Women in politics

| February 14, 2024

With Victorian council elections to be held in October, the state government’s target of reaching 50-50 gender representation at the local level is under threat.

While the state achieved a record 43.8% of women elected to councils in 2020, outperforming most federal and state parliaments, and succeeded in achieving gender parity in 47 out of 76 councils, the overall 50-50 gender representation target by 2025 will still be difficult to reach.

Globally, gender quotas have been a tried and tested way of lifting women’s political representation. But research also shows quotas can divide public opinion, and they work better in some contexts than others. With this in mind, we wanted to test alternative measures to support women in politics, which also attract public support.

Our latest research shows Australians are generally supportive of giving women politicians a range of resources such as better compensation, childcare and housekeeping funds, and more flexibility with online meetings, to help keep them in office.

Australia struggles with women’s representation in its parliaments across our three tier system. Despite a record number of women entering the federal parliament in 2022, Australia is currently ranked 34th in the world for women’s representation in the lower house.

Australia’s House of Representatives still ranks poorly on gender equity compared to other countries. 

While local governments tend to fare slightly better, they also struggle to achieve equal gender representation. In response, the Victorian government set a target in 2016 for 50% women councillors and Mayors by 2025.

Achieving this goal is important because it makes society more equal, reflecting the fact that women account for just over 50% of the population.

There are other benefits too. Local government can be an excellent training ground for women politicians, which may in turn bolster women’s representation in other tiers of government. And so, women need more support to ensure they can run for local government and be supported once in office.

Challenges for female politicians

Women face unique challenges as politicians. Our research shows a major issue facing women politicians is their competing work and family roles.

Trying to meet the demands of work, family and politics creates role strain for women politicians. In a previous study with logistical support from the Victorian Local Governance Association (VLGA), we found these demands meant younger women were much less likely to run for local government than older women and men of all ages.

Our research shows this creates stress, strain and high levels of burn-out for women politicians. It can also lead to higher attrition rates, making it harder to close the gender gap. Many men politicians, of course, also had families and paid employment, but most also had a secret weapon – partners at home to manage the domestic demands.

This means women politicians are entering their jobs with heavier loads and the weight of these demands are a source of constant strain.

To counter this, we tested public support in three countries for non-quota measures like additional resources to keep women in public office, to move closer to gender parity.

Gender responsive governments

Governments have long toyed with the question: how do you centre gender in decision-making to create governments that support women and men equally? And, importantly, will the public support this decision-making?

To understand these questions, we conducted an experiment drawing reponses from more than 25,000 people in Australia, Canada and the United States. We presented people with a hypothetical scenario: A politician has young children at home, travels a lot for work and is doing a great job. They are thinking about re-running in the next election but find managing work and family life to be difficult. What kind of resources, if any, should they be provided? We then provided a range of options to measured their level of support for: a pay raise, a childcare allowance, or money to outsource housework.

Testing support at both local and federal levels of office, we found public support across countries for giving women more resources than men to help women stay in politics. We found respondents were especially supportive of extending these resources to women elected to local government, where compensation is less and supports are most needed.

Making progress

So, what are the lessons we can draw here? Well, it is clear that women need additional resources to remain in office. Our earlier research on women in local government in Victoria showed a missing cohort of young women who are building families at the exact moment that they could be building political careers.

We know from decades of national statistics that women are underrepresented in all areas of government – local, state and federal. Women politicians report significant strain in trying to do it all and do it well.

They need additional resources such as childcare and flexible meeting times to stay in office. Our latest work finds that citizens are supportive of these concrete solutions to support women in politics and lift women’s participation rate.

We know that women bring unique strengths to politics and we know, from decades of research, that we all benefit from more equal parliaments to create a more equal society.

With the Victorian local government elections around the corner, now is the time for fresh thinking and policies to deliver women the resources they need to participate in politics to benefit us all.

This article was written by Leah Ruppanner, a Professor of Sociology and Founding Director of The Future of Work Lab at The University of Melbourne; and Andrea Carson, a Professor of Political Communication at La Trobe University. It was published by The Conversation.