Representation of women in Australian parliaments

7 March 2012

PDF version [650KB]

Dr Joy McCann and Janet Wilson
Politics and Public Administration Section

Contents

Introduction

How does Australia rate?

Parliamentarians
Parliamentary leaders and presiding officers
Ministers and parliamentary secretaries
Women chairing parliamentary committees
Women candidates in Commonwealth elections

Historical overview

First women in parliament

Commonwealth
States and territories

Longest-serving women in the Commonwealth Parliament
Youngest women

Commonwealth
States and territories

Indigenous women

Commonwealth
States and territories

International comparisons
Structural barriers and issues

The electoral system
The influence of political parties
Affirmative action and quotas
Party commitment to gender equity
Training, mentoring and networking

Cultural and social barriers and issues

Standing for election

Local government service

In the parliament

Portfolios
Parliamentary committees
Children in parliament

Conclusion
Appendices

Appendix 1: Women in national parliaments—comparative rankings of top 50 countries as at 30 June 2011 (2008 and 2001 compared)
Appendix 2: Women in the Commonwealth Parliament, 1943–2011

Senate
House of Representatives

Appendix 3: Women in ministries, 1901–2011, as at 1 January 2012
Appendix 4: Selected milestones for women in Australian parliaments
Appendix 5: Women in Commonwealth Parliament who have served for 10 years or more as at 1 January 2012
Appendix 6: Arguments for and against quotas for women’s political representation
Appendix 7: Selected references

Party abbreviations

GRN

Australian Greens

GRN+

Australian Greens and former Greens parties including the Nuclear Disarmament Party

ALP

Australian Labor Party

CLP

Country Liberal Party

DEM

Australian Democrats

DLP

Democratic Labor Party

LCL

Liberal Country League

LIB

Liberal Party of Australia

LNP

Liberal National Party

NAT

The Nationals (includes the former names of Country Party and National Party and variants)

ONP

One Nation

 

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Ms Joanne Simon-Davies, Statistics and Mapping Section, Parliamentary Library, for her invaluable assistance in the preparation of graphs for this Background Note, and external and internal readers.

Introduction

A key measure of women’s empowerment in society at large is their participation in politics.[1]

There are currently more women parliamentarians in the Senate than at any other time since Federation. For the first time since the creation of the Commonwealth Parliament in 1901, women hold the Commonwealth leadership positions of Prime Minister and Attorney-General in the Commonwealth Parliament.  In the states and territories, there is a female Premier in Queensland and Tasmania respectively and, for the third time, a female Chief Minister in the Australian Capital Territory. Despite these high-profile roles, women comprise less than one-third of all parliamentarians in Australia and occupy less than one-quarter of all Cabinet positions. The number of women in the Senate reached its highest point after the 2010 Commonwealth election, while the number of women in the House of Representatives declined. When comparing the proportion of women in national parliaments internationally, Australia’s ranking has slipped from 21 to 38 over the past decade.

This Background Note presents a range of data illustrating the level of women’s representation at the Commonwealth, state and territory, and local government levels, with a particular focus on the Commonwealth Parliament. It presents statistical information about women parliamentarians, women in parliamentary leadership positions and ministries, women as chairs of parliamentary committees, and female candidates. It also includes some comparative data relating to women’s representation in the state and territory parliaments, identifies current and historical trends, and refers to recent research on structural, social and cultural factors influencing women’s representation in parliament.

This paper is a timely contribution to the significant and ongoing debate about the nature and level of women’s representation in Australia’s parliaments. Since Prime Minister Julia Gillard became the first woman to hold this office in 2010, the issue of gender and leadership in parliament has assumed even greater focus and attracted extensive public commentary.[2] Whilst it is beyond the scope of this paper to analyse the views and perceptions of women parliamentarians held by their colleagues, the media and the electorate, it does draw attention to relevant research and articles by other writers who have examined gender issues in Australian parliamentary and political life.

How does Australia rate?

Parliamentarians

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, women comprise half of Australia’s total population (50.2 per cent in 2010).[3]  However, as Table 1 shows, women comprise less than one-third (30.1 per cent) of all parliamentarians in Australia’s parliaments. In the Commonwealth Parliament, there is a higher proportion of women in the Senate or upper house (38.2 per cent) than in the House of Representatives or lower house (24.7 per cent). The Senate has traditionally had a higher proportion of women than the House of Representatives. This is also true of those states with a bicameral parliament, with the exception of Victoria where women comprise one-third of both chambers.

Table 1: Composition of Commonwealth, state and territory parliaments by gender, as at 1 January 2012

Parliament

Lower House

Upper House

Total for both chambers

M

F

Total

% F

M

F

Total

% F

M

F

Total

% F

C/wealth

113

37

150

24.7

47

29

76

38.2

160

66

226

29.2

NSW

72

21

93

22.6

29

13

42

31

101

34

135

25.2

Vic

59

29

88

33

27

13

40

32.5

86

42

128

32.8

Qld*

57

32

89

36

-

-

-

-

57

32

89

36

WA

48

11

59

18.6

19

17

36

47.2

67

28

95

29.5

SA

35

12

47

25.5

15

7

22

31.8

50

19

69

27.5

Tas

19

6

25

24

9

6

15

40

28

12

40

30

ACT*

10

7

17

41.2

-

-

-

-

10

7

17

41.2

NT*

17

8

25

32

-

-

-

-

17

8

25

32

Total

430

163

593

27.5

146

85

231

36.8

574

250

824

30.3

*Single chamber only

Source: Data compiled by J Wilson, Parliamentary Library, from published sources[4] 

Parliamentary leaders and presiding officers

According to the United Nations, women and men should participate equally in the decision-making processes of parliament.[5] The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Gender Equality Blueprint 2010 identified women in leadership as one of five key priority areas in achieving gender equality.[6] Given this objective, how does Australia rate in terms of women leaders in our parliaments?

Since 2010, for the first time since Federation, women have occupied two of the three most powerful positions in Australia’s system of government.[7] The Constitution of Australia establishes the Commonwealth Government comprising three ‘arms of government’—the Parliament, the Executive Government and the Judiciary. At its apex is the Queen, represented by the Governor-General. Quentin Bryce is Australia’s Governor-General, the first woman to be appointed since the creation of the role in 1901. The Parliament is at the heart of Australia’s system of government, and the Prime Minister is the leader of the governing party in the House of Representatives. On 24 June 2010, Julia Gillard became Australia’s 27th Prime Minister and the first woman to hold that position, having previously served as Australia’s first female Deputy Prime Minister.  

Every state and territory except South Australia has had a woman premier or chief minister. As at 1 January 2012, three of the eight state and territory leaders are women—Anna Bligh in Queensland, Lara Giddings in Tasmania, and Katy Gallagher in the Australian Capital Territory. The Northern Territory has a female Deputy Chief Minister (Delia Lawrie). Of the state and territory parliaments the Australian Capital Territory has had the highest number of female leaders of all the states and territories, with Rosemary Follett (1989, 1991–1995), Kate Carnell (1995–2000), and Katy Gallagher (2011–).

Three women have served in the role of Deputy Opposition Leader in the Commonwealth Parliament. Jenny Macklin (ALP) was elected unopposed as deputy leader in 2001 and held the position until 2006. She was succeeded by Julia Gillard (ALP) who held the position until 2007 when she was appointed Deputy Prime Minister. Following the 2007 election, Julie Bishop (LIB) became the third female Deputy Opposition Leader.[8] At the end of 2011, South Australia was the only state/territory to have a woman Opposition Leader (Isobel Redmond), while New South Wales and the Northern Territory each had a woman in the position of Deputy Opposition Leader.

The most senior parliamentary positions in the Commonwealth Parliament are the presiding officers—the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. They maintain the authority of their chamber, and uphold its rights and privileges. In its 110-year history, the Australian Parliament has had only one woman Speaker in the House of Representatives (Mrs Joan Child MP who held the position from 1986 until 1989), and one woman President of the Senate (Senator Margaret Reid who was elected in 1996 and served for six years). Anna Burke MP held the position of Deputy Speaker in the House of Representatives from 2008 to 2010 and from November 2011.

Six of the eight state and territory parliaments have had at least one female presiding officer including the current incumbents the Hon Shelley Hancock (Speaker, NSW Legislative Assembly), the Hon Lynette Breuer (Speaker, SA House of Assembly), the Hon Sue Smith (President, Tasmanian Legislative Council), and the Hon Jane Aagaard (Speaker, Northern Territory Legislative Assembly).

