Australia

Ten years since Australia got its first female prime minister, how diverse is our parliament?

A Pathway to Politics event at Victorian Parliament. Source: Ruth McGowan/Twitter

On 24 June 2010, Julia Gillard was sworn in as Australia’s 27th – and first female – prime minister. But a decade on, gender equality in politics has some way to go.

It’s been a rocky decade for women in politics.

“I couldn’t believe it took so long to have a woman as prime minister,” says Ecehan Gülbayrak, a 28-year-old currently considering running for her local council in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.

“My grandparents are migrants from Turkey, where a woman was first in the top job in 1993.”  

But since Julia Gillard’s three years and three days at the top, women have had to look beyond Australia’s borders for PM-level inspiration – to New Zealand, Finland and Barbados, among others. 

Julia Gillard
Julia Gillard with Governor General Quentin Bryce after being sworn in as Australia's first female prime minister on 24 June 2010.
AAP

Women currently account for 36.7 per cent of politicians across Australian federal and state parliaments - progress on the 30.3 per cent from 2012 but falling well short of a 50-50 split. 

Four houses currently have 50 per cent or more women (the federal Senate, both houses of Tasmania’s parliament and the ACT’s lower house), but there are 15 houses in total. Western Australia’s upper house has seen a 17 per cent decrease in women’s representation since 2012 and five other houses have seen a small decrease.

Gillard faced considerable gender-based challenges during her prime ministership and “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man,” became the catch-cry of her now-famous 2012 ‘misogyny speech’. (‘That man’ was Tony Abbott, who less than a year later appointed himself as Minister for Women). 

The past two years have seen more women in politics speaking out their experiences. 

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young won a defamation case over lewd comments made by a male senator, former Liberal deputy prime minister Julie Bishop acknowledged – after leaving politics - that she witnessed toxic misogyny in parliament, and Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer, the first women to give birth while in cabinet, quit politics to spend more time with her children.

Last year, Australia was ranked 49th in the world for women’s representation in national government lower houses and 90th for women in ministerial positions.

But there are some signs of hope.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, women in state politics have become more visible, notes Juliana Addison, a Labor member of Victoria’s parliament. 

“We are seeing the strong leadership of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Victorian Police Minister Lisa Neville,” she says. “We are seeing these women on our televisions every day.” 

Juliana Addison
Juliana Addison in her electorate of Wendouree.
Supplied

Elected in 2018, Addison is seeing the benefits of a parliament that places gender equality front and centre of both internal and public policy. “Before we had a critical mass of women, I don’t think endometriosis would have been mentioned in the house, or the words ‘menstruation’ or ‘tampon’ written into Hansard,” she says. 

But women aren’t just heading up women’s issues. 

“When I look around the chamber, I see faces of women, I hear women’s voices,” she says. “We have women controlling mega portfolios like transport, infrastructure, energy and police.” 

Addison, who has two pre-teen daughters and watched Gillard’s swearing-in along with dozens of excited teenaged girls during her days as a teacher, is also positive about the fact several Victorian MPs have recently or are about to give birth.

It has brought with it parent-with-pram parking and family-friendly work hours at Parliament House (all-nighter parliamentary sittings are a thing of the past).

“All of this means that when women are weighing up their options, they can say ‘yes, it is possible’,” she says.  

Watching all of this with open and critical eyes is Gülbayrak, a secondary school teacher who has been considering entering local politics – which is also seeing rises in women’s representation. 

“Many local governments now have 37 to 40 per cent women councillors,” says Ruth McGowan, a gender equality expert and advocate for more women in politics. “And, in Victoria in 2019, 47.4 per cent of mayors were women.” 

Julia Gillard and gender equality expert Ruth McGowan.
Julia Gillard and gender equality expert Ruth McGowan.
Supplied

Gülbayrak was an 18-year-old student of International Relations when Gillard was elected. She has recently completed the Politics to Pathways for Women program run by The University of Melbourne, that, similarly to Women for Election Australia and Labor’s EMILY’s List, aims to support women to enter political life.

But she is upfront about her concerns. 

“Australia still has an issue with women in parliament, let alone a woman like myself who is very identifiably Muslim because of my headscarf,” she says. “There is very little gender diversity in the Australian political landscape, let alone an embedded and respected cultural diversity, which is a complete mockery of our multiculturalism.”

Though Gülbayrak will not run this year after choosing to dedicate herself to a new specialist position at the school she works in, she is leaving her options open for 2024.

An advocate of quotas, Gülbayrak is also highly positive about training programs for encouraging women’s participation. “I would not have the networks, knowledge, nor the skills to run if it wasn’t for the program.”

Ecehan Gülbayrak
Ecehan Gülbayrak in the Victorian Legislative Assembly during the Pathway to Politics program.
Supplied

Addison agrees. She is another graduate of the Pathways to Politics program, which is an ongoing partnership with the philanthropic Trawalla Foundation and Women's Leadership Institute Australia.

“To be forewarned is to be forearmed,” she says of the non-partisan program. “To have Sarah Hanson-Young, Penny Wong, Bridget McKenzie and Jacqui Lambie all talk to you and share their experiences was just extraordinary.”  

McGowan, who got a buzz earlier this year out of giving Gillard a copy of her book called Get Elected, a step-by-step guide to winning public office at any level, agrees that women’s ability to work outside constraints of the major parties is a current strength of Australian politics.

“I am inspired to see the rise of women on the crossbench and those women working collegially,” she says. “This gives women hope that they can do politics their own way and don’t necessarily have to join one of the major parties.”

Gillard stepped away from politics in 2013 and now holds multiple positions including chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London. The fire behind the words of her misogyny speech still burns though, with her saying this week she regrets not calling out sexist language earlier.

On her recent podcast series she also says: “I am offended by the lack of women leaders and the way those who do make it are treated.” 

“In Julia, we saw a woman who didn’t want her prime ministership to be about gender, she wanted to do her job and bring reforms,” Addison says. “But, every day she ignored misogyny, it got louder and nastier.” 

Addison, who treasures a signed copy of the misogyny speech, say her legacy was the need to ‘call it out’, just as her colleague, Minister for Women Gabrielle Williams did recently in response to abusive comments.  

But it cannot be down to one person alone, says McGowan.

“New Zealand has had three female prime ministers and that has enabled Jacinda to do what she does.” 

“For Australia, the real watershed will come when we have another woman elected as PM and her gender is unremarkable compared to her vision for a fair Australia.”

Vivienne Pearson is a freelance writer based near Byron Bay

Correction: This article has been amended to note Kelly O’Dwyer was the first women to give birth while in cabinet, not office. 

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