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Report on Women in Parliament

On 4 May 1994 a Joint Committee of the South Australian Parliament was established to consider and report upon—

(a) the extent and reasons of any existing impediments to women standing for Parliament
(b) strategies for increasing both the number of women and the effectiveness of women in the political and electoral process
(c) the effect of Parliamentary procedure and practice on women's aspirations to, and their participation in, the South Australian Parliament.

Members of the Joint Committee were:

Ms Julie M Grieg MP (Chairperson)
The Hon Sandra M Kanck MLC
Mr Stewart Leggett MP
The Hon Carolyn A Pickles MLC
The Hon Angus J Redford MLC
Ms Lea Stevens MP

Written and verbal submissions were made by a number of individuals and organisations.

The Final Report of the Joint Committee on Women in Parliament was published as Parliamentary Paper number 209 of 1996 and is held in the State Library as part of the Parliamentary legal deposit collection. The full report of 37 pages makes for interesting reading, and some extracts from it are reproduced here with acknowledgement to the Clerk of the Parliament. In order to convey the content of the report without becoming excessively long, the extracts shown here do not always follow the original order or use the same headings as the report.

The State Library of South Australia holds all Parliamentary material published by the federal parliament and all the state parliaments, as part of the Legal Deposit provisions of the Copyright Act. This applies to Acts, Regulations under Acts, Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), Parliamentary Papers (mainly reports of parliament or government departments) and Government Gazettes. Bills are also held for the South Australian Parliament.

The Secretary of the Joint Committee was Mr Chris Schwarz, Clerk Assistant at Parliament House, who has kindly supplied an update on development and implementation of the Committee's recommendations, as at November 1997.

Why now? Current interest in women in Parliament
Other studies
The barriers
Structure in a changing society: issues of power
Preselection and quotas
Pathways to Parliament
Are our Parliaments out of step with society?
Dissenting statement [on electoral reform] by the Hon Sandra Kanck MLC
Progress on implementation of the Committee's recommendations

Why now? Current interest in women in Parliament

The early to mid 1990s have been characterised as a period of reflection in relation to women's issues. It is a time of taking stock and examining society's institutions and structures to see what ground women have gained in the hundred years or so since women's suffrage was first introduced in New Zealand and the subsequent struggles of other women throughout the world in achieving their voting rights.

It is also twenty years or so since the rise of the so-called 'second wave' of feminism and women's success in placing equal opportunities on their national legislative agendas and in the international political arena.

South Australia led the world in 1894 by becoming the first jurisdiction to grant women the right to stand for parliament. It was also the first Australian State to grant suffrage to women. Centenary celebrations which included an international conference to advance the rights of women and their role in politics, [were] held in Adelaide in October 1994. The Joint Committee on Women in Parliament was established during that year, with similar terms of reference to the Federal Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

Other studies

In Australia a number of studies have been carried out in the early 1990s in relation to women and power in our society. An extensive research study examining the status of women throughout Australia by the Federal House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs (the Lavarch Report) Halfway to Equal was produced in 1992.

This report considered the position of women in a number of areas, including paid and unpaid work, income security, leisure and sport, education and training and, of particular interest to the Committee, the position of women in politics. It also considered the recognition of women, women with particular needs and the relevant legislation. The report found that while women fill the ranks of the party political volunteer workers and grass-roots organising committees, as in the paid workforce they are rarely found in positions of power. Not only are women under-represented in Parliaments, but also in board rooms, and most decision making forums. In relation to Parliamentary representation, the report recommended that all political parties examine their pre-selection procedures for systemic discrimination against women, and develop appropriate affirmative action programs which would give women equal opportunity to take a greater role in the political process.

Following the Federal election in March 1993, women remained considerably under represented in the national Parliament despite widespread agreement that the barriers to women's participation should be removed. As a result, the Federal Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters was asked to explore the impediments to women standing for parliament.

Much exploratory work in this area has been carried out in Australia and overseas. By December 1993 the Federal Parliamentary Research Service had produced an annotated bibliography of the relevant research on women in politics. The bibliography lists sixteen Australian research publications on the topic from 1969 to 1993, and twenty-five international publications in the period from 1955 - a total of forty-one works.

The Standing Committee reported in May 1994. This report, Women, Elections and Parliament, recommended further monitoring of the participation by women in the electoral process and reporting on the matter from time to time.

