Editorial: Women still held back from political aspirations

We still have a way to go before women are equally represented in Parliament.

It beggars belief why there is still gender inequality in Australian politics in 2017.

While it’s clear many women care for their families, that is not what is holding Australia back. Society’s acceptance of constant heckling and poor behaviour towards women has discouraged them from entering the political arena, where the inherent disrespect for women is on bold display.

This was illustrated during Julia Gillard’s time as prime minister as she was labelled a “witch” and constantly judged on her dress sense. Gillard’s time as prime minister was historic but sadly overshadowed by repeated personal attacks. It is important to remember that women have battled through history to get to political leadership positions and yet there is still an uneven playing field.

While the Commonwealth Government passed laws allowing women to vote and stand for election federally in 1902, it wasn’t until 1921 that the first woman, Edith Cowan, was elected to an Australian Parliament (in this case to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly). Today there are 32 women in the 76-seat Senate and 43 women in the 150 seat House of Representatives. Men also dominate the Turnbull Government’s Cabinet, filling 17 of the 22 places. Although progress has been made since 1921, personal attacks on women in this realm are frequent and damaging.

Last week, Queensland Greens Senator Larissa Waters was criticised for breastfeeding her daughter during a Senate division. It was the first time this had been done in Australia after changes to Senate rules but the significance was overshadowed by online comments claiming it was ‘child abuse’.

Kelly O’Dwyer was also publically criticised in recent weeks. She is the only sitting Cabinet member to give birth in the history of the Australian Parliament. A week after giving birth to her second child, Edward, O’Dwyer publicly commented that it was possible to be a sitting politician and have a family.

Her well-intentioned comments were overshadowed with calls for other candidates, including Tony Abbott’s former chief-of-staff Peta Credlin, to stand for preselection in O’Dwyer’s Melbourne seat of Higgins. The impetus behind the bid for new candidates relates to the Coalition’s superannuation reforms. Adding insult to injury Save Our Super founder Jack Hammond says the Coalition “gave birth to an appalling policy.” This stomach-churning use of a pun is indicative of the lack of respect for women politicians who manage to juggle what many of those who criticise them could not.

If being a woman in the political sphere means being treated in this way, it’s understandable why many give up on such an aspiration.

The representation of women in politics is not only lacking in Australia but around the world. A recent academic study revealed women make up only 17 per cent of government ministers in developed nations.

On Tuesday, March 28 the Daily Mail UK published the now infamous ‘Legs-it’ front page about a meeting between Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and British Prime Minister Theresa May. It featured the headline ‘Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!’ adjacent to the photo which focused more on their legs than their message.

The Suncoast Times believes criticism of the paper is justified and is indicative of the power of social media. Moreover, it is clear evidence that attitudes can change.

There is hope for the future but for now, at least, the problem is endemic, engrained in the marble which covers the floors of Parliament House.

For a representative political system, Australia is lacking far behind.

 

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