Prominent women in leadership positions mark today’s Australian political landscape. The first female Prime Minister was elected in 2010, and now serves alongside our female Governor General and several female Premiers.
It is possible, however, that the few examples of women rising beyond the glass ceiling distracts from the overall decline of women in politics. Australia was the first country to grant women the right to stand for election to its National Parliament, but is now ranked 38th in the world in terms of proportion of women in a National Parliament, down from 33rd.
How is it that a country that has produced many strong political women could fall behind countries such as Afghanistan, Cuba and Rwanda, where human rights are often an issue, in terms of equal representation of women.
Equally, there is a growing sentiment in the United States that 30% female in state and Federal legislatures is sufficient. In Australia, former Labor Minister Barry Cohen recently wrote an opinion piece for The Australian, in which he reinforced the notion that women presenting a strong front against inequality were simply exercising ‘man hate.’
Cohen argued candidates should be elected based on merit rather than gender, an idea supported by most feminists, but it seemed clear that dinosaurs like Cohen didn’t actual view women as having any merit.
Feminist Eva Cox often speaks of the fragile legitimacy of women in positions of power. Only a fortnight ago, Queensland Liberal National Party media advisor Max Tomlinson was caught in an email attack on feminist academic Dr Carole Ford. In the email he explained away the lack of gender inequality in the new Parliament by pronouncing the superiority of men. “[It’s] because Nature equipped them with a little something called testosterone,” he wrote.
The decline of female representation is most evident in the newly elected Queensland Parliament. Women represent a mere 19% of the electorate in the state with the first popularly elected female Premier in the country. Of Liberal National MP’s, only 12 out of the total 72 members are women.
Similarly, New South Wales has the lowest proportion of women in parliament since 2003. The landslide election of 2011 saw female representation fall from 35% down to 22.6% in the Lower House.
Once within the political machine, it seems traditional stereotypes often still limit female Ministers to portfolios deemed “appropriate” for women. They are often given departments like environment and children as opposed to economic portfolios. Even in the current Federal Government, only four of the twenty ministers are women.
Political parties also often shy away from having female opposition leaders, with NSW Labor never having appointed one. Perhaps this is because political strategists patronisingly feel that women do not provide an image of strength. Women, in some cases, seem to be placed in positions of power in governments on the way out, or after resignations of male MPs. Do political operatives view women simply as plan B?
In the 2011 Arc SRC elections, 12 of the 32 places went to women, 37.5%. It may be the beginnings of a shift in political culture, elevating women in leadership to a point where they are seen with the same authority and respect extended to male politicians.
Tomlinson was wrong when he wrote, “most women don’t possess the necessary drive, determination and decisiveness that men innately possess”. Less than a third of those in power cannot represent more than half the population. It is simply just not good enough.