Ministers and parliamentary secretaries

As at 1 January 2012, women comprised 23.3 per cent of the Commonwealth ministry (see Table 2 below). This included 22.7 per cent in the Cabinet (or inner ministry) and 25 per cent in the outer ministry.[9] In the Commonwealth Opposition shadow ministry, women comprised 18.8 per cent of the overall ministry, with 10 per cent in the ‘shadow’ Cabinet and 33.3 per cent (or one-third) in the outer ministry.

Members and senators may be appointed by the Commonwealth Government as parliamentary secretaries to assist ministers in their work. They are sworn in as members of the Federal Executive Council, but do not have their own portfolio. In the past they were known as assistant ministers or parliamentary under-secretaries.  In the House of Representatives, parliamentary secretaries sit in the row of seats immediately behind the government front bench. They can stand in for a minister in the Chamber, and perform all the duties of the minister on the floor except for answering questions on portfolio matters. Their legal status and extent of their powers is the subject of debate from time to time. [10] Since 1999 they have been paid a salary of office. As Table 2 shows, a higher percentage of women hold parliamentary secretary positions than hold ministries.

Table 2: Commonwealth ministers, parliamentary secretaries and shadow ministers by gender, as at 1 January 2012

Commonwealth Parliament

Government Ministers

Opposition Shadow Ministers

Male

Female

Total

% Female

Male

Female

Total

% Female

Cabinet (Inner Ministry)

17

5

22

22.7

18

2

20

10

Outer Ministry

6

2

8

25

8

4

12

33.3

All ministers

23

7

30

23.3

26

6

32

18.8

Parliamentary secretaries

7

5

12

41.7

11

3

14

21.4

Source: Data compiled by Parliamentary Library from published sources[11]

By way of comparison, across Australia’s state and territory parliaments women held less than one-third of all ministerial positions (26.7 per cent) and shadow ministerial positions (27.4 per cent). In state and territory parliaments all ministers are members of Cabinet. The proportion of women in state and territory ministries is low compared with men (see Table 3.1 below).  Victoria and Western Australia have the lowest proportion of women ministers and the Australian Capital Territory has the highest.

Table 3.1: State and territory ministers and shadow ministers by gender, as at 1 January 2012

Parliament

Government Ministers

Opposition Shadow Ministers

Male

Female

Total

% Female

Male

Female

Total

% Female

NSW

17

5

22

22.7

10

6

16

37.5

Vic

19

4

23

17.4

15

8

23

34.8

Qld

12

6

18

33.3

14

4

18

22.2

WA

14

3

17

17.6

11

6

17

35.1

SA

11

4

15

26.7

13

2

15

13.3

Tas

5

3

8

37.5

8

3

11

27.3

ACT[12]

3

2

5

40

5

1

6

16.7

NT (2011)

6

2

8

25

9

2

11

18.2

All states and territories

88

32

120

26.7

85

32

117

27.4

All Australian parliaments

111

39

150

26

111

38

149

25.5

Source: Data compiled by Parliamentary Library from published sources[13]

The proportion of women appointed as parliamentary secretaries tends to be similar to the Commonwealth Parliament (with the exception of New South Wales where there is a similar percentage of female ministers and parliamentary secretaries). However, some state and territory government and opposition parties do not appoint parliamentary secretaries or shadow parliamentary secretaries, so the scope for comparison is limited.

Table 3.2: State and territory parliamentary secretaries by gender, as at 1 January 2012

Parliament

Parliamentary secretaries

Shadow parliamentary secretaries

Male

Female

Total

% Female

Male

Female

Total

% Female

NSW

10

3

13

23.1

-

-

-

-

Vic

7

4

11

36.4

3

2

5

40

Qld

3

4

7

57.1

4

1

5

20

WA

3

3

6

50

-

-

-

-

SA

-

-

-

-

-

1

1

100

Tas

2

1

3

33.3

-

-

-

-

ACT

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

NT

1

2

3

66.7

-

1

1

100

All states and territories

26

17

43

39.5

7

5

12

41.7

All  Australian parliaments

33

22

55

40

18

8

26

30.8

Source: Data compiled by Parliamentary Library from published sources[14]

Women chairing parliamentary committees

The parliament delegates some of its tasks and associated powers to committees comprising small groups of senators or members. The Constitution (Section 49) recognises committees as an essential instrument of both Houses. They have the power to perform functions which the Houses themselves are not equipped to perform, including gathering evidence from expert groups and individuals, and allowing direct contact between the parliament and the people. Most committees comprise representatives of all parties, and participation has become a very important aspect of the work of senators and members.[15]  The earliest committees were established in 1901, mostly dealing with the workings of the parliament. The current Senate committee system took shape from 1970 with the establishment of the Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees and Estimates Committees. In 1987 the House of Representatives established a comprehensive committee system with eight general purpose standing committees, and the number was increased to nine in 1996 and reached a peak of 13 in 2002.[16] The number of committees changed from 13 to 12 on 12 February 2008 (at the commencement of the 42nd Parliament).[17]

The chair of a parliamentary committee presides over the business and conduct of a committee. The position of committee chair is regarded as a stepping stone to senior political positions including minister or parliamentary secretary.[18] The first woman to chair a committee was Senator Marie Breen OBE (later Dame), who chaired a domestic standing committee, the Senate Printing Committee, from 1965 to 1968. In 1968 Senator Dame Ivy Wedgwood chaired the Senate Select Committee on Medical and Hospital Costs, and also one of the first of the Senate’s new legislative and general purpose standing committees, the Health and Welfare Committee. That Committee’s report on handicapped persons in Australia was the first to be tabled by these influential committees.

Currently, women chair seven of the 16 general purpose standing and legislation committees and two of the eight domestic standing committees in the Senate. Neither of the two Senate legislative scrutiny committees nor the single select committee is chaired by a woman.  In the House of Representatives, women chair three of the nine general purpose standing committees and one of the seven domestic standing committees in the House of Representatives. Women chair six of the 20 various joint committees.

Women candidates in Commonwealth elections

Of the 349 Senate candidates in the 2010 Commonwealth election 123 (35.2 per cent) were women, while in the House of Representatives there were 849 candidates of whom 230 (27.1 per cent) were women, as follows:

Table 4: Female candidates in 2010 Commonwealth election

State/

territory

Senate

House of Representatives

Seats

Males

Females

Total

% Females

Seats

Males

Females

Total

% Females

NSW

6

55

29

84

34.5

48

219

80

299

26.8

Vic

6

34

26

60

43.3

37

150

44

194

22.7

Qld

6

44

16

60

26.7

30

119

39

158

24.7

WA

6

34

21

55

38.2

15

59

33

92

35.9

SA

6

29

13

42

30.9

11

49

19

68

27.9

Tas

6

14

10

24

41.7

5

14

6

20

30

ACT

2

6

3

9

33.3

2

3

4

7

57.1

NT

2

10

5

15

33.3

2

6

5

11

45.5

Australia

40

226

123

349

35.2

150

619

230

849

27.1

Source: AEC Close of nominations factsheet, 2010[19]

An analysis of Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) data for Senate candidates between the 1983 and 2010 Commonwealth elections indicates that the proportion of nominations by female candidates generally increased at each election from 19.2 per cent in 1983 to a high of 36.8 per cent in 2007, with a slight fall to 35.5 per cent in 2010 (see Table 5.1 below).  The major parties (ALP and Liberal/Nationals Coalition) showed a generally upward trend in female candidates. The highest proportions were attained in 2007 with more than half (55.5 per cent) of the ALP’s candidates, and 40 per cent of the Liberal Party’s candidates being women. The use of proportional representation for Senate elections has been more favourable to minor parties than the majoritarian system used for the House of Representatives.

Both of the larger minor parties (Australian Democrats and Australian Greens) have consistently had a high proportion of women candidates in those elections contested. The Democrats had the highest number of female candidates for that party in 2004 with 63.6 per cent or nearly two-thirds of their candidates being women, whilst the Greens reached a record high for any party in 2010, with women comprising 71.4 per cent or more than two-thirds of their total candidates.

