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


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

How women are winning as MPs

Dec 3, 2020 | News, Feature

Written by Elizabeth Cowan

The recent 2020 ACT elections had a remarkable result: a majority of members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) elected are women, and at least half of every party’s MLA’s in the ACT are women. Women also make up 56% of the ACT Cabinet.

And the ACT is not the only jurisdiction with a majority of women in Cabinet.

The NT Cabinet is also made up of 56% women. The Victorian Government follows with 55%. In Queensland the number is 44%, together with a women leader. These are all Labor governments. But in WA, which is also held by Labor, women make up only 35% of Cabinet members.

When we look at Liberal-National governments, the picture is gloomier still. Women make up only 33% of Cabinet members in Tasmania, 23% at the Federal level, and just 21% in NSW (despite having a female Premier). In South Australia, three women are in Cabinet, representing 21% of members.

Victoria’s Lily D’Ambrosio: “Our place is in the Parliament and our right is to govern equally with men.”

The number of women in decision-making positions clearly represents progress. Importantly, five of the eight Attorneys General around the country now women, including the NT’s Selena Uibo who is indigenous.

One explanation is Labor’s commitment to promoting women as representatives. There are also various programs around the country designed to encourage women of all political persuasions to stand for Parliament. These include Pathways to Politics in Victoria and Queensland, Women for Election in NSW and She Runs in Western Australia.

Further research clearly needs to be undertaken. But to gain some insight into the women who currently hold cabinet positions, we decided to look at what motivated them to enter politics and what helped them to succeed.

To do this, we mined an underutilised data source – these Ministers’ inaugural speeches.

Here is some of what they tell us.

Few women make reference to gender

Just over half of sitting female ministers made reference to gender in their inaugural speeches, and many did so in passing only. When gender did appear, it did so in a variety of ways. A few Ministers expressed concern for issues such as violence against women, sexual and reproductive rights, women’s labour rights, and pay equity. A small number spoke about how gender roles have – or have not – shaped their own lives.

What does this absence of meaningful attention to gender signify? Given that new cabinet members traditionally use their inaugural speeches to introduce their priorities, it suggests that very few female ministers intended to use their time in politics to specifically advance gender equality. It also indicates these women didn’t want to differentiate themselves from men or be seen to be ‘playing the gender card’. It also reminds us that women are not solely defined by their sex and that they obviously have interests and concerns beyond ‘women’s issues’. Fair enough.

An abundance of ‘firsts’ reminds us that we haven’t come that far

Queensland’s Sharon Fentiman’s pride in the ALP is palpable. She said: “We are a proud party of firsts. We were the first party to have a woman Premier of Queensland, the first to have a woman Prime Minister, the first to appoint a woman High Court judge, the first to appoint a woman Governor-General and … the first to have a majority of women around the state cabinet and our first Indigenous woman here in this parliament … We are led not just by a woman Premier but a woman Deputy Premier too, and that is a first for Queensland and the country. It is true that the Labor Party has led the way, but we need to be firm in our resolve … A majority of women in the cabinet is an achievement to celebrate. But let us make it something we do not have to celebrate. Let us not make it the exception; let it be the norm.”

Queensland’s Sharon Fentiman: “Let us not make it the exception; let it be the norm”.

When Dianne Farmer made her 2009 inaugural speech and spoke of Irene Longman, the first female elected to the Queensland parliament, it was 80 years before her electorate Bulimba voted in another woman.

Many of these women are trailblazers

Federal Industry Minister Karen Andrews shared that she was a previous employer’s “youngest plant engineer that they had ever employed and … also the first female.” Two Labor Ministers were the first women to occupy key trade union positions; Grace Grace as the Queensland Council of Union’s first woman general secretary, and Natalie Hutchins as the first woman elected as assistant secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council.

The NT’s Natasha Fyles broke gender norms by entering politics while pregnant. “The fact that I was 38 weeks pregnant with my second child made me question, for a brief moment, whether I could do it but, ultimately, it did not stop me from pursuing an opportunity so many in the world could only dream of.” These women’s willingness to operate within masculine institutions and break from traditional gender roles may make them better equipped to enter parliaments that remain male-dominated in most jurisdictions.

Affirmative action works

It is no accident that the Labor party outperforms LNP on gender. Labor has a target for women’s nomination to safe seats and the EMILY’s List initiative provides Labor women with financial, political and personal support to enter politics. Ministers from the ACT, Victoria and Northern Territory gave thanks to EMILY’s List during their inaugural speeches. Lily D’Ambrosio of Victoria said that EMILY’s list enthused “new generations of women with the conviction that our place is in the Parliament and our right is to govern equally with men.” Referring to her EMILY’s List brooch, Jacinta Allan from Victoria said, “I wear the symbol because I’m committed to equality for women. EMILY’s List is not just an idea, it is a program for action; and it has at its helm and in its ranks committed people who have shown they get results.”

Tasmania’s Elise Archer quoted Margaret Thatcher: hard work is the only recipe to success.

In her first speech, Queensland Premier Anastacia Palaszczuk said, “I am pleased that there are four other new female representatives from the Labor Party here today… But I cannot see a single new female member in this House from either the Liberal Party or the National Party.”

