My initial reaction to the news that Kelly O’Dwyer, the Minister for Women, was resigning from politics because of family reasons was disheartenment. I wasn’t necessarily surprised, just disappointed and disheartened by the fact that our political system had once again failed women.
Whether or not you agree with Ms O’Dwyer’s politics, the underlying message for her decision remains: women can’t have it all. In her own way, as the first woman to have a baby while being a cabinet minister, she was unique and broke the glass ceiling. But similar to the pressures many working mothers face, Ms O’Dwyer felt it was no longer structurally possible for her to have a good career and be a good mother.
It appears she must choose between having another child, which involves medical challenges, and serving her country. If this is the case, then what hope is there for other working mothers or young women wanting to follow in her footsteps?
As a young woman interested in a career in politics, I found her explanation upsetting as it reinforced the outdated gendered stereotype that working mothers do not have the capacity to be in senior leadership positions. Despite being in my early 20s, I know I want both a high-powered career and children. I do not want to compromise. While some may view that as overly ambitious, it is a reality many young men my age take for granted.
It is because of this that Ms O’Dwyer’s decision to leave politics to spend more time with her children is a gendered issue and not a parent issue.
If it wasn’t, then why, less than a day after her shock announcement, did former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce announce he is set to have another child, becoming a father of six?
If this was a parent’s issue, wouldn’t there at least be talk surrounding whether or not Mr Joyce should resign?
And why don’t we hear more from the Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader or other senior male politicians about the emotional strain being a federal legislator has on their young families and ability to be good parents?
While some may argue Tim Hammond’s decision to quit politics last year for family reasons contradicts the idea that this is a gender issue, he is an outlier and not the norm. The fact remains that, despite the push towards parity in politics, Australian women are still the primary caregivers, regardless of whether they are an MP or a senator. This reality has affected not just Ms O’Dwyer, but Nicola Roxon and Kate Ellis as well.
Their decisions to leave are symptomatic of a much bigger issue – our government is not made for mothers, and young women are noticing.
As a young woman, I’m passionate about supporting more diverse women being elected into federal politics. We’re currently ranked 51st in the world for gender representation in politics, slipping from 49th in March last year. This puts our nation at a severe disadvantage, as we’re not using the brainpower or skills of a vast portion of the Australian public. We’re wasting talent, creativity and new perspectives.
That’s why I run a program called Girls Takeover Parliament, or “GTOP”. It's an international initiative focused on opening safe spaces to actively encourage, mobilise and support the next generation of female politicians.
During the program, I discovered a strange phenomenon: young women are less likely to consider a career in federal politics, in comparison to state politics, because of the delicate work-life balance.
In 2018, participants who engaged in the Takeover at the state level in the ACT and WA said they were 94.4 per cent more likely to enter politics - whereas their federal counterparts were only 84.7 per cent more likely.
The results were disappointing, but not surprising. Many of the participants said they wanted to combine careers and family in some way. However, when it came to federal politics, at least one third of the participants said the strain of balancing family life, the toxic environment and the pressure of being treated unequally was a key reason behind their decision not to participate.
Over the last year, young women have watched our female legislators deal with hostile sexism, bullying and being passed aside for jobs they were clearly the right candidate for. Now we face another barrier to our careers, the caregiver barrier, a double standard evident by the juxtaposition between the Prime Minister and Ms O’Dwyer at her announcement.
Sarah Jenkins, a 22-year-old GTOP participant, agreed. She said: “Even though O’Dwyer stated that her choice 'did not mean men or women had to choose between family and the public service’, actions speak louder than words. Her choice has not just proven to be a detriment to young politically minded women on both sides of the debate, but also to young women who intend to have children.”
I dream of becoming Prime Minister one day, but the sad reality is that currently our federal government is not made for mothers with young children who want to hold senior ministerial positions.
That’s why I can understand why many GTOP participants said they would only consider a federal political career in the very distant future. Why would any young woman or mother want to uphold a gruelling schedule which may negatively impact their mental wellbeing or family life?
Look, I’m not saying reform is going to be easy, because it’s not. However, it is possible. A few kilometres from parliament house, the ACT Legislative Assembly took the necessary steps to improve workplace flexibility. So now, not only does the territory have many female politicians with young children; it has the only parliament in the Commonwealth to achieve gender parity.
As a young woman, I do not want our country run by the same carbon-copy male leaders forever. I believe our federal system failed Ms O’Dwyer, and it will continue to fail more women unless it drastically changes.
Caitlin Figueiredo is the CEO of Jasiri Australia. She has been named a Queen’s Young Leader and a Women’s Weekly Woman of the Future (by Tanya Plibersek and Julie Bishop) and has been listed on the Forbes "30 Under 30" Asia list for Girls Takeover Parliament.