Table 5.1: Percentage of female candidates for the Senate by party, 1983–2010

Election year

Political party

DEM

%

ALP

%

LIB*

%

NAT

%

GRN+

%

Others

%

Total—all parties

%

 

1983

32.3

27.5

11.8

17.7

0

15.6

19.2

 

1984

34.6

25.0

22.6

25.0

0

26.8

26.7

 

1987

28.0

23.9

23.4

28.0

50.0

27.8

26.7

 

1990

52.2

25.0

19.2

18.2

56.3

26.1

29.6

 

1993

52.2

21.4

22.6

30.0

55.0

29.2

31.6

 

1996

36.0

48.0

32.1

42.9

64.7

29.4

34.9

 

1998

28.0

40.7

39.3

22.2

61.9

26.0

30.7

 

2001

46.2

48.0

22.6

37.5

54.5

27.2

32.6

 

2004

63.6

44.0

28.6

27.3

56.7

25.2

32.4

 

2007

33.3

55.5

40.7

10.0

58.6

33.2

36.8

 

2010

35.7

48.3

30.4

50.0

71.4

29.9

35.5

 

*includes NT Country Liberal Party

Source: Data compiled by J Wilson, Parliamentary Library from published sources[20]

An analysis of AEC data for House of Representatives candidates between the 1983 and 2010 Commonwealth elections indicates that the proportion of nominations by female candidates remained steady between 1983 and 1990, increasing to a high of 27.9 per cent in 1996, then remaining steady at around 27 per cent until 2010 (see Table 5.2 below). Amongst the major political parties (ALP and Liberal/Nationals Coalition), the proportion of female candidates has fluctuated considerably in this period, with each party having its highest proportion of women candidates at various times. The ALP had its highest proportion of female candidates (38.7 per cent) in 2001. The Liberal Party had its highest proportion of female candidates (25.8 per cent) in 1996. The Nationals achieved the party’s highest proportion of female candidates (30.3 per cent) in 2001. It fell sharply in 2010 to 6.3 per cent of the Nationals’ total candidates. Of the larger minor parties, the Greens and the Australian Democrats have maintained a relatively stable percentage of female candidates, respectively reaching their highest proportion of female candidates in 2001 (48 per cent) and in 2007 (37.2 per cent).

Table 5.2: Percentage of female candidates for the House of Representatives by party, 1983–2010

Election year

Political party

DEM

%

ALP

%

LIB*

%

LNP
%

NAT

%

GRN+

%

Others

%

All parties

%

1983

23.3

16.0

8.2

-

3.0

-

23.0

17.0

1984

26.8

12.2

11.4

-

9.7

-

23.8

17.4

1987

35.7

17.6

8.7

-

4.8

-

18.6

17.8

1990

27.1

12.8

14.1

-

12.8

39.3

16.0

17.8

1993

25.0

17.7

15.0

-

13.4

46.0

25.9

23.6

1996

34.7

20.3

25.6

-

6.5

42.2

26.5

27.9

1998

28.4

34.5

23.0

-

15.6

46.3

21.7

27.0

2001

36.7

38.7

17.9

-

30.3

48.0

16.4

27.7

2004

35.2

30.7

23.7

-

20.8

46.2

21.4

27.5

2007

37.2

30.0

23.1

-

25.0

38.7

19.6

25.8

2010

12.0

31.3

20.7

20.0

6.3

41.3

24.0

27.1

*includes NT Country Liberal Party

Source: Data compiled by J Wilson, Parliamentary Library from published sources[21]

Historical overview

First women in parliament

Commonwealth

Most Australian women (excluding Indigenous women in some states) won the right to vote in Commonwealth elections as a result of the passing of the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902. Four women stood at the 1903 election, the first Commonwealth election conducted after the passage of that Act. None of the four candidates was successful, but they were the first female candidates for any national parliament in the British Commonwealth.[22]

The first women were not elected to the Commonwealth Parliament until 1943, when Dorothy Tangney (later Dame) won a Senate position to represent Western Australia and Enid Lyons (later Dame) was elected to the House of Representatives in the seat of Darwin, Tasmania.[23] By 1980, women still made up only three per cent of the House of Representatives and 10.9 per cent of the Senate.[24]

Since Federation, 1595 members have served in both Houses of the Commonwealth Parliament, of which 162 (10.2 per cent) have been women, as follows:

Table 6: Senators and Members since 1901 by gender

Senate

House of Representatives

Both Houses

Total

Female

% Female

Total

Female

% Female

Total

Female

% Female

547

80

14.6

1093

86

7.9

1595*

162**

10.2

*This takes into account the 45 members who have served in both Houses.

**This takes into account the four women who have served in both Houses (Bronwyn Bishop, Cheryl Kernot, Belinda Neal and Kathy Sullivan).

Source: Parliamentary Handbook[25]

Figure 1 illustrates the trends in women’s representation in both chambers since the first women entered the Commonwealth Parliament in 1943. Of the 162 women who have served in the Commonwealth Parliament, 30 have served as ministers, 21 as Parliamentary Secretaries, and eight as both (see Appendix 3). 

Figure 1: Percentage of women in the Senate and House of Representatives, 1943 to 2011

Percentage of women in the Senate and House of Representatives, 1943 to 2011  

*Dates represent election dates (including double dissolutions) or 1 July of the year following an election when changes to the Senate resulting from that election take effect.
Source: Parliamentary Handbook

States and territories

South Australia led the world in women’s political rights in 1894, when women won the right to vote and to sit in the South Australian Parliament. By 1909 all Australian states and the Commonwealth had enfranchised most women. Women won the right to vote in Western Australia in 1899, but they did not win the right to sit in the State Parliament until 1920. Edith Cowan was the first woman to enter any Australian parliament when she won the Western Australian Legislative Assembly seat of West Perth in 1921.[26] Appendix 4 presents a selection of key milestones for women in Australia’s parliaments. The following sections highlight some aspects of these achievements.

Longest-serving women in the Commonwealth Parliament

At the end of 2011, Kathy Martin (later Sullivan) holds the record as the longest-serving woman in the Commonwealth Parliament with a total service of 27 years three months and 25 days (see Appendix 5). This included 10½ years in the Senate and nearly 17 years in the House of Representatives. She is one of only four women to have held a seat in both Houses. Senator Dorothy Tangney was the longest-serving woman in the Senate with a record 24 years 10 months and nine days. Bronwyn Bishop MP, who is currently in the House of Representatives and one of the four women to have held a seat in both Houses, is the third longest-serving woman in the Commonwealth Parliament with a total period of service of 24 years, four months and 18 days at the end of 2011. This includes six years seven months and 13 days in the Senate, and 17 years nine months and five days in the House. Appendix 5 provides a list of women who have served in the Commonwealth Parliament for ten years or more.

Youngest women

Commonwealth

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, elected to the Senate for South Australia in 2007 at the age of 25, is the youngest woman to enter the Commonwealth Parliament. Natasha Stott Despoja was previously the youngest, following her election to the Senate in 1995 at the age of 26.

States and territories

Kelly Vincent MLC, elected to the South Australian Parliament in 2010 at 21 (representing the Dignity for Disability) is the youngest woman to be elected to any of Australia’s parliaments. Roslyn Dundas, elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly in 2001 at 23 (representing the Australian Democrats), was formerly the youngest woman to be elected to an Australian parliament.

Indigenous women

Commonwealth

There have been no Indigenous women elected to the Commonwealth Parliament since Federation in 1901. Indeed, Indigenous women in some states were specifically excluded from voting in Commonwealth elections as a result of the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902.

States and territories

Indigenous women are under-represented in all state and territory parliaments. Carol Martin was elected to the Western Australian Parliament on 10 February 2001, becoming the first Indigenous woman to be elected to any Australian parliament. She was re-elected in 2005 and 2008.[27] The Northern Territory has had the largest number of Indigenous Australian women MPs of all the state and territory parliaments. Marion Scrymgour MP, elected to the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly in 2001, became the first female Indigenous minister in Australia in 2003. She was appointed Deputy Chief Minister of the Northern Territory from November 2007 to February 2009, making her the highest-ranked Indigenous person in government in Australia’s history. In 2005, another two Indigenous women were elected to the Northern Territory parliament—Malarndirri McCarthy, and Alison Anderson. Alison Anderson was a minister in the Northern Territory government from 2005 until she resigned from the ALP in 2009 to become an Independent. She subsequently joined the Country Liberal party in 2011.[28] In New South Wales, Linda Burney became the first Indigenous person to be elected to the NSW Parliament in 2003. She held several ministerial positions in the NSW Cabinet between 2007 and 2011, and became Deputy Leader of the Opposition in NSW in 2011.