Despite the visible disparity in representation between the parties, two LNP women actively rejected gender discrimination in their speeches. NSW’s Sarah Mitchell asserted that, “My age, my gender and my background have never impeded me along my political journey in our party: in fact, I have received nothing but respect and encouragement.” Elise Archer from Tasmania quoted Margaret Thatcher: “’I do not know anyone who has got to the top without hard work. That is the recipe’.” This sentiment plants the onus of success firmly on individual women, suggesting that it is they – and not their parties – that need to change to enable women’s entrance to politics.

Role models and sisterhood

The most common gender theme in inaugural speeches is the women in new MPs’ lives who inspired and supported them in their journey to politics. As Fentiman said, women “who paved the way for me … inspired me and shaped my values”. Tasmania’s Sarah Courtney said: “Mum’s ability to have a successful career while being a nurturing, loving, supportive and fun daughter, mother, sister and wife is an achievement for which I am in awe.”

While women from all parties spoke of mothers, aunts, grandmothers and great-grandmothers, Labor women also attributed much of their success to mentoring and support from other women within the party. The ACT’s Rachel Stephen-Smith gave thanks to, “the strong women who have come before me; who have motivated and inspired me; who have reassured me; and who have been there for me when I needed it.” Others gave thanks to specific Labor women who mentored them. For example, Uibo said of the former Member for her electorate, Lynne Walker: “She encouraged me to become a candidate … I give her my utmost thanks for her support and belief in me to make my dream a reality.”

ACT’s Rachel Stephen-Smith gave thanks to “the strong women who have come before me”.

Enoch spoke of how she was inspired by, “Aunty Kath Walker, or Oodgeroo Noonuccal as she was later known … who, the year after my birth, became the first Aboriginal woman to ever run as a Labor candidate in a state election.”

This is important. Many Labor women had visible role models who demonstrated that their political ambitions were within reach. It is possible LNP women have to look harder to find such role models, perhaps making it more difficult to picture themselves as leaders within that party.

Men, too, can play a powerful role in women’s political advancement. WA’s Amber-Jade Sanderson thanked Dave Kelly, “It is hard to think of another person in recent history who has done more to promote women into leadership positions in the labour movement in WA.”

Private sphere support enables public sphere success

In their first speeches, many sitting female ministers gave thanks to their male partners for supporting their political ambitions, hinting at the diversion away from traditional gender roles occurring in their households. The NT’s Natasha Fyles thanked her husband Paul “for allowing us, as a family, to bend the rules of convention”. Tasmania’s Elise Archer enjoyed significant practical support from her husband who acted as her campaign manager.

NT’s Natasha Fyles thanked her husband for “for allowing us, as a family, to bend the rules of convention”.

In her speech, Victoria’s Jaala Pulford said, “Now I know that all political spouses make great sacrifices and provide great support; not many of them, though, are called to move away from career, friends and family and then be bounced out of bed at six o’clock every morning by an adorable five-year-old and an adorable two-year-old and confronted with the question, ‘Is Mummy home from the election yet?’”

It is hard to imagine a male MP making a similar statement in his inaugural speech.

“Thanks for putting up with me”

Even while enjoying the support of their spouses, four ministers thanked their husbands for “putting up” with them, suggesting that their success is something to be tolerated rather than celebrated. NSW’s Sarah Mitchell said, “I am very aware that I am loud, I am opinionated and I am argumentative — all qualities that might be good in a politician but that are terrible in a wife! Thank you for putting up with me.”

The NT’s Nicole Manison said, “This was not what he signed up for a few years ago when we were married.” Victoria’s Ros Spence said, “Thank you for … putting up with my far too often absences and for encouraging me to pursue my goals.” And finally, Sanderson: “Being the partner of a senior union official is not easy and it takes a special kind of person to put up with the ups and downs, the late nights and weekends of work.” Traditionally, this ‘special kind of person’ is a woman and putting up with her political husband’s late nights and weekends of work is not considered special. It is expected.

NSW’s Sarah Mitchell: “I am loud, I am opinionated and I am argumentative”.

To understand whether male politicians feel similarly apologetic to their families for prioritising their political careers research is needed to analyse their first speeches, as well as undertaking deeper analysis of the female Ministers’ speeches that we have started exploring.

What we will explore further

In future articles, we will explore whether a critical mass of women in parliament affect that parliament’s culture. Whether there is a correlation between female Ministers’ interest in gender, and the portfolios she heads and who how male inaugural speeches differ from those of women.

These are some of the many questions needing further investigation to assist in the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation’s mission for, women to be equally represented in leadership and key decision-making roles at all levels of government and public institutions throughout Australia.

These and other issues will be explored in our upcoming webinar How Women Won Canberra which will examine the remarkable achievements of the recent ACT election and what lessons can be learned by other jurisdictions. It will be chaired by Professor Kim Rubenstein, co-director 50/50 Foundation, and the panel includes Rachel Stephen-Smith (Labor), ACT Minister for Health, Elizabeth Lee, Leader of ACT Liberals, Rebecca Vassarotti (Greens), newly elected member for Kurrajong and Associate Professor Chris Wallace author of ‘How to Win an Election’

You can register for the event here.

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