IRAQ, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Sweden and Finland have something in common. They all have a greater proportion of women in parliament than Australia.
In the weeks leading up to Baw Baw Shire’s latest local government election, both local and social media touched on the issue of female representation in Council. Perhaps in response to an all-male united ticket – the prospect of which has some concerned about a gender-imbalanced Council.
Surprisingly, there are others who wonder why gender is even an issue.
To deny gender equity within any level of representative government is contrary to modern human rights. Women in Australia are still considerably under-represented in all levels of government.
Gender matters. Not because men are incapable of making excellent decisions, but simply because men and women, together, make for more equitable decisions.
Gender matters because the statistics are very clear. Women are paid, on average, 17 per cent less than men in the same job and are largely excluded from higher-level decision-making positions in both the private and public sectors.
Women account for 51 per cent of Baw Baw’s population. They are more likely to be tertiary educated than their male counterparts yet the majority are in part-time work, do more than 15 hours of unpaid domestic work per week and are more likely to live in poverty.
Gender matters because our present social systems continue to lock women into specific roles.
At the end of the 2008 Council, 44 per cent of Baw Baw Shire councillors were women, which was one of the highest rates in Local Government in Victoria. After the election that number has gone down to 33 per cent.
Overall, less than a third of Victorian councillors are women, and it’s a similar figure in other Australian states. At an organisational level, women hold a fifth of executive level positions with female Council CEOs making up only 7 per cent of Australian councils.
The assumption that an all-male or majority-male council can adequately make decisions for the community ignores the unique capacity of women’s contribution to community life. Research by the UN shows that increasing women’s participation in local government results in a tendency towards more equitable distribution of community resources including health, nutrition and education.
The excuse that there aren’t women in local government because they don’t nominate themselves means we must reflect on what the barriers might be to female participation. What is the current dialogue like?
One candidate in Baw Baw’s election stated you needed “the balls” to make decisions in council while another suggested a return to “the 1950’s”.
These are not the types of conversations that make for collaborative, future-looking or inspiring decision-making. The 1950’s was a time in which women were subjected to significant levels of discrimination and subjugation – the women’s role was to take care of the husband, home and children. They were encouraged to give up work for men returning from the War, were paid less for the jobs they did do and were often relegated to low-status employment positions.
Australia’s adversarial style of politics – a common characteristic of Westminster systems that were traditionally constructed by men – discriminates against women and contributes to community disenchantment.
Women have to fight for representation in a system that they neither constructed nor are comfortable with. Political research suggests most female parliamentarians want to see more consensus-based politics.
Australia was the first country in the world where women had both the right to vote and to stand for parliament, however the right to vote was only afforded to white women, Indigenous women were excluded in some states (New Zealand was the first to give women the right to vote in 1893).
Although this happened in 1902 it took another forty years before Australians voted a woman into Federal Parliament. In Victoria, it wasn’t until 1979 that the public elected a woman to the upper house.
After women first entered State Cabinets they were allocated ‘nurturing’ portfolios such as health, education and welfare. By the 1990’s women held more diverse portfolios – except in Victoria where they are under-represented in economic roles.
Apparently women control households budgets but can’t manage the state’s figures.
The private sector is even worse. The latest census of women in leadership shows women account for around 8 per cent of board of director positions in Australia’s top 200 ASX-listed companies.
The percentage of companies with boards that have no women is increasing – more than half (54 per cent) of Australia’s top companies don’t consider it necessary to have female representation.
The progress in this area is considered “glacial” by the Australian Government and highlights the “under-utilisation of the talents of the vast female workforce”.
Society is taking bold steps, albeit slowly, toward consensus that the overt and more subtle forms of female suppression are unacceptable. To deny that gender doesn’t matter in local government ignores the prevailing levels of existing gender inequity.
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