International comparisons

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) data on 190 countries, women comprise 19.5 per cent or less than one-fifth of all parliamentarians in national parliaments. Of these, 27 countries have reached or exceeded the 30 per cent ‘critical mass’ for women’s parliamentary representation, widely regarded as a minimum benchmark for equal participation.[29]

The problem of women’s parliamentary under-representation is found in many countries worldwide. The United Nations has identified a number of barriers that inhibit women from being elected to national parliaments including Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. These barriers include:

  • the nature of the electoral system
  • the nature and processes of political parties
  • women’s lower levels of education and socio-economic status
  • traditions and beliefs about the role of women in society, and
  • the burden of combining work and family responsibilities.[30]

The IPU’s historical data indicates that women’s representation in Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament has declined significantly over the past decade when compared with national parliaments globally (see Figure 2 below). As at 30 June 2011, Australia ranked equal 38th with Canada, having slipped from equal 31st with Granada in 2008 and 21st in 2001. Australia is currently ranked 41st.

Australia is ranked behind New Zealand (ranked 17th as at 30 June 2011), ahead of the United Kingdom (ranked 48th) and the United States of America (ranked 69th). Women comprised 24.7 per cent of the House of Representatives  and 38.2 per cent in the Senate. This compares with elected positions in the UK parliament (22 per cent in the House of Commons) and the US Congress (16.9 per cent in the House of Representatives and 17 per cent in the Senate). A comparison of the top 50 IPU country rankings for women in national parliaments is at Appendix 1.

Figure 2: Australia’s ranking in IPU women in national parliaments survey

Australia’s ranking in IPU women in national parliaments survey

Source: IPU, Women in national parliaments[31]

The IPU’s regional averages show that Nordic countries have the highest number of women in the single house or lower house of their national parliaments (42 per cent), followed by Europe’s OSCE member countries including Nordic countries (22.6 per cent) and North and South America (22.6 per cent). The Arab States have the least number of women MPs (11.3 per cent).  Of those national parliaments with an upper house, the Pacific region has the highest average number of women (34.8 per cent).[32]

Given the slow progress internationally, many countries have adopted some form of gender quota to increase women’s representation in politics. The Quota Project, a global database of quotas for women in politics, reports that half of the countries of the world today use some type of electoral quota system for women, including candidate quotas, reserved seats and voluntary quotas for political parties. Different systems are preferred in different regions. Reserved seats tend to be used in the Arab region, in South Asia and partly in Africa.[33]  The quota system is a controversial issue in Australia (see discussion below on affirmative action and quotas).

In September 2011, women political leaders attending the 66th session of the UN General Assembly in New York noted that women comprise less than 10 per cent of world leaders and less than one in five parliamentarians. They signed a joint statement calling for women’s equal right ‘to participate in all areas and at all levels of political life’ and reaffirming support for the role of the UN in achieving gender equality and empowerment of women.[34]

Structural barriers and issues

As noted above, the United Nations has identified a number of barriers that have been found to inhibit women from being elected to national parliaments globally. In recent years, academic researchers have examined these barriers in the Australian context in order to understand the particular structural barriers and issues that influence women’s political representation and parliamentary experience. These include the electoral system, the turnover rate of parliamentarians, the party system, and the structure of the parliament itself.[35]

The electoral system

International research over several decades consistently shows that the type of electoral system used has a direct impact on the representation of women. The Beijing Platform for Action, developed at the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, called on national governments to review the impact of their electoral systems on women’s representation, and to undertake necessary reforms. Proportional representation (PR) electoral systems are generally more favourable to women candidates than single-member systems, and some forms of PR are better than others. However, as Marian Sawer notes, ‘[t]he difference between PR systems and those based on single-member electorates, whether of the plurality (first-past-the-post) or majoritarian variety, lies in the differing incentives they create for candidate selection’. PR systems encourage parties to present a ‘balanced ticket appealing to all sections of the community’ as well as to all sections of the party. In her analysis of different variations of PR systems, she concludes that it is the closed party list that produces the most favourable results for women candidates.[36]

A comparison of women’s representation by party in the Commonwealth Parliament since the first women entered parliament in 1943 indicates that women have had greater success in elections for the Senate than in the House of Representatives (see Figure 1 above).[37] Australian election analyst, Tony Smith, suggests that the electoral system used in the Senate favours the minor parties which tend to be younger and ‘less prejudiced against women than Labor and the Coalition, whose longer histories created traditions in times when the public and private spheres were sex-differentiated. It might also reflect the fact that most ambitious men aim for the lower house where government is formed, and regard upper house seats as career backwaters’.[38]

The influence of political parties

The candidate selection process used by political parties is a major factor in determining the level of parliamentary representation by women.[39] The decisions they make are usually influenced by the party’s rules and strategies for maximising the number of seats they win. One of the reasons commonly cited by parties for not endorsing women candidates was that they would lose the party votes. A survey conducted by Malcolm Mackerras in the 1980s, however, showed that female candidates were generally getting equal results to those of male candidates.[40] The 2007 Commonwealth election for the House of Representatives yielded a similar result. Of the 1054 candidates contesting the 150 available seats, 14.7 percent of the female candidates and 14.1 per cent of the male candidates were successful. These results suggest that the reasons for women’s political under-representation are more to do with party preselection processes than the polls.[41]

Figure 3.1: Number of women in the Senate by party, 1943 to 2011

Number of women in the Senate by party, 1943 to 2011 

Source: Parliamentary Handbook

Figure 3.2 Number of women in the House of Representatives by party, 1943 to 2011

Number of women in the House of Representatives by party, 1943 to 2011 

Source: Parliamentary Handbook

In Senate elections where candidates compete for multiple positions, parties have adopted a de facto list system, ‘with the parties effectively sealing the fate of individual candidates by virtue of determining their order on the party ticket’.[42]  As former Senator Margaret Reynolds has observed, ‘it is easier for women to gain the endorsement of their parties for preselection for upper houses where a listing system is adopted and it is easier to argue for power sharing. Whereas, when there is only the one position there is considerable competition’.[43] The problem was recognised by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs as early as 1992. In its report, the Committee recommended that ‘all political parties examine their selection procedures for systematic discrimination against women and develop appropriate affirmative action programmes which would give women equal opportunity to take a greater role in the political process’.[44]

Between 1903 and 1943, only 26 female candidates were nominated for election to the Commonwealth Parliament, and no woman was endorsed by a major party for the Senate prior to the start of World War II. Whilst there were more women candidates during the 1950s and 1960s, they were rarely supported by the major parties ‘in the belief that women could not poll well in Commonwealth elections’. By 1971, only seven women had been elected to the Senate and three to the House of Representatives.[45] Where women were supported by major parties, they tended to be endorsed for marginal seats—a trend that was reported in the 1990s.[46] The strategies that parties use for preselection are therefore of particular significance to women’s representation.  The following tables show the party affiliations of the 162 women who have served in the Commonwealth Parliament between 1943 and 2011 (see Appendix 2 for a full list of the women who have served in the Commonwealth Parliament, by party, from 1943 to 2011).

Table 7.1: Women in the Commonwealth Parliament by party, 1943–2011

Party

Number of women

Senate

House of Representatives

Total

ALP

32 

53

85

LIB (a)

24

29

53

NAT (b)

4

2

6

GRN

9

-

19

DEM (c)

9

-

9

IND (d)

2

1

3

IND LAB

-

1

1

TOTAL

80

86

166 (e)

Source: Parliamentary Handbook[47]

Explanatory notes:

a)     includes Enid Lyons (UAP), Natasha Griggs (CLP), and Agnes Robertson who represented the Liberal Party from 1949 until 1955 when she was elected representing the Country and Democratic League, aligned with the Country Party (CP)

b)     includes CP, NP, NPA

c)     includes Janet Powell who left the party in July 1992 and subsequently sat as an Independent; also Meg Lees who resigned from the party in July 2002 and sat as an Independent until she formed the Australian Progressive Alliance in April 2003

d)     includes Jo Vallentine who, although elected to represent the Nuclear Disarmament Party, sat as an Independent until July 1990 when she was elected to represent the WA Greens; also includes Irina Dunn who represented the Nuclear Disarmament Party until she was expelled for refusing to comply with the party’s request that she resign in favour of Robert Wood who had been elected to the Senate but was initially ineligible to take up his seat

e)    this total represents 162 women, including four women who have served in both Houses: Cheryl Kernot (DEM, ALP), Belinda Neal (ALP), Kathy Martin/Sullivan (LIB), and Bronwyn Bishop (LIB).

