The very fact of being a woman doesn’t necessarily mean a candidate will advance the interests of women more broadly. Sexism isn’t the exclusive domain of men by any stretch of the rubber band.
Feminist commentators here and overseas have made the point that electing more women per se isn’t enough to guarantee more policies promoting equality. While acknowledging that gender equality is a worthy aim for our parliament, they have argued that the women elected have to be committed to advancing women’s interests.
But does a more gender representative parliament, in and of itself, help?
Women experience the world differently to men. We’ve grown up only rarely seeing ourselves among the most powerful.
In children’s films only one in eight CEOs, one in 13 judges and one in 10 politicians, are women.
Girls see people who look like them who are given an occasional chance to rule the kingdom, but they are largely relegated to the less important business of falling in love. In children’s films only one in eight CEOs, one in 13 judges and one in 10 politicians, are women. And, as we are in real life, women are comparatively overrepresented on screen amongst those who do the unpaid – or underpaid – work of caring.
Teenage girls and young women learn to move and act with greater care for their personal safety. Having been taught, unjustly, that they personally bear the responsibility of not being hurt by men. We women know to carry keys between our fingers on the walk home. We choose the jeans instead of the short skirt, just in case, and we send urgent texts to check girlfriends made it home safely.
The unique perspective that comes from living life as a woman necessarily shapes the contribution a person makes to parliament, regardless of political persuasion. In the US, Georgetown University’s Michele Swers found that progressive women legislators co-sponsored an average of 10.6 bills about women’s health. This is compared to just 5.3 from progressive men in the same positions.
No matter how often they smile brightly for the cameras at a childcare centre or don pink ribbons at breast cancer funding announcements, men are less likely to remain consistently focused on women’s issues in parliament. Women and men also face different challenges in even making it to parliament in the first place. This shapes how they make decisions and what policy areas they prioritise.
The unique perspective that comes from living life as a woman necessarily shapes the contribution a person makes to parliament.
Getting more women into the race, elected to parliament, and selected for the executive normalises their presence there. It makes it less unusual. In the same way little girls don’t consider careers as CEOs or judges because they don’t see themselves represented that way on screen, the adult voting public are still largely unused to seeing women in parliament – and even less used to seeing them run the show.
The spotlight on the «first» woman to fill any powerful role is harsh to the point of blinding. Julia Gillard’s experience as prime minister is testament to that – and she knew it.
In her departing press conference as prime minister, Gillard said, «What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that, and I’m proud of that.»
Having more women decision-makers helps to break down the stereotype that women aren’t meant to be there, that they’re an anomaly. It makes it harder for the media and the public to apply formulaic expectations of what a woman in power should be and how she should behave when there are lots of them. It also means that, when a woman fails to meet our expectations, she can do so as an individual and not be seen to have failed on behalf of all women.
We still talk about women’s power in the hypothetical. Commentator Sady Doyle writes for Medium that: “We are only able to speak about female power this way – in terms of what it might do or could do or wouldn’t do – because we’ve never actually seen it.”
She’s right. Despite women being 51 per cent of the population, Australia has never seen women reach that proportion amongst the people who run the country.
The McKell Institute estimates it will take at least another eight election cycles for Australia to reach gender parity across the parliament. A gender equal cabinet or even another woman prime minister is likely to be further away still.