Comment: Where are the women? Why more female candidates hasn't led to more women in parliament

Despite more women being preselected and on the tickets, this government and cabinet still has a historically low number of women representatives.

Among all the post-election think pieces, there’s been a lot of talk about all the women missing from the new parliament. The Coalition has dropped to only 17 per cent of their seats in the House of Representatives and around 28 per cent of their Senate seats held by women, the lowest percentage in more than twenty years.

By comparison, about 40 per cent of lower house Labor MPs and 55 per cent of Labor Senators are women. The Greens and Independents will probably be the only ones to reach parity, but the total gender balance across both houses will end up around 33 per cent.

The number of women in positions of power – cabinet member, ministers, shadow ministers, parliamentary secretaries and the like – has barely changed since Abbott’s time. Based on today’s announcement, less than 25 per cent of the Government ministry will be women. Just over 40 per cent of the current Shadow Ministry and around 50 per cent of the Greens senior positions are held by women. So, women pretty much take up positions of power at the same rate they are given space in each party - proving that merit doesn’t get you in the door, but it does count once you’re in the room.

Those stark differences in the gender representation in the major parties didn’t happen by accident, and preselection tactics don’t explain all of it. 

Election and preselection

Comparing the 2001 and 2016 elections shows some very interesting changes.

Coalition: 2001 vs 2016, House of Representatives

Preselections went from 21 per cent women to 24 per cent women

Elected MPs went from 24 per cent women to 17 per cent women

Labor: 2001 vs 2016, House of Representatives

Preselections went from 39 per cent women to 40 per cent women

Elected MPs went from 26 per cent women to 40 per cent women

So, even though the Coalition has increased their female candidates, their actual representation has dropped. Labor hasn’t changed their preselection numbers, but their representation has increased dramatically.

Preselection into safe or even likely seats almost certainly explains some of this, but it doesn’t explain all of it.  How much effort and support were female candidates given by high profile members of their parties? How do the demographics and attitudes of likely voters play into their willingness to vote for a female candidate? How often did local media tacitly diminish female candidates? How much did conservative/progressive leanings impact those issues? It’s probably impossible to find definitive answers to those questions, but somewhere there lies the reasons for such otherwise inexplicable discrepancies. 

Even more interesting things have been happening in the Senate (based on latest estimates).

Coalition: 2001 vs 2016, Senate

Nominations went from 26 per cent women to 55 per cent women

Elected Senators went from 25 per cent women to 28 per cent women

Labor: 2001 vs 2016, Senate

Nominations went from 48 per cent women to 55 per cent women

Elected Senators went from 57 per cent women to 54 per cent women

So, despite the number Coalitions female candidates more than doubling, their percentage of female senators will hardly change.

Labor, on the other hand, is still sitting comfortably around parity on both candidates and Senators.

This is straight up deliberate choice. Both parties have a pretty good idea how many Senate seats they can win in each state, and they put the names on the paper in order of who they want to get into the senate and who they don’t give a toss about. So, if they’re running 12 candidates for a double dissolution election, they know the first four are pretty much guaranteed to win, the last six haven’t got a prayer, and the other two are up in the air. And that pretty much explains how the Coalition could run so many female senate candidates and have so few of them win.

Chickens and policy eggs

This is not just a symbolic problem for the Coalition. The tired old merit myth simply doesn’t stand up to the reality that they can’t even fill a fifth of their seats with women, who are, after all, slightly more than half the population.

The only possible interpretations of such a disproportionally low representation is that both the decision makers, and the people who vote for the Coalition, believe men are more able or more important than women. Or, that the men in power feel their position is threatened by the mere presence of women, and accordingly, keep women in the minority.

Whatever the reason, the Coalition’s disregard for women is reflected in their policies and actions in government, as they defund women’s refuges and legal services, and continue to ignore the gender pay gap and huge gendered difference in retirement income.

It’s difficult to know what comes first, the policies or the representation, but it’s very clear that the two are inextricably linked and the Coalition need to make some serious changes to overcome the party’s fear of allowing women into their inner sanctums.

This is not about sending a message or achieving KPIs or being seen to do the right thing (without actually doing anything). It’s about people in power understanding that true representation means actually representing the people who elected them. It’s about recognising the bigotry that only sees merit in privileged white men and acting to overcome it. It’s about understanding that the bias inherent in excluding women from the party will play out in policy that discounts or ignores women and prioritises men, to everyone’s detriment. It’s about making sure that all voices, not only women, but our huge diversity of race, religion, sexuality, background and gender are represented proportionately.

It’s about proving by real action, not meaningless words, that all those groups are recognised as equally valuable and deserving of representation.

It’s even about self-preservation for the government, because without all those other people, all they have left are other privileged men, and there may not be enough of them left to win an another election.

Jane Gilmore is a writer from Melbourne. She writes about politics and feminist issues, and her work has appeared in Fairfax, The drum, The Guardian, and more. 

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