Table 7.2: Percentage of women in Senate by major party, 1943–2011

Date

ALP

LIB

NAT

Female

Total

%

Female

Total

%

Female

Total

%

21/08/1943

1

22

4.5

0

12

0.0

0

2

0.0

1/07/1947

1

33

3.0

1

2

50.0

0

1

0.0

22/02/1950

1

34

2.9

3

20

15.0

0

6

0.0

28/04/1951

1

28

3.6

3

26

11.5

0

6

0.0

1/07/1953

1

29

3.4

3

26

11.5

0

5

0.0

10/12/1955

1

29

3.4

3

25

12.0

1

6

16.7

1/07/1956

1

28

3.6

3

24

12.5

1

6

16.7

1/07/1959

1

26

3.8

3

25

12.0

1

7

14.3

1/07/1962

1

28

3.6

4

24

16.7

0

6

0.0

1/07/1965

1

27

3.7

3

23

13.0

0

7

0.0

1/07/1968

0

27

0.0

3

21

14.3

0

7

0.0

1/07/1971

0

26

0.0

2

21

9.5

0

5

0.0

18/05/1974

2

29

6.9

2

23

8.7

0

6

0.0

13/12/1975

3

27

11.1

3

27

11.1

0

8

0.0

1/07/1978

3

26

11.5

3

29

10.3

0

6

0.0

1/07/1981

4

27

14.8

4

28

14.3

1

3

33.3

5/03/1983

7

30

23.3

4

24

16.7

1

4

25.0

1/12/1984

7

35

20.0

5

28

17.9

1

6

16.7

1/07/1985

6

34

17.6

5

28

17.9

1

5

20.0

11/07/1987

5

32

15.6

7

27

25.9

1

7

14.3

1/07/1990

5

32

15.6

7

29

24.1

1

5

20.0

1/07/1993

4

30

13.3

7

30

23.3

0

6

0.0

1/07/1996

9

29

31.0

8

31

25.8

0

6

0.0

1/07/1999

9

29

31.0

9

31

29.0

0

4

0.0

1/07/2002

11

28

39.3

8

31

25.8

0

4

0.0

1/07/2005

13

28

46.4

8

33

24.2

1

6

16.7

1/07/2008

14

32

43.8

9

32

28.1

1

5

20.0

1/07/2011

14

32

43.8

8

28

28.6

2

5

40.0

Total

126

817

15.4

128

708

18.1

13

150

8.7

Source: Parliamentary Handbook

Table 7.3: Percentage of women in House of Representatives by major party, 1943–2011

Date

ALP

LIB

NAT

Female

Total

%

Female

Total

%

Female

Total

%

21/08/1943

0

49

0.0

1

12

8.3

0

12

0.0

28/09/1946

0

43

0.0

1

17

5.9

0

12

0.0

10/12/1949

0

48

0.0

1

55

1.8

0

19

0.0

28/04/1951

0

54

0.0

0

52

0.0

0

17

0.0

29/05/1954

0

59

0.0

0

47

0.0

0

17

0.0

10/12/1955

0

49

0.0

0

57

0.0

0

18

0.0

22/11/1958

0

47

0.0

0

58

0.0

0

19

0.0

9/12/1961

0

62

0.0

0

45

0.0

0

17

0.0

30/11/1963

0

52

0.0

0

52

0.0

0

20

0.0

26/11/1966

0

41

0.0

1

61

1.6

0

21

0.0

25/10/1969

0

59

0.0

0

46

0.0

0

20

0.0

2/12/1972

0

67

0.0

0

38

0.0

0

20

0.0

18/05/1974

1

66

1.5

0

40

0.0

0

21

0.0

13/12/1975

0

36

0.0

0

68

0.0

0

23

0.0

10/12/1977

0

38

0.0

0

67

0.0

0

19

0.0

18/10/1980

3

51

5.9

0

54

0.0

0

20

0.0

5/03/1983

6

75

8.0

0

33

0.0

0

17

0.0

1/12/1984

7

82

8.5

1

45

2.2

0

21

0.0

11/07/1987

8

86

9.3

1

43

2.3

0

19

0.0

24/03/1990

7

78

9.0

3

55

5.5

0

14

0.0

13/03/1993

9

80

11.3

4

49

8.2

0

16

0.0

2/03/1996

4

49

8.2

17

76

22.4

1

18

5.6

30/10/1998

16

67

23.9

15

64

23.4

2

16

12.5

10/11/2001

20

65

30.8

16

68

23.5

2

14

14.3

9/10/2004

20

60

33.3

15

75

20.0

2

12

16.7

24/11/2007

27

83

32.5

12

55

21.8

1

10

10.0

21/08/2010

23

72

31.9

13

60

21.7

1

12

8.3

Total

151

1618

9.3

101

1392

7.3

9

464

1.9

Source: Parliamentary Handbook

The following summarises some of the ways in which the different parties have responded to the issue of women’s political participation and parliamentary representation in recent decades. (See Appendix 6 for a summary of the pros and cons of quotas for women candidates.)

Affirmative action and quotas

Whilst gender quotas of different kinds are widely used internationally to increase women’s participation in national parliaments, they have been somewhat controversial in the Australian context.  In 1981 the ALP Conference endorsed affirmative action principles whereby women were to hold 25 per cent of all internal party positions. In 1994 the ALP adopted a mandatory 35 per cent preselection quota for women in winnable seats at all elections by 2002.[48] The proportion of female candidates preselected rose from 14.5 per cent in the 1994 election to 35.6 per cent in the 2010 election. As Hutch Hussein points out, these figures clearly demonstrate how the rule changes within the ALP have helped to achieve greater gender equality in Australia’s parliaments. [49] From 1 January 2012 a 40:40:20 quota system will apply ‘to produce an outcome where not less than 40% of seats held by Labor will be filled by women, and not less than 40% by men’. The remaining 20 per cent may be filled by candidates of either gender.[50] There is pressure within the party to increase the quota to 50 per cent.

The Coalition parties (Liberal Party and the Nationals) have not adopted affirmative action measures for their respective parties’ parliamentary wings on the basis that gender quotas contradict the principle of merit. The Liberal Party uses women’s networks within the party, and provides support and mentoring to encourage women who stand for preselection. According to the Liberals’ Federal Women’s Committee, ‘[w]hilst the Liberal Party does not support the ALP’s quota system, the Party is aware that women of merit can be overlooked in our preselections processes, often because they lack the support and mentoring system that is often behind successful candidates’.[51]

In 2010, Liberal Senator Judith Troeth prepared a policy paper noting that from 1944 the Liberal Party had reserved 50 per cent of the Victorian Division’s executive positions, and that these arrangements had survived the party’s ‘recent radical reform’ in Victoria. She called for the introduction of a quota system for the Victorian Division to endorse women for preselection in a minimum of 40 per cent of its seats for the Commonwealth election’ to be held in August 2010, recommended that the quota be increased to 45 per cent within a five year period, and that women comprise 50 per cent of training candidates.[52]

Party commitment to gender equity

Rule 10 of the ALP’s current National Constitution commits the party to having equal numbers of men and women at all levels in the organisation and in preselection for public office.[53] The Liberal Party has a long history of women’s representation on the Federal Executive. The Federal Women’s Committee (FWC) was established in 1945 at the inaugural meeting of the Liberal Party Federal Council in August 1945, and incorporated in the party’s Constitution in October 1946. The FWC has had representation on the party’s Federal Executive since then, and actively promotes women for elected office. The Liberal Party’s state branches have their own peak women’s councils.[54] The party’s federal Constitution also requires the vice-president of the party to be a woman, and the federal party and some of the state divisions have designated organisational positions for women.

The Nationals provide opportunities for women to participate in the party and seek leadership or parliamentary office. In the 1970s, the National Party Constitution included an affirmative action strategy for increasing female membership of the Central Council. Two new positions were created with one to be filled by a woman. A special session on women in politics was held during the NSW National Party Annual Conference in 1995, prompting a 12 month review of practices by the National Party Women’s Committee. It recommended that the party should create a register of female potential candidates, conduct training and mentoring programs, invite each electorate council to include at least two women in preselection candidates, and other measures.

