australian Labor Party is set to be one of the only political institutions in the world to have gender parity because it is committed to 50/50 representation by 2025. If you want to make change you need to understand where you are now and where you want to be. Success follows from a shared commitment to achieving the target.
  2. Apply the beauty of persistent incrementalism to bring people with you. Lasting change for gender equity is best delivered at a considered pace that brings the majority of people with you. Sharing leadership can be intimidating for men if it means taking away opportunities for advancement now. The beauty of persistent incremental change towards a target is that it enables comfortable transition to gender parity.
  3. Prioritise training and mentoring women leaders. Julia Gillard hoped, in her final speech as Prime Minister, that she would make it easier “for the next women and the next” to lead the country. EMILY’s List works with Julia to identify a talented young woman leader to benefit from a scholarship to build their political expertise. Feminist organisations are successful when they prioritise training, developing and mentoring women.
  4. Maximise independence through women moving millions. The founders of EMILY’s List Australia established the organisation as a self-sufficient stand-alone entity, separate from formal structures of the ALP and unable to be controlled by powerful men. EMILY’s List Australia was the original crowd funder – using micro donations from women to fund its activities, rather than rely on corporate donations or public funds. To drive a gender equity reform agenda, women’s organisations need their own stable form of cash that allows them to be bold critics and champions when required without being answerable to institutional funders.
  5. Champion an ethic of care. The most profound work of EMILY’s List Australia is not political, but personal. It is the flowers when an MP has a rough day in parliament, the thoughtful mental health check-ins on candidates during an election campaign and the trusted confidante to transition out of a political career.  Leadership does not have to be a competition, or aggressive or winner take all.  EMILY’s List embraces a partnership model of leadership rather than a winner take all.

As EMILY’s List Australia begins an exciting new period with fresh leadership, driven by Dr Maree Overall and a board of passionate women, I am sharing what I have learnt about transformative gender equality organisation in my new role as CEO of Gender Equity Victoria. With a Gender Equality Act in Victoria – the brainchild of EMILY’s List MP’s – coming into effect next year and a global pandemic exposing gendered fault-lines in economic and health policy, sharing feminist wisdom for a better world has never been more important to me. It’s my life work.

Tanja Kovac is the is the new CEO of Gender Equity Victoria and a fellow in gender equity at Per Capita. She served on the executive staff team of EMILY’s List Australia as national coordinator between 2009-11 and chair and national co-convenor between 2012-20 in a role shared at different times with former Senators Claire Moore and Anne McEwen, and currently Sharon Claydon. Tanja led the campaign to secure 50/50 representation of women in ALP preselections, securing a commitment for gender parity by 2025. During her time she also oversaw the establishment of the Julia Gillard Next Generation Scholarship, the Joan Kirner Gender Gap Research Fund and the EMILY’s List Oration. 


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