Later that year a discussion paper for the Commonwealth-State Ministers Conference on the Status of Women, Women and Parliaments in Australia and New Zealand, was published. This explored the numbers and proportions of men and women in the Australian Federal and State and New Zealand parliaments, and made comparisons with parliaments overseas. The researchers conducted surveys, interviews and discussion groups and examined the backgrounds of members and their experiences of being a parliamentarian, in order to encourage public debate about women's participation in public life.

Six months later in March 1995, the Federal Office of the Status of Women produced an excellent and comprehensive guide designed to encourage women to stand for election, entitled Everywoman's Guide to Getting into Politics

The barriers

Traditionally parliament has been a male domain. As an institution and an integral part of the political system developed in western society, parliaments have been designed by men, for men.

Parliamentary environment
Parliamentary politics in Australia is a competitive domain which has been set up for men, by men with no regard for women and which reflects male values. In common with many other institutionalised systems, parliament is characterised by a hierarchy based on competition. It is adversarial and male.

The adversarial nature of Parliament results in behaviour with which many women feel uncomfortable. Many of the Committee's witnesses were critical about how parliamentarians behave in the Chamber. There is a perception that the loudest voice and the most truculent approach wins, and the general level of aggression has been compared to a bear-pit.

The very maleness of parliament is striking to anyone—by the sheer weight of numbers of men sitting in a parliamentary chamber. The few women gathered there appear as an anomaly and, unsurprisingly, male attitudes and behaviour prevail. Indeed in the historically male dominated world of parliamentary politics, it would be remarkable if they did not. In Australian parliaments, where most of the Members come from an English-speaking background, the attitudes reflect an Anglo-Celtic male view of the world. Alternative perspectives have not been accorded the same value and as a result have tended to be marginalised.

Work patterns also reflect the traditional male view of work. Parliaments often do not sit until after lunch, and as a general rule continue until well into the evening. Late night sittings not uncommonly continue into the small hours. It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible for a person who has a day to day responsibility for running a family, to be able to combine this with the job of being an elected member. The system was not designed to cater for the 'private' sphere of family life. Hence the very notion that working patterns should be compatible with the responsibility for family members - not scheduling sitting days during the school holidays for example - has hardly been likely as a topic for consideration.

Dual roles: family and Parliament
One of the most entrenched divisions between the sexes in our society is the division of labour on the basis of gender. Although what counts as women's work and what counts as men's work varies considerably from one society to another, the distinctions between work that is more appropriately done by one or other sex have traditionally been clear cut.

The last two decades have seen many changes in the labour market, the most marked of which has been the increasing numbers of women who now make up the paid workforce. Although women may be entering and re-entering the world of work, relatively few are taking up parliamentary careers. Why should this be?

Part of the reason is that women have not given up their domestic responsibilities in proportion to entering "the public sphere". Although historically young women have been active in the labour market, traditionally they have left work on marriage or prior to the birth of the first child. So what is new today is the numbers of mothers who are working outside the home. Yet despite some attitudinal changes, many Australian families still regard the prime responsibility for looking after the family as the mother's job, rather than something to be shared between both parents.

When to make a career move into Parliament?
The Committee heard further evidence to this effect. One submission argued that:

'Women have long grappled with the question - "do I make this career move before I have children/husband/responsibilities, or when the children have grown up?" At 45, a woman still has 20 years to give to Parliamentary service, but often the public perception is that she is "past her prime".'

This latter point was taken up in more detail by another witness. She explained that leaders are emerging at a younger age than in the past, and a woman who has taken time out to raise a family may be at a disadvantage when she begins a parliamentary career later in life. As she stated:

The 'wait 'til your children are grown up theory' is alright if a woman had her children in her early twenties because she would be in a position to go into Parliament in her early forties. For a woman having children in her thirties, this puts her entry into Parliament in her fifties. There are always exceptions, but generally speaking another trend has been for younger Ministers and Leaders. If a woman enters Parliament in her fifties, by the time she establishes herself and works her way up the ranks, she may be considered too old to take on senior Ministries or the Leadership.

Structure in a changing society: issues of power

There can be no doubt that the introduction of changes to encourage women to take up a greater role has wider implications and long term effects. It is also true that the impetus for such changes has been a long time in coming. Further, where changes to encourage women have been conceived, many have been blocked before implementation. The gender imbalance among parliamentarians is arguably much worse than a simple reflection of the nature of society at large. But nonetheless, society still remains male dominated and the issue of power is central to an understanding of this.