Amongst the minor parties, both the Australian Greens and the Australian Democrats have embraced gender equity as a founding principle in their respective organisations. The Greens attribute their higher female representation in parliament to the party’s open decision making and preselection processes, a strong emphasis on grassroots membership, and the party’s acceptance of gender equity as a core principle.[55] The state Greens parties have also adopted specific strategies. The NSW Greens’ Constitution, for example, requires the state party to attempt to achieve at least 50 per cent representation by women as well as membership from rural and regional areas and amongst minority and disadvantaged groups.[56]

Training, mentoring and networking

The ALP’s National Labor Women’s Network, launched in 1996 at the National ALP Conference, represents all women members of the party. It encourages women ‘to participate in all levels of the Party’s structure, the government and public life’.[57] EMILY’s List is a women’s network established by prominent Labor women in 1996 to provide financial, political and personal support for the election of ‘progressive’ Labor women candidates who are committed to pro-choice positions on abortion and other gender equity issues. The EMILY’s List’s Lift the Target campaign has been instrumental in raising the preselection quota for women, and the group actively supports Labor women’s campaigns in parliamentary elections Australia-wide.[58]

The Liberal Party encourages women’s preselection through a range of mentoring, training and support mechanisms. In addition to the work of the FWC, the party’s state branches have their own peak women’s councils that provide advocacy and support. The Women’s Council of the NSW Liberal Party, for example, aims to increase representation, membership, and awareness of issues concerning women.[59] The Women’s Federal Council (WFC) of the Nationals promotes and supports women to take on leadership roles, with a particular focus on increasing the involvement of women in policy, politics and decision-making within the party. The WFC is chaired by an elected President, who is a member of Federal Management Committee.[60]

Cultural and social barriers and issues

Recent international research has also drawn attention to the social and cultural factors that influence both the level (sometimes called ‘descriptive or symbolic representation’) and contribution (or ‘substantive representation’) of women parliamentarians.[61] Some researchers emphasise the symbolic importance of women’s political participation, arguing that lower levels of representation directly impact on how citizens generally perceive their level of inclusion in the polity. As newly-elected Labor MP Zoe Bettison recently stated in her first speech to the South Australian House of Assembly, ‘[e]qual participation of women in politics is essential to building and sustaining democracy’.[62] A recent US study notes that ‘[w]omen in public office stand as symbols for other women, both enhancing their identification with the system and their ability to have influence within it.’[63] The study found that prevailing perceptions of traditional social roles still actively discourage women from standing as political candidates. Even where women do stand for election, they are less likely than men to seek leadership positions or to be motivated by political ambition. Rather, they tend to focus on political involvement at a local level, and to be more motivated by community issues.[64]

Standing for election

One factor that has historically influenced the number of women seeking election to Australian parliaments relates to their personal circumstances and networks. In a study of 36 women political candidates contesting the 1982 Victorian state election, political scientists Marian Sawer and Marian Simms found that most had experienced conflict between campaigning whilst meeting their family and childcare responsibilities. They also encountered prejudice from those who thought that women were not equipped to deal with ‘hard’ policies such as economics, suggesting that the party would lose votes at election because of their gender. According to one successful candidate, the disadvantages of being a woman candidate in the 1980s could be summed up as having ‘weaker access to established power networks..., lack of accumulated income’, and the strain of juggling campaigning with family responsibilities.[65]

Since the 1980s, lack of access to established networks is less likely to be an issue for women standing for election because successful candidates are increasingly coming from professions that equip them for their political careers. As the following table illustrates, women entering the Commonwealth Parliament are now more likely to come from occupational backgrounds similar to those of their male colleagues. In 1988, teaching was the most common occupation amongst women in the Senate, whilst their male colleagues in both Houses tended to come from occupations in law, business management, unions and other professional or administrative roles. By 2008, there were fewer parliamentarians coming from a career in education, and women and men were tending to come from professional careers in law, business management and professional or administrative roles in the House of Representatives, and unions, politics and business management in the Senate. As Marian Sawer notes, this means that women are more likely to have the professional networks that inform their political careers, as well as enabling them to ‘work collectively’ with other women and represent the interests of their constituents.[66]

While data has not been collected for this paper in relation to the seniority of women prior to entering parliament, recent research suggests that women are poorly represented in senior positions. A 2011 study of the legal profession in New South Wales, for example, revealed that whilst the number of female solicitors in the state had increased to 46 per cent since 1988 (compared to 65 per cent for men), there was only one female managing partner in the biggest 30 firms in Australia.  Of those law firms with 40 or more partners, only 23 per cent were women, and the figure was even lower in mid-sized and small law firms.[67]

Table 8.1: Previous occupations by gender in Senate, 1988, 2008 and 2011 compared

Occupation*

Year

 

1988

2008

2011

 

M

F

Total

M

F

Total

M

F

Total

Barristers, solicitors, legal

7

3

10

5

3

8

6

5

11

Business executives, managers

11

2

13

13

5

18

11

4

15

Farmers and graziers

4

-

4

2

2

4

1

1

2

Lecturers, professors, teachers

5

6

11

4

2

6

2

1

3

Local government official

-

-

-

-

1

1

-

1

1

Medical practitioners, dentists, nurses, other health professionals

3

3

6

1

-

1

2

-

2

Members of state/territory legislatures

3

-

3

2

-

2

2

3

5

Other professional and administrators

8

2

10

5

2

7

2

2

4

Party and union administrators and officials

14

-

14

13

5

18

15

5

20

Political consultants, advisers

2

-

2

2

6

8

1

6

7

Public service/policy managers and administrators

1

-

1

-

1

1

-

1

1

Researchers, research assistants, electoral and project officers

2

-

2

2

-

2

3

1

4

Tradespersons

-

-

-

-

-

-

1

-

1

Total

60

16

76

49

27

76

46

30

76

*Occupation immediately prior to entering the Commonwealth Parliament

Source: Summary of data compiled by M Lumb from Parliamentary Handbook[68]

 

Table 8.2: Previous occupations by gender in House of Representatives, 1988, 2008 and 2011 compared

Occupation*

Year

 

1988

2008

2011

 

M

F

Total

M

F

Total

M

F

Total

Barristers, solicitors, legal

19

1

20

13

8

21

10

9

19

Business executives, managers

25

-

25

25

9

34

32

10

42

Farmers and graziers

14

-

14

7

-

7

6

0

6

Lecturers, professors, teachers

14

2

16

1

-

1

1

1

2

Local government official

-

-

-

-

1

1

1

1

2

Medical practitioners, dentists, nurses, other health professionals

5

1

6

3

-

3

3

1

4

Members of state/territory legislatures

13

1

14

8

1

9

7

1

8

Other professional and administrators

23

2

25

12

6

18

11

2

13

Party and union administrators and officials

12

-

12

16

4

20

14

2

16

Political consultants, advisers

3

-

3

18

5

23

22

3

25

Public service/policy managers and administrators

5

-

5

5

2

7

4

5

9

Researchers, research assistants, electoral and project officers

5

3

8

3

4

7

2

2

4

Total

138

10

148

111

39

150

113

37

150

*Occupation immediately prior to entering the Commonwealth Parliament

Source: Summary of data compiled by M Lumb from Parliamentary Handbook[69]

Local government service

Local government service is an important factor in considering women’s parliamentary participation, since many women begin their parliamentary careers by being elected to local councils.[70] According to the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government, Australia has 565 local governments. In February 2008, the LGMA National Board adopted a national strategy to advance women in local government into senior management positions. A key strategy platform is the development and promotion of a Year of Women in Local Government in 2010. In 2011, women comprised 27.8 per cent of elected representatives, and women held about five per cent of chief executive officer positions. The Australian Local Government Association notes that, despite efforts to increase women’s participation in elected and executive roles, the proportion of women elected to local government has changed little in the past 20 years.[71]

Table 9: Women in local government

State

Candidates

Elected representatives

Mayors

State

Total

Female

%  Female

Total

Female

% Female

Total

Female

% Female

NSW (2008)

4441

1480

33

1455

387

27

148

34

23

Vic (2008)

1975

612

31

631

188

30

79

18

23

Qld (2008)

1363

423

31

480

167

35

61

11

16

WA (2009)

1050

312

30

693

196

28

128

31

24

SA (2010)

