Towards gender parity in parliament: Overcoming structural barriers

in Opinion , Tagged women in politics, working mother, Australia, Politics, Parliament.
  • vassarotti pic

    Rebecca Vassarotti

    Rebecca Vassarotti is interim CEO at Alzheimer’s Australia ACT. She is also a sitting community member of ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal, working in areas including guardianship and energy and water.  She is a board member of Community Housing Canberra and the Early Morning Centre, the co-chair of the Canberra Gambling Reform Alliance, and a regular contributor to the local news website the RiotACT.
    Rebecca's roles have included:  Executive Director of the YWCA of Canberra and the Deputy CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS); independent consultant for the community sector; serving as a board member for both the ACT Council of Social Service and ACOSS, Gambling and Racing Commission, the ACT Long Service Leave Commission and a member of the Implementation Panel for the National Action Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children.


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It's been almost a hundred years since Edith Cowan became the first woman to be elected into an Australian parliament. Yet the topic of women in politics is still raging on. How far have we come? How much work is there still to do? Rebecca Vassarotti highlights some of the barriers faced by women - particularly women with young families - when considering a career in politics.

Women in politics. It’s a topic we are still talking about even though it is almost a hundred years since Edith Cowan became the first woman to be elected into an Australian parliament in 1921. It is extraordinary that we are still celebrating milestones such as a woman breastfeeding on the floor of the senate, or the first serving Cabinet Minister to have a child while in office. It is extremely disheartening when we see our female politicians continually being treated poorly because of their gender.

When I started contemplating a career in politics a few years ago, the issue of gender was something that I could not ignore. After years of advocating for the importance of women in public life, it seemed time to heed my own advice and step up. However, having witnessed the shocking treatment of our first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard by some sections of the community, I was keenly aware of the challenges facing female politicians. As a mother of young children, I had to seriously consider how a decision to get into politics would impact on my family. While it wasn’t going to change my mind about getting involved, I had to engage with this reality.

As a mother of young children, I had to seriously consider how a decision to get into politics would impact on my family

Balancing work and our lives is something that all working women and families struggle with, but it seems to be harder than it should be for women considering entering politics – particularly federal politics. This was brought into sharp relief recently when we saw a long term politician with a small child announce her retirement from politics because she couldn’t face the prospect of not being in the same city as her son when he started school.

I realised that Federal politicians are some of the first FIFO (Fly In Fly Out) workers, and the federal politicians' workplace has been structured in a manner that hinders their ability to regularly participate in the usual rituals of home life – from being in the same town as their families, to being available for meal times and school events. I can’t pretend that this didn’t factor into my thinking about how involved I could be.

One example of the arcane arrangements retained in Federal Parliament is the concept of ‘pairing’, whereby applications for personal leave are granted at the discretion of individuals in each party. When you can’t even guarantee that you can be there for your family when someone is ill, is it little wonder that women may be hesitant to get involved?

Women currently make up only 32% of the Federal Parliament. So, how can we enable more women to get involved in politics? Obviously, we need to start by making sure that women get a chance to represent their communities. If we are serious about the diversity of elected representatives, we need to address the ways in which the business of politics could be structured to make it more accessible. 

We must not be naïve and think that it will just happen. We need frameworks that enable voters to select their representatives from the whole talent pool, not just from a small group of individuals (mainly men) who have been cultivated through existing political structures. The positive impact of quotas and targets is starkly illustrated in our current parliament, where the Labor Party (which has introduced gender quotas) has 44% female representation, while in the Liberal Party, where this approach is resisted, only 21% of representatives are female. Interestingly the Australian Greens, who do not have formal targets but instead promote a culture of balanced representation, perform best with equal representation between women and men.

We need to demand our parliaments as workplaces evolve in line with contemporary expectations and experiences in business.

The 24 hour, 7 day a week access demanded of our politicians seems to be creating even more barriers for women who want to make a contribution to public life. While many other professions are working towards creating environments that are more adaptable to the demands of modern life by harnessing new technologies, parliaments across Australia aren’t changing in the same ways. We need to demand our parliaments evolve in line with contemporary expectations and experiences in business. While tradition is important, we need to explore new ideas around the use of technology which is standard in many industries, such as holding meetings virtually and being able to work remotely.

We must acknowledge the women who are already changing the way politics is done. In the ACT, the former Chief Minister Katy Gallagher was a working mother who never hid the fact that juggling the two was not always easy, while showing us that things could be done differently. Whether ensuring meetings were structured around the daily school pickup, or having reasonable sitting hours for the Legislative Assembly, these small changes made a big impact and resulted in a record number of female representation in our ACT Legislative Assembly.

In addition, we need to explore more radical ideas such as job sharing and part time work, both of which are actively encouraged in the United Kingdom, and are a significant departure from perceptions of the role of the politician. My own experience as a part-time CEO has shown that it can actually increase productivity. Careful planning, support and structure enables me to better focus my attention and effort.

We have a long way to go. Recent reports of a Cabinet Minister being undermined by members of her own party while on maternity leave demonstrate that political life can be brutal, and rather than being gender blind, some are prepared to use the reality of our gender against us. If the intention was to warn us off, it won't work. It will strengthen our commitment to ensure that women are in politics, and that parliament is structured in a way that enables us to contribute to public life, as well as fulfilling our other important roles.

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