To understand this better we need to appreciate that the gendered division of labour in society is not necessarily a balanced, equal division. The 'private sphere' of a woman's world has traditionally never been accorded the status and prestige of the 'public' world of men. The public sphere has after all been the domain in which major decisions affecting the wheels of industry and the politics of the day are made. When women have entered and re-entered the world of work, the way in which labour has been divided has ensured that men's work and women's work has been 'appropriately' allocated along gender lines.

It is notable that of all OECD countries, Australia has the most marked division of its workforce based on gender. This gender segregation at work occurs both vertically and horizontally. Many people recognise the existence of the 'glass ceiling' which prevents women from pursuing and achieving promotion through their chosen career structures, and which results in a disproportionate representation of women at the lower ends of the hierarchy with few at the top.

This of course means that the power holders and decision makers are still overwhelmingly men. In Australia they are still overwhelmingly of an Anglo-Celtic background or environment (Office of Multicultural Affairs, 1989) and as such, hold a male, Anglo-Celtic view of the world. Historically this has led to a lack of the consideration of all the relevant issues in decision-making, as viewpoints held by women and people from other backgrounds have not had a chance to be represented.

But as well as vertical segregation, horizontal segregation into men's and women's work also has implications for the issues of power. We have traditionally seen women's exclusion from certain areas, not simply because these areas have been the domain of men, but also because these areas have carried more clout as a result. One of the interesting things that crosscultural studies have shown is that more often than not what counts as women's work and what counts as men's work varies considerably between one society and another. What counts as valuable is often based as much on the gender of those who do the work as any intrinsic importance of the work itself. The evidence suggests that most paid work performed by men is considered important, whereas most paid work performed by women is not. It is only in the last decade or so that women have been able to make inroads in such male domains as the trades (other than hairdressing) and science in any numbers. The formal barriers may have been removed much earlier, but resistance to power-sharing is never easy to break, and the road to true equality it seems, is a long one.

The pioneering role provided by the first generation of women parliamentarians has provided leadership to increasing numbers of women taking place in public life in the last two decades or so. But it does need to be recognised that much still needs to be done to change the power structures in our society. A democratic society cannot maintain a 'separate space' which serves as a mechanism for a power elite in public life. Practices, style and facilities need to become more user-friendly if we are to successfully recruit capable and competent women into society's leadership ranks.

Power, parties and preselection
No matter how much women's dual roles as workers and home-makers and mothers is catered for, the question of who makes decisions and the surrounding issues of power remain central. One of the central issues of power so far as standing for parliament is concerned, is the decision as to who is to be selected to stand as a candidate for the political party at the next election.

In Australia things were more clear cut in those days [the 1970s]. During the mid 1970s women candidates were seen as a liability, and political parties openly expressed that sentiment. Evidence given to the Committee suggested that while the community may have been prepared to elect women to parliaments, the party organisations were not ready for this. A former Senator argued that when she first ran for the Senate in 1975, there was an expressed fear that she would not gain the required one third plus one votes to win a seat, and that by winning the preselection, she had put her party's chances of ensuring a Senate seat at risk. As she stated:

'The party organisations were more conservative than the electorate turned out to be on the acceptability of candidates. If you cannot get preselection, the next move is impossible and that has been a major problem.'

One of the principal reasons that political parties have been slow in selecting women as candidates has been the belief that electors-particularly female electors-do not vote for women.

The Committee heard evidence from an academic with expertise in this area that there was currently no research data to justify this view. However it was still held by the major political parties that women will not vote for women candidates.

Another witness considered that voters probably did not particularly care whether they voted for a male or female candidate. He suggested that the party vote largely overrides gender considerations and consequently entrenches whatever male dominance exists in the major parties.

However, it is also clear that there are more easily identifiable systems and procedural barriers which if tackled directly and changed would have direct results. It appears to be the considered view of many of the people who gave evidence to the Committee that among all barriers to women's entry to Parliament, the Party preselection systems have been the major barrier. What initiatives have been taken to overcome this in Australia, is considered in the next section.

Preselection and quotas

In Australia as elsewhere, each of the major political parties has its own system for the preselection of election candidates. All parties have different views on whether or not their system should be changed to become more inclusive of women. The question of quotas for women candidates is topical and has recently been the subject of debate.