1274

362

28

647

179

28

67

14

21

Tas (2009)

291

76

26

281

38

27

27

7

27

NT (2008)

206

66

32

147

51

34

16

4

25

TOTAL

10 600

3331

31.4

4334

1206

27.8

526

119

22.6

Source: Data compiled by Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government and supplied by the Australian Local Government Association, 27 October 2011

In the parliament

For most of the twentieth century, women were either absent or present in very small numbers in Australia’s parliaments, and the values, rules, procedures and practice that prevail have been largely shaped by male parliamentarians.  The proportion of women parliamentarians has grown steadily since the 1980s, and some reforms have been introduced that go some way to addressing these changes. On 30 June 1994, for example, the House of Representatives passed a resolution requiring that references to members should be made using gender-inclusive pronouns, including ‘chair’ rather than ‘chairman’. The Standing Orders were amended accordingly on 9 November 1994.[72]

 The Westminster system of representative democracy has also meant that the style of politics in the chambers tends to be confrontational, reinforced by the ‘majoritarian’ model of government versus opposition together with strong party discipline. Political scientists Marian Sawer, Manon Tremblay and Linda Trimble argue that this model of democracy makes cooperation on areas of interest to women more difficult on the floor of the chamber, suggesting that women parliamentarians find more scope for cross-party cooperation on committees.[73] In a rare example of cross-party cooperation in 2005, four women from the ALP, Australian Democrats, Liberal Party, and Nationals joined together in a private members’ bill to remove ministerial power over the use of the ‘abortion pill’, RU486.[74] Women’s rights activist, Sara Dowse, noted in 2009: ‘The fact that a vote like the one on RU486 has yet to be repeated prompts some reflection. For how well does our parliament actually serve the citizens it’s designed to represent, if women, who comprise over half the voting population, still constitute less than a third of the parliament?’[75]

Portfolios

Former Commonwealth MP and academic, Mary Crawford states that, despite increasing numbers of women in parliaments in industrialised democracies such as Australia, in many ways they remain ‘gendered organisations’.[76] She argues that a ‘gendered division of labour’ is evident, for example, in the types of ministries traditionally allocated to women in the Commonwealth Parliament. Annabelle Rankin, as Minister for Housing, became the first woman to administer a Commonwealth department in 1966. Since then, 43 women have served as ministers (Cabinet and non-Cabinet) and parliamentary secretaries in the Commonwealth Parliament (see Appendix 3 for a full list of portfolios held by women in the Commonwealth Parliament).  The majority of portfolios held by women have dealt with social and cultural services including the status of women, community services and housing, ageing, employment, training and workplace relations, education, health, sport, tourism, Indigenous affairs, arts, housing, local government, and social security.

Few women have held the more senior portfolios associated with matters of government, defence, foreign affairs, justice, finance, infrastructure and communications. The exceptions include the 2011 appointment of Nicola Roxon as Attorney-General, the finance and revenue portfolios held by Dame Senator Margaret Guilfoyle, Senator Penny Wong and Senator Helen Coonan respectively, as well as portfolios dealing with the environment (held by Ros Kelly MP), and climate change, energy efficiency and water (Senator Penny Wong). No woman has yet held been appointed as Minister for Defence, Foreign Affairs or Transport, although women have served in more junior roles as Minister for Defence Science and Personnel and Minister assisting the Minister for Defence.  Crawford notes that a ‘further hierarchy’ was created with the distinction between the inner ministry or Cabinet and the outer ministry. Data compiled for Cabinet and the outer ministry from 1975 to 1997 show that women were more likely to hold places outside, rather than inside, Cabinet although, by 2011, the proportion of women was similar in both (see Table 2 above).[77] Journalist, Catherine Fox, has recently argued that ‘[w]hen you normalise women’s presence in leadership and senior ranks’, women are no longer treated as a minority group and are less likely to be subject to the type of ‘scrutiny and double standards’ that women have experienced in senior positions such as those in parliaments and on boards.[78]

Table 10: Portfolios held by women in Commonwealth Parliament, 1943–2011

Portfolio

Total women

Status of women

11

Community services, families, housing

7

Ageing, aged care, veterans affairs

5

Employment, workplace relations, workforce participation, training

5

Education

4

Health

4

Sport

3

Defence industry, science and personnel, assisting Minister for Defence

3

Finance, revenue

3

Indigenous affairs, employment, justice

3

Tourism

3

Arts

2

Environment, climate change, energy efficiency and water

2

Executive positions*

2

Housing

2

Local government

2

Social security

2

Telecommunications

2

Consumer affairs

1

Early childhood, childcare

1

Attorney-General

1

Human services

1

Immigration, multicultural affairs

1

Justice

1

Special minister for state

1

Small business

1

Social inclusion

1

Special Minister for State

1

Youth

1

*including the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and Vice-President of the Executive Council

Source: Summary of data compiled from Parliamentary Handbook

Parliamentary committees

Crawford has found a similar trend in Commonwealth parliamentary committee representation. As noted above, the role of committee chair is regarded as a stepping stone to senior political positions, and the roles are highly sought after. Crawford observed that those committees considered to have a higher status are typically dominated by men—foreign affairs, economic and financial matters and security and terrorism issues—whilst women are typically found on the ‘less prestigious and powerful’ committees dealing with ‘soft’ or ‘nurturing’ issues including health, education and welfare.[79]

Parliamentary researcher Sonia Palmieri, in her work on women chairs of committees between 1987 and 2008, has identified a number of factors that influence the selection of committee chairs. These include the chamber in which they sit, their political party, their experience as deputy chair, and their expertise in relevant fields prior to entering parliament. She notes that the number and range of House of Representatives committees chaired by women has ‘improved significantly’ since the 1980s, reflecting the increase in the number of women MPs as well as their range of experience prior to entering parliament. She also notes particular trends, as well as different patterns, that have emerged between the two chambers. The House of Representatives, for example, has a strong tradition of appointing women to procedural committees, whilst relatively few women have chaired joint committees (which tend to deal with higher status issues such as foreign affairs).

In the Senate, which has a higher proportion of women than in the House and a more complex committee structure, Palmieri found a correspondingly greater number of women chairs of committees dealing with a more diverse range of subjects. She also noted that the separation of Senate general purpose standing committees into legislation (chaired by government members), and reference (chaired by opposition members), means that women are able to work closely in pairs in relation to specific portfolio areas.[80] However, in the 43rd Parliament, women chair joint committees dealing with clean energy, cybersafety, public works and migration, suggesting a move away from the more traditional or ‘soft’ issues.

Children in parliament

In 1983 Ros Kelly became the first woman to have a baby while serving in the Commonwealth Parliament. Since then a number of female parliamentarians have had children whilst in office and there have been several instances where very young children have been brought into the chambers. The presence of children in the chambers has attracted a range of responses from presiding officers, parliamentary colleagues, and the media.[81] Most notably, in 2009, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s two-year old child was removed from the Chamber during a division after a ruling by the President of the Senate relating to access by ‘strangers’ or ‘visitors’. This incident became the focus for a wider debate about work-life balance for parliamentarians, and drew attention to the competing demands of a modern workplace, ensuring that a nation’s democratically elected members can fully participate in the parliament, and upholding the rules of parliamentary practice.

With the increase in the number of women having children whilst in office, there have also been cross-party calls for family-friendly reforms to the parliamentary environment and its practices. In recent years, some measures have been put into place to accommodate the parenting needs of parliamentarians, staff, and members of the public visiting Parliament House. These have included an on-site childcare facility, rooms for breast-feeding mothers, and a special provision for proxy voting by nursing mothers during divisions in the House of Representatives.[82]

Conclusion

Australia was one of the first countries in the world to grant women full political rights, but it was one of the last Western countries to elect women to its national Parliament.[83]  One hundred and ten years after the first women contested a Commonwealth election, only one-quarter of Members in the House of Representatives and a little more than one-third of Senators are women.  Despite the presence of several high-profile women in Commonwealth, state and territory parliaments in recent years, including Australia’s first female Prime Minister (in 2010) and Attorney-General (in 2011), women continue to be significantly under-represented in Australia’s parliaments, within Cabinets, and in senior ministries and parliamentary positions. Under-representation remains a significant challenge, both structurally and culturally, for Australia’s parliaments. Academic studies suggest that the under-representation of women in our elected parliaments has a significant impact on how women generally perceive their level of inclusion in society.

