The pathway to power for women in politics has never been easy; nor is it any easier once they get there. This is clear in the ABC series Ms Represented, which recounts colourful and confronting stories about the challenges women face in pursuit of a political career in Australia. But the series, hosted by the ever-engaging Annabel Crabb, represents too much of what is concerning and too little of what is encouraging about the current discussion of Australian women in politics.
Hearing from prominent female politicians across the political spectrum, we learn that while much has changed in the 100 years since Australia elected its first female parliamentarian, Edith Cowan in 1921, too much remains the same.
We are told of Parliament House's lack of female bathrooms until 1974 (a full 31 years after the first women were elected), how air-conditioning levels are set low to suit (male) suit-wearers, and of chamber acoustics designed for booming, male voices.
Alongside the hostile architectural design of political workplaces, there is the slew of unsolicited advice offered to women by their male colleagues, from women candidates being told to alter their names to be more electable, to the sartorial advice given to Julie Bishop upon her appointment to the ageing portfolio in 2003 for her to wear less Armani and more cardigans.
Most worrying are the stories of verbal, physical, and sexual harassment. Former Liberal MP Julia Banks, who left politics after speaking out about the toxic, sexist environment of Australian politics and was subsequently undermined by her fellow party members, has claimed Parliament House has the "most unsafe workplace culture in Australia". Indeed, with no parliamentary code of conduct, politicians and staffers are largely held unaccountable for their actions - though this may hopefully change soon.
The stories in Ms Represented reflect wider public conversations about how our political culture, in many ways, has not moved on from its deeply disturbing, sexist past.
In a powerful scene, Linda Burney, the first Aboriginal woman elected to the House of Representatives, reads the Hansard transcript of a sickening speech delivered during debate of the Franchise Act of 1902. Reflecting on the moment at which Australian women were given the vote while Indigenous peoples were disenfranchised, she notes that "if we don't look at the past, we can't craft the future".
If the dominant media narrative about life in politics for women is one of gruelling hardship and harassment ... we risk creating a vision of politics that discourages girls and young women from aspiring to political office.
Burney is correct. We must acknowledge and learn from the mistakes of the past. The necessity to do so becomes crucial when these mistakes linger into the present. While not a focus of Ms Represented, recent revelations of sexual misconduct involving young female staffers and high-ranking ministers loom large.
Ms Represented must be commended for contributing to a challenging and necessary national conversation about the treatment of women in politics. However we cannot let a focus on existing barriers prevent us from building bridges. If the dominant media narrative about life in politics for women is one of gruelling hardship and harassment, then - even if this narrative is well-intentioned - we risk creating a vision of politics that discourages girls and young women from aspiring to political office.
The effects of this bleak public discourse may be exacerbated by increasing feelings of alienation and a decline in political interest among younger Australians. This is reflected in researching showing young people are driving the increase in intentional informal voting in Australia.
Our analysis of data from the Australian Election Study (2001-2019) shows a worrying decline in political interest among young people aged 18 to 30, which is more pronounced among females. Continued public discussions that signal electoral politics is unfriendly to women may further push young people, particularly young women, away from politics.
As political researchers and teachers, we have witnessed how the current political narratives shape young women's political aspirations. Women in our political science courses cringe when asked if they would consider a career in politics.
Such sentiments are worrying. As the former leader of the Australian Democrats, Cheryl Kernot, noted in Ms Represented, there's something "deep in our national psyche" that makes it inappropriate for women to behave in the way men do. So how do we combat this deep-seated prejudice? How can we ensure young women don't shy away from political ambition?
A start would be to shift the public narrative. We see a little of this in Ms Represented. We are told of women supporting each other in meetings when male colleagues overlook, and then take credit for, their ideas - a phenomenon Julia Banks identifies as "gender deafness". We hear of a cross-party coalition of women politicians who worked together in 2006 to ensure greater access to the abortion drug RU486.
However, alongside admissions that there is relatively little in the way of formal support networks or organisations for women in Parliament, these anecdotes come across as merely that: isolated incidents against a backdrop of a traditional, masculine political culture.
How do women embrace their political ambition despite gendered norms that punish ambitious females? How can women in politics manage both work and family? In the absence of tighter regulations to address problematic behaviour, how should women be expected to handle misogynistic slurs and inappropriate attention from (often drunken) colleagues? Do women need a "campaign fiancé" and a filled fruit bowl to reassure voters of their femininity?
Does the answer to many of the cultural problems in politics lie in ensuring increased numbers of women in Parliament, as Ms Represented briefly suggests? If so, should this be achieved through quotas, or some other mechanism?
Beyond the practical solutions, we need to give young women reasons to aspire to political office. To balance the stories of hardship and discrimination that must be told, we must also emphasise positive accounts from female "firsts" - and seconds, and thirds. We need to be telling and retelling the stories of why, despite the challenges, women choose to enter politics, and why they choose to remain.
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