Within the last two years, the Australian Labor Party has introduced a quota policy which is designed to achieve a target of at least 35 per cent of female MPs in State and Federal Parliaments by the year 2002. A training system is also in operation. By contrast, the Liberal Party has no immediate plans to introduce a quota system, preferring a system of training, encouragement and support for women as potential candidates. The Australian Democrats already have an equal gender balance among parliamentarians and hence feel no need for action on their preselection procedures.

For some, the introduction of a quota system is seen as the only way of correcting the gender distortion in Australian parliaments. For others, quotas are nothing more than reverse discrimination and make a mockery of the merit principle.

Safe Seats, Marginal Seats
No matter how equal the party preselection process, the key to successful election ultimately depends on the winning of votes and this depends to a very large extent on the particular electorate for which the candidate is preselected. Although it has been seen as something of an apprenticeship, many observers consider that the practice of selecting women candidates for unwinnable seats does nothing for promoting women into parliament.

Historically women have not been preselected for safe seats in anything like the same proportion as male candidates. Indeed the first time a woman was preselected for a safe seat in the Federal House of Representatives did not occur until 1990. During the March 1993 Federal election, 55 per cent of the seats were considered safe, and the Australian Election study research (Jones et al, 1993) shows that men were over three times more likely to be standing for a safe seat than women.

Public support—trust funds and networks for women
Conducting an electoral campaign can be an expensive business. Funding of parliamentary candidates for the costs of election campaigning varies in Australia from one State to another. Federal candidates and those standing for election in New South Wales and the ACT receive public funding if they win a relatively small proportion of votes, but there is no such system in the other States. However candidates are likely to receive funding from the party they represent, although Independent candidates are left to find their own resources. There is no special funding available to women.

Recognising that the expense of election campaigning is in itself a disincentive to many women who generally have less money than men, trust funds for women have been set up in some countries. Emily's List is a trust fund established through public subscription in Britain for Labour Party women candidates. .....Other types of support for women include non party-affiliated organisations whose goals are directed towards getting women into parliaments. The 300 Group in the UK is one such organisation. It has a network of local branches and conducts training at all levels of political development with the declared aim of achieving 50 per cent female representation in the British Parliament by the year 2000. Another British initiative is a campaign established by British women MPs to arouse the interest of women to enter politics. The 'Women into Politics' campaign also focuses on the education of young women in schools and universities as to how politics effects their chances in life and to stimulate their participation.

In Australia the Women's Electoral Lobby is a feminist non-party organisation established in 1972 to raise the profile of women's issues in the political arena. As a lobby group it seeks to raise awareness of matters affecting women and families, but its central aim is not directly to seek to increase the numbers of women in parliaments. Most of the Australian political parties run training courses for candidates, but there is no non party-affiliated group offering such support.

The Australian Women's Party, established in September 1995, contested a Federal election in 1996 for the first time. Its progress will be watched with interest.

Pathways to Parliament

International studies suggest that there are connections between selection for political representation and patterns of employment.

Lawyers are prominent in most countries, usually making up to 15 to 25 per cent of national legislators, rising to half of all representatives in the USA (Putnam 1976; Davidson and Eleszek 1981, Norris, 1987). Academics, teachers, journalists and businessmen are overrepresented in parliaments, compared with their numbers in their national populations.

Two particular characteristics of these kinds of jobs are relevant in elected office. First are the practitioner skills such as expertise and confidence in public speaking, knowledge of government and familiarity with the law, and second the flexibility which offers scope for a combination of a long term professional career with the uncertainties and demands of elected office (Norris 1979). The literature suggests that as increasing numbers of women enter professions such as the law, the media and business, they are more likely to figure among those recruited for political office.

Are our Parliaments out of step with society?

This committee has heard plenty of evidence to suggest that while gender discrimination issues may be being adddressed within society, within parliaments they are not. We can conclude that an extremely complex interaction of political, culutral, institutional and socio-economic factors are at work. But it is possible to identify three major hurdles and the particular obstances they present for women:—

  • Hurdle one—deciding to stand

  • Hurdle two—getting selected as a candidate

  • Hurdle three—the voting procedures

Two major factors can be identified from these three hurdles. One is that parliament does not reflect the make-up of Australian society. The second is that a vicious circle is operating—as long as the major players remain committed to maintaining the current system, many women who have much to contribute will view the system