Recent studies of women in Australia’s parliaments also indicate that, in addition to the numbers, there are still significant social and cultural factors that inhibit women from participating on an equal basis as men, particularly where party loyalty is paramount. The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, and parliamentary associations such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union, are focusing on ways to encourage national parliaments to better accommodate women. The IPU’s 2008 global study of women in parliament, Equality in politics: a survey of women and men in parliament, stated that parliaments have a key role to play in mainstreaming gender in society as a whole as well as within the parliamentary environment itself. The IPU advocated a gender-sensitive parliament that will respond to ‘the needs and interests of both men and women in its work as a nation’s peak legislative institution’.[84] It found that ‘women are overwhelmingly the main drivers of progress in gender equality in parliament but that parliaments, as institutions, also have responsibilities’.[85]

In order to assist parliaments to fulfil their responsibilities in what it calls ‘gender mainstreaming’, the IPU examined the issue of gender-sensitivity in parliaments around the world and published a detailed report outlining current best practice in achieving gender equality. One practice adopted is for parliaments to establish a dedicated gender equality committee to help mainstream a gender perspective throughout parliamentary work.[86] The author, Sonia Palmieri, has also undertaken an examination of how far the Australian Parliament has embraced gender mainstreaming since the 1990s.[87] Dr Palmieri notes that ‘[g]ender equality is not guaranteed simply by the presence of women in parliament. It also depends on a parliament’s gender sensitivity and awareness, its policies and infrastructure’. Gender-sensitive parliaments ‘remove the barriers to women’s full participation and offer a positive example or model to society at large’.[88]

Appendices

Appendix 1: Women in national parliaments—comparative rankings of top 50 countries as at 30 June 2011 (2008 and 2001 compared)[89]

Rank

Country

House or chamber

Comparative ranking

2011

 

Lower or single House

% Female

Upper House or Senate

% Female

2008

2001

1

Rwanda

56.3

34.6

1

18

2

Andorra

53.6

-

35

48

3

Sweden

45.0

-

2

1

4

South Africa

44.5

29.6

15

10

5

Cuba

43.2

-

3

12

6

Iceland

42.9

-

13

6

7

Finland

42.5

-

4

3

8

Norway

39.6

-

10

5

9

Belgium

39.3

36.6

11

22

Netherlands

39.3

36.0

6

4

10

Mozambique

39.2

-

12

9

11

Angola

38.6

-

77

43

Costa Rica

38.6

-

8

31

12

Argentina

38.5

35.2

5

15

13

Denmark

38.0

-

7

2

14

Spain

36.6

32.3

9

11

15

United Republic of Tanzania

36.0

-

21

24

16

Uganda

34.9

-

19

?

17

New Zealand

33.6

-

14

8

18

Nepal

33.2

-

16

95

19

Germany

32.8

21.7

18

7

20

Ecuador

32.3

-

35

46

21

Burundi

32.1

46.3

20

47

22

Belarus

31.8

32.8

23

65

23

The FYR of Macedonia

30.9

-

17

91

24

Guyana

30.0

-

24

34

25

Timor-Leste

29.2

-

22

-

26

Switzerland

29.0

21.7

25

23

27

Trinidad and Tobago

28.6

25.8

29

58

28

Austria

27.9

29.5

16

13

29

Ethiopia

27.8

16.3

47

84

30

Afghanistan

27.7

27.5

27

-

31

Portugal

26.5

-

26

33

South Sudan

26.5

10.0

-

-

32

Mexico

26.2

22.7

41

42

33

Monaco

26.1

-

35

25

34

Bolivia

25.4

47.2

68

57

35

Iraq

25.2

-

33

85

36

Sudan

25.1

17.9

65

70

37

Lao People’s Democratic Republic

25.0

-

34

27

38

Australia

24.7

38.2

31

21

Canada

24.7

35.9

52

26

39

Namibia

24.4

26.9

28

19

Viet Nam

24.4

-

31

17

40

Lesotho

24.2

18.2

35

104

41

Liechtenstein

24.0

-

37

?

42

Croatia

23.5

-

52

29

Seychelles

23.5

-

38

21

43

Kyrgyzstan

23.3

-

32

67

44

Senegal

22.7

40.0

46

40

45

United Arab Emirates

22.5

-

44

118

46

Pakistan

22.2

17.0

-

Singapore

22.2

-

36

92

47

Mauritania

22.1

14.3

45

104

Philippines

22.1

13.0

54

?

48

Czech Republic

22.0

18.5

74

44

Eritrea

22.0

-

46

45

United Kingdom

22.0

20.1

59

36

Uzbekistan

22.0

15.0

66

88

49

Serbia

21.6

-

50

-

50

Peru

21.5

-

22

35

Source:  Inter-Parliamentary Union, Women in national parliaments, world classification, 31 August 2011, 31 August 2008 and 12 October 2001, viewed 4 November 2011, http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/world.htm  

Appendix 2: Women in the Commonwealth Parliament, 1943–2011

Senate

 

Name

Party

State

Period of service

1.      Tangney, Dorothy (DBE 1968)

ALP

WA

21.8.1943–30.6.1968 defeated at 1967 Senate election

2.      Rankin, Annabelle (DBE 1957)

LIB

Qld

1.7.1947–24.5.1971 resigned

3.      Robertson, Agnes

LIB; CP

WA

10.12.1949–30.6.1962 retired

4.      Wedgwood, Ivy (DBE 1967)

LIB

Vic.

10.12.1949–30.6.1971 retired

5.      Buttfield, Nancy (DBE 1972)

LIB

SA

11.10.1955–30.6.1965; 1.7.1968–11.4.1974 retired

6.      Breen, Marie OBE (OBE 1958; DBE 1979)

LIB

Vic

1.7.1962–30.6.1968 retired

7.      Guilfoyle, Margaret (DBE 1979)

LIB

Vic

1.7.1971–5.6.1987 retired

8.      Coleman, Ruth

ALP

WA

18.5.1974–5.6.1987 retired

9.      Martin (later Sullivan), Kathy*

LIB

Qld

18.5.1974–5.11.1984 resigned; elected to House of Representatives

10.    Melzer, Jean

ALP

Vic

18.5.1974–30.6.1981 defeated at 1980 elections

11.    Ryan, Susan

ALP

ACT

13.12.1975–29.1.1988 resigned

12.    Walters, Shirley

LIB

Tas

13.12.1975–30.6.1993 retired

13.    Haines, Janine

DEM

SA

14.12.1977–30.6.1978 retired; 1.7.1981 - 1.3.1990 resigned; contested House of Representatives

14.    Hearn, Jean

ALP

Tas

15.10.1980–30.6.1985 retired

15.    Bjelke-Petersen, Florence

NCP; NPA

Qld

12.3.1981–30.6.1993 retired

16.    Reid, Margaret

LIB

ACT

5.5.1981–14.2.2003 resigned

17.    Giles, Patricia

ALP

WA

1.7.1981–30.6.1993 retired

18.    Crowley, Rosemary

ALP

SA

5.3.1983–30.6.2002 retired

19.    Reynolds, Margaret

ALP

Qld

5.3.1983–30.6.1999 retired

20.    Zakharov, Olive

ALP

Vic

5.3.1983–6.3.1995 died

21.    Knowles, Susan

LIB

WA

1.12.1984–30.6.2005 retired

22.    Vanstone, Amanda

LIB

SA

1.12.1984–26.4.2007 resigned

23.    Vallentine, Jo

NDP; IND; GWA

WA

1.7.1985–31.1.1992 resigned

24.    Newman, Jocelyn

LIB

Tas

13.3.1986–1.2.2002 resigned

25.    Powell, Janet

DEM; IND

Vic

26.8.1986–30.6.1993 defeated at 1993 elections

26.    West, Sue

ALP

NSW

11.2.1987–5.6.1987 defeated at 1987 elections;
1.7.1990–30.6.2002 retired

27.    Bishop, Bronwyn*

LIB

NSW

11.7.1987–24.2.1994 resigned; elected to House of Representatives

28.    Jenkins, Jean

DEM

WA

11.7.1987–30.6.1990 defeated at 1990 elections

29.    Patterson, Kay

LIB

Vic

11.7.1987–30.6.2008 retired

30.    Dunn, Irina

NDP; IND

NSW

21.7.1988–30.6.1990 defeated at 1990 elections

31.    Lees, Meg

DEM; IND; APA</