Despite increasing numbers of women entering federal politics, female MPs have failed to drive an agenda of social change in the Australian Parliament. This conclusion has been reached through a study of 13 male and 15 female current federal MPs, whose views were sought on their own experiences in parliament, and the way in which the institution operates and impacts on their lives. This was part of a research project which sought an explanation for the paucity of women MPs and ministers in the Australian Parliament after white Australian women have had more than 100 years of universal franchise and the right to stand for political office.
What the research discovered was that although more women are gracing its corridors the Australian Parliament remains a male-dominated institution, geared towards men with women still unable to gain access to key policy making areas or be seen as an integral part of the parliamentary process.
In the past, research has suggested that when more women entered parliament there would be a change in the policy making processes as well as more socially progressive policy, but despite the higher numbers of women being elected to the Australian Parliament such changes are yet to materialise.
The numbers of women entering politics might be growing but the institution itself still follows the same gendered organisational processes and practices and it is this which limits real gender equity in Australia's political life. Today, there are 37 women in the House of Representatives (24.7 per cent) and 27 women Senators from a total of 76 (35.5 per cent).
The Australian Parliament remains a gendered organisation. For example, there is a gendered division of labour. Men usually hold the “important” portfolios in areas associated with traditional definitions of masculinity (for example, finance, economics, defence) while women are allocated ministries seen to be consistent with normative definitions of femininity (for example, health and education).
Additional evidence of the gendering of political labour was provided by interviewees in terms of committee representation. They explained that some committees, such as those responsible for foreign affairs, economic and financial matters, and security and terrorism issues, have a higher status and profile than others. Typically, men dominate these higher status committees. Women who have been successful in attaining membership of such committees have faced significant challenges, as one female MP explained:
“When I came into parliament I was told forget it. ‘You can't get on that. You haven't been here long enough.’ What's long enough? ‘Oh three terms.’ So, I thought okay. I decided I was going to go for that committee because I had done a fair bit of work in the area in my first term. I worked out what I had to do and of course there were more people nominated than positions ... my view was that I'm not budging. I wasn't going to budge. I said, ‘I'm sorry there is not enough women on this committee. I have a proven track record in this and am interested in it. I want to be on this committee and I will not withdraw.’”
By attaining membership of this economically focused committee, this female MP has positioned herself, in the words of a male colleague, “where the power lies”. As a long-term male member observed, in the contemporary parliament, power is held by those who “lead the economic debates”, and that further, “there are almost no women who do that”. Instead, women are more typically found on committees which represent traditionally feminised interests and issues such as health, education and welfare. Importantly, these issues and the skills and knowledge associated with them are viewed as less prestigious and powerful.
There is a further hierarchy through the distinction made between the inner and outer Cabinet which has important implications for gender equity. Increasingly in Australia, policy is formulated by the inner Cabinet. It is thus that a former woman minister has commented that it is essential for there to be an increase in women ministers, not merely women members of Parliament.
Women members described the way in which male colleagues emphasised their achievements and promoted their skills while women often minimised or dismissed accomplishments. Male politicians' capacity for self-promotion is assisted by the fact that their legitimacy and right to office is constantly affirmed. As one senior female parliamentarian commented:
“I find it really amusing when a group of politicians is in the dining room having a meal and there are three or four of them. They say, ‘It's a woman's meeting’. If there were three or four men in the dining room I wouldn't go past and say, ‘Oh, you're having a boys' meeting’.”
In this type of interaction male politicians consequently affirm their own status as the “real” politicians while simultaneously positioning women as impostors and intruders. Women could not be dealt with in the same way as the “real” politicians. The legitimacy of women politicians was also questioned and undermined by male MPs who refused to recognise their status in the Chamber, and called them by their first names rather than using the required form of address in the Chamber which is “Senator” or “Member for”.
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