In this analysis, Anna Hough of the Australian Parliamentary Library analyses both how female representation has changed in the last 20 years, and how Australia ranks globally on achieving a gender-balanced Parliament. This analysis was originally published on the Parliament of Australia website.
How does the gender composition of the Australian parliament compare with parliaments around the world, and how has it changed over the past two decades?
The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) has published international rankings of women in national parliaments since 1997. The IPU’s rankings are based on the representation of women in the lower (or single) houses of national parliaments only. The representation of women in the Australian Senate is therefore not factored into Australia’s ranking.
As illustrated in Figure 1 below, Australia’s IPU ranking for women in national parliaments was 27th in 1997, rising to 15th in 1999. In 2022 Australia’s ranking has fallen to 57th.
This decline in Australia’s international ranking over the past two decades has occurred alongside an increase in the proportion of women in the House of Representatives. However, during this period many other countries have achieved greater increases in the proportion of women in their national parliaments, which explains the decline in Australia’s relative position.
Of the countries ranked in the top ten for women in parliament on 1 January 2022, all have seen the percentage of women in their lower or single house of parliament increase by at least 20 per cent in the 25 years from 1997 to 2022. As set out in the table below, the United Arab Emirates went from having no women in its parliament in 1997 to 50 per cent female representation in 2022. Rwanda and Andorra increased women’s representation by over 40 per cent, while Nicaragua, Mexico, and Cuba increased women’s representation by over 30 per cent. In comparison, the proportion of women in Australia’s House of Representatives increased by 15.6 per cent over the same period, from 15.5 per cent in 1997 to 31.1 per cent in 2022.
As set out in Table 1 below, eight of the ten countries with the highest percentage of women in their lower (or single) house of parliament have implemented some form of gender quota. Four of those eight countries have legislated gender quotas, while in the other four voluntary party quotas have been adopted by some or all of their political parties. In Australia, voluntary party quotas were introduced by the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in 1994, with the party currently having a target of 50 per cent female representation by 2025.
On 1 January 2022, as set out in Table 2 below, Australia ranked well behind New Zealand (6th), behind the United Kingdom (45th), just ahead of Canada (59th), and ahead of the United States of America (72nd).
Parliaments or houses of parliament elected by proportional representation have generally had a higher representation of women than those elected from single-member constituencies only.
New Zealand is the only country listed in Table 2 above that elects its members of parliament via proportional representation. In addition, New Zealand’s governing Labour Party has adopted a voluntary quota. In countries where the governing party has implemented a quota, the percentage of women in the parliament increases.
Trends in Australia
In 2001, 23 per cent of members of the House of Representatives and 29 per cent of senators were women. By 2022 the proportion of women in the House of Representatives had risen by only 8 per cent, to 31 per cent. In the same period the proportion of women in the Senate had increased by 24 per cent to 53 per cent. Since September 2019 the majority of Australian senators have been women.
The Senate’s proportional voting system has resulted in a higher representation of women than the single-member electorates in the House of Representatives. Proportional voting systems encourage parties to offer a more diverse range of candidates and often give parties more control over which of their candidates are elected.
Figure 2 below shows changes in women’s representation in Australia’s federal parliament, by chamber, between 2001 and 2022. The data represents snapshots taken on 1 January each year.
The proportion of women in the Australian parliament as a whole was 25 per cent in 2001, rising to 39 per cent by 2022.
Figure 3 below shows the percentage of women in the Australian parliament from the ALP and the Liberal-National coalition after each election since 1993. After the 1993 election the ALP’s proportion of female parliamentarians (11.8 per cent) was only slightly higher than the Coalition’s (10.9 per cent). Following the ALP’s introduction of quotas from 1994, the party’s representation of women increased, reaching 46.8 per cent after the 2019 election, compared with 25.9 per cent in the Coalition.