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


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Two daring Dames recognised at Parliament House

Apr 4, 2023 | Politics, Equality, Power, Gender, First Person, Career, Family, Activism, History, Feature

Written by Libby Lyons

My International Women’s Day was spent in Canberra, honouring my grandmother Dame Enid Lyons, along with fellow trailblazer Dame Dorothy Tangney.

Eighty years after being elected as the first two women to Federal Parliament, these two daring Dames were finally being recognised in bronze statues.

It was an incredibly proud moment to witness the unveiling, replicating the iconic 1943 photograph of the women entering Old Parliament House for the first time. The great shame however is that it has taken so long for women to feature in the Parliamentary Triangle. In fact, still today there are more statues in Canberra of dogs than women.

To take eighty years to recognise these pioneers of politics is endemic of the lack of appreciation and sustained representation of women in politics. We can wait no longer to address the delay in honouring the two audacious Dames, and acknowledge the role of women across all workplaces, including Parliament House, in real-time.

I often reflect on my grandmother’s time in politics through her words in her book, Among The Carrion Crows, where she described herself and Dame Dorothy as “firm believers in the rightness of women’s claim to an active share in government”.

My grandmother and Dame Dorothy paved the way for women in politics, advocating for social justice, education, and women’s issues – stark outliers within the political landscape of their time. Surprisingly, despite their party differences they worked together to drive change.

My grandmother was fully aware of the ‘burden of responsibility’ as a pioneer. Reflecting on her maiden speech to Parliament, she wrote ‘I felt as if I were drowning’. However, she felt reassured by the support she felt in the all-male chamber. She was in fact, just like us, at times unsure, anxious and nervous. But, with support, she helped to irrevocably change the role of women in life.

Libby Lyons

Libby Lyons says, “What needs to change is our culture.” Picture: Supplied

Pleasingly, we have seen an increasing number of women in federal parliament, particularly since the May 2022 election, but we must not become complacent. The gender gap must stay front of mind, and we must continually acknowledge the importance of women in politics. It is time to increase both support and recognition of women in public life.

Despite current thinking, women do not actually need more leadership training or workshops in self-confidence. As my grandmother, Dorothy Tangney and countless women subsequently have shown, we are already capable leaders. What needs to change is our culture. A culture that still normalises the picture of a CEO, scientist, engineer or politician as a man, and a nurse, cleaner, child carer and aged care worker as a woman.

To help change these stereotypes across all workplaces, we need to normalise flexible work for women and men and provide and encourage men to take parental leave.

It is time to ensure transparency in recruitment and promotion practices, and ensure employers are meeting legal obligations to pay employees the same remuneration for similar roles. Collecting and reporting on data is key as well. We must continually collect, monitor and act on the data in workplaces to address gender inequality and pay gaps.

Safe, respectful workplaces are essential for all employees. Employers must take immediate action to address issues of bullying, racism and sexual harassment. This will hugely help in the attraction and retention of female workers, particularly in male-dominated industries.

Like my grandmother, I am determined to challenge workplace culture, which I am proud to do each day by leading the cause across the nation as Chair of SAGE, an organisation striving to embed genuine and sustainable gender equity, diversity and inclusion across the Australian higher education and research sector.

Seeing the two daring Dames recognised in the Parliamentary Triangle is a great step forward, but there is still much work to do. Let’s hope it does not take another eighty years for women to be provided the same opportunities as men in our homes, workplaces and communities.

  • Libby and her son, Enid’s great-grandson, Charlie Lyons Jones with the statues of Dame Enid Lyons, along with fellow trailblazer Dame Dorothy Tangney. Picture: Supplied
Libby Lyons is the inaugural Chair of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE). She's also the WA State Chapter Chair of Chief Executive Women.

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