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Political power in Australia is still overwhelmingly male. But beneath the despair, there’s reason for hope

Close up of a placard at a rally with the words "THE FUTURE IS FEMALE"
8 March 2024, Intifar Chowdhury, The Conversation

It’s 2024, but power still looks like a man. Despite Australia’s claim to egalitarianism, achieving equal political participation and representation remains a formidable challenge for women. Concerningly, the persistent and ingrained obstacles in women’s way are affecting the aspirations of the next generation of female leaders.

According to 2022 research spanning 29 countries, including Australia, satisfaction among young females aged 15-24 with their leaders’ decisions on issues they care about stands at a mere 11%. An overwhelming 97% acknowledged the importance of political participation. Yet, only 24% of those aspiring to engage in politics could see themselves running for office.

Worse still, 20% have been personally discouraged from political involvement. This is often because they’re either considered to be less qualified or that they will inevitably face discrimination and gendered violence.

I crunched the numbers to assess the situation in Australia. While much has been said about the mistreatment of female leaders, how does this play into the psyche of female constituents?

I found gender gaps have persisted in almost every political measure over the past 20 years. But there’s a glimmer of hope, mostly found online.

Politics still unwelcoming and unrepresentative

Using the Australian Election Study, I examined the gender gaps in political attitudes and behaviours across generations between 2001 and 2022.

The pathway to power for women in politics has never been easy, and it doesn’t get easier once elected. The prevalent discrimination, gender deafness, sexism and overt abuse not only force women to abandon their leadership aspirations, but also act as signals that discourage young women from corridors of power.

It is therefore not surprising younger generations of Australian women display a diminished interest in politics, more so than older generations.

I found they’re less represented than men in traditional participatory practices, such as discussing politics or attending political meetings. They’re also less likely to contribute money to a party or campaign. Girls in various Western democracies reported similar disinterest.

Young Australian women are also less satisfied with democracy than men. They report lower trust in government than their male counterparts and are more likely to believe government is run for few big interests rather than for all.

Discouragement is everywhere

Politics continues to be off-putting because sexism is normalised in the media.

Numerous studies show young Australian women think female leaders receive unfair treatment from the media. The gendered media coverage is often characterised by negative portrayals of “power-seeking” ambitions, scrutiny of fashion choices, judgement based on reproductive decisions, and a failure to recognise the mistreatment of female leaders (gender blindness). It all serves as a stark reminder of entrenched sexism in our national mindset.

Moreover, there’s scepticism in the personal circles of women aspiring to political roles. Friends and family can express concerns about their loved one’s safety working in parliament or for a political party. This undermines the progress of women in political leadership.

Women also hesitate to encourage others to pursue political careers due to the potential for facing abuse.

If the political landscape discourages the pool of potential female leaders, it’s understandable gender quotas have had mixed success. Labor’s quotas have not been a panacea for attracting young women to politics.

The reality is women pay too high a personal price in leadership positions. Competing work and family roles create high levels of stress and burn-out. This particularly deters young women from running for local government, for example – more so than older women and men of all ages.

A woman uses her smartphone on public transport.
Young women are increasingly engaging in political discussion online. Shutterstock

Bottom-up quest for parity

Despite these challenges, the 2022 federal election emerged as a pivotal moment in Australian politics, highlighting a significant shift in the engagement of women and young people. These two social bases turned away from major parties, signalling a growing disenchantment with the established political order.

Young women are actively challenging traditional power structures, leveraging their access to higher education and social media to redefine the political narrative. They are not hesitant to explore political alternatives to the two major parties.

Young women have also been challenging the established political order through getting involved in politics online. They are participating in political discussions, sharing and blogging political information, accessing election information and creating and joining political groups on social media platforms.

This has ushered in younger generations of Australian women who are unwilling to accept abuse and harassment as the inevitable costs of political engagement. With increasing education levels and a more progressive, issue-based mindset, young women are raising their demands and expectations.

This is heartening. We’re starting to see a generation of women who refuse to accept the limitations imposed on them. This development signals a promising shift towards a more inclusive and representative political landscape.

Intifar Chowdhury, Lecturer in Government, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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