#ASKHERTORUN - Ask her why she doesn't run: Gender discrimination and the barrier to woman in politics

Jessica attended the 2017 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women 61st session where she represented Victoria University. She is currently studying a Bachelor of Law/Art.


This paper will review the social and political barriers that prevent women from running for public office. Despite the considerable traction, the gender equality movement has amassed in the past century, the fact that women hold only 22% of parliamentary seats worldwide demonstrates the disproportionate representation in key political leadership roles (UN Women, 2016). This was perhaps best emphasised through the 2015 ‘Invite Her to Run’ campaign initiated by now- Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who, on the finding that a woman is 50% less likely to run for public office than a male counterpart, sought to establish a grassroots campaign encouraging female candidates (Liberal Party of Canada, 2016). Although concerning, it is not surprising that such a campaign (and further campaigns) are required nearly 100 years after women received the right to vote, when female trailblazers have been subjected to skewed media representation and the political status quo. This paper will argue that only media accountability, female leadership and mentorship program and the recreation of both the political and institutional status quo will alleviate some of this disparity.

Policy Recommendations

Scrutinising media biases: Formulate an independent supervisory committee that ensures the accountability of the media for their portrayal and discussion of women.

Creating and funding further leadership and mentoring programs connecting young women with female politicians: Fund and promote influential mentorship and leadership programs such as Oxfam’s Straight Talk and Melbourne University’s Pathways to Politics, to teach, foster and increase participation of women with decision-making processes.

Recreating the political status quo: Create a system of accountability such as referrals to the Human Rights or Equal Opportunity Commission for politicians that participate in sexist of discriminatory behaviour.

Renovating the Institution: Creating a Parliament and public office with policies and facilities that cater for the multiple family and professional responsibilities of the elected official.


Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a key component in advancing the rights of women as members of the global community, establishing within international law that females hold the key social, political and economic roles as males. Yet despite Article 21, female participation in elected office remains disproportionate to that of their male counterparts and the general population of the electorate – which means that the interests of females are not fairly represented within multiple international governments. Such was recognised in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995, as established at the UN Women Fourth World Conference on Women, where only 10% of parliamentary roles worldwide were held by women (United Nations, 1995). Since 1995, this has increased to between 22% and 30% a number that is still does not reflect the world population of which females constitute 49.55% (UN Women, 2016; The World Bank, 2016). This issue has come the forefront of multiple national and international agendas, most recently through Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals which aims to ‘ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life’ by 2030 (United Nations, 2015, p.17).

In 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party of Canada introduced the widely-successful ‘Invite Her To Run’ campaign, a grassroots movement encouraging people to ask local women to seek public office. This was in response to statistics that showed that women were 50% less likely to run in an election than males (“Justin Trudeau on courage and standing up for gender equality,” 2016). In fact, this is a common narrative in Western countries – in 2016, Canada was ranked 63rd in the world for the proportion of women in Parliament, and Australia was ranked at number 50 (Inter- Parliamentary Union, 2016a.) This is behind developing world countries such as Bolivia, Rwanda and Burundi. It is posited that instead of asking women to run, it must be asked why women do not for office – and this is simply because they are not perceived, presented or positioned in the same way as their male counterparts, and there appears to be little, if any, concerted move to rectify this. Only where the media is held accountable for discriminatory content, where male politicians are responsible for misogynistic or sexist behaviour, the institution caters for the multiple and dynamic roles expected of female leaders and where women are encouraged and mentored from the ground up, will there be a much-needed increase in female political candidates and thus elected officials.

Recommendation One: Scrutinising Media Biases

Despite obtaining the right to stand for election in 1902, it was not until 2010 that Australia had its first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Despite the sanctity of the office to which she ascended, Gillard’s treatment at the hands of the free media was discriminatory and misogynistic: ‘One wonders if [the media’s] bile and venom would be directed at a man; the disrespect they show Gillard and the office of prime minister is unprecedented’ (Walsh, 2013, p. 35). While not all media facilitated the discrimination that saw the questioning of the sexuality of the Prime Minister’s partner (Murphy, 2013), the continual conversation on Gillard’s appearance (Woodward, 2013, pp. 30-31) and the constant gendering that saw 58% of news reports referencing her sex and more than 40% of these questioning the suitability of a female Prime Minister (Australian National University, 2016).

The power of the media cannot be refuted as it infiltrates the general population in a multitude of ways. The framing of females in decision-making positions should not be by eluding to their hair, their relationship status, their mothering instincts, and should be supervised in a way that ensures mass media are accountable for purposively discriminatory gendered framings. Attempts at regulating the media may infringe the right to freedom of speech implied in the Australian Constitution. Accordingly, it is recommended that an independent body be established to scrutinise media reports and publicly condemn or ‘call out’ misogyny. The body should be responsible for educating media outlets on avoiding inherent biases and ensuring objectivity, or non-discriminatory subjectivity in the case of opinion pieces. Similarly, the body would be responsible for independent and specific development training, seeking to educate and change any discourse from the source. This will enable increased awareness and work to change the culture surrounding the media’s portrayal of women. This by no means should seek to stent media criticism: but rather ensure that criticism is predicated on the policy and not the appearance, the leadership and not the personal, of females in position of power.

Recommendation Two: Recreating the Political Status Quo

The political status quo has seen men hold on average between 75% and 88% of parliamentary seats worldwide (The World Bank, 2016). The political “boy’s club” must be re-established in order to encourage greater female participation. The somewhat omnipotence of men has enabled misogyny to prevail. Examples from Australia include the labelling of Gillard as ‘deliberately barren’ by an opposing Senator (AAP, 2007); a press conference held by the then-Opposition- Leader Tony Abbott in front of ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bitch’ protest signs; and an LNP fundraiser where a dish was named after Gillard’s female body parts (Brett, 2012). This facilitates the misogyny perpetrated against female leaders, and in similar gendered attacks in the USA has actively worked to discourage women from aspiring to positions of power for fear of personal attacks (Marcotte, 2014). Is this surprising, when one looks at the case of South Africa, where former leader Lindiwe Mazibuko was repeatedly accosted in Parliament, on the record, for her hair, her fashion and her weight? In fact, a 2016 study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union found that 81.8% of the 55 female politicians from the world-over had experienced psychological violence, with 65.5% of these remarks consisting of sexist comments (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2016b). While not all of this is apportioned to the Parliament, the report recognises that such ‘violence’ is ‘perpetrated in traditional political venues’.

The IPU suggests that a Code of Conduct be installed within global parliaments to ensure that politicians do not subscribe to such behaviour. This is a highly agreeable recommendation whereby elected members are held responsible for their discriminatory or misogynistic behaviour towards their counterparts. Such a measure will hopefully decrease such instances, creating a more equal environment whereby female politicians and those public spectators feel comfortable with engaging in the process.

However, more preferable is the argument advanced by Anne Summers in her 2012 lecture ‘Her Rights at Work.’ Summers argued that the behaviour endured by Gillard, and subsequently any such discriminatory behaviour as such, should be held accountable to Australian legislation designed to stamp out discrimination in the workplace (Summers, 2012). She states that particular comments made towards Gillard in her position, such as those aforementioned, could perceivably violate the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) and the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) if Parliament were a corporation and the politicians’ its employees. It is argued that perhaps the parameters of such Acts need to be widened to enable greater accountability for misogynistic discourse expressed within a public office role. This includes enabling action to be taken at Human Rights and/or Equal Opportunities Commissions and/or the Fair Work Commission for discrimination experienced due to gender within the workplace: Gillard, in her paid employment position, has been irrevocably prejudiced by co-workers. It is posited enabling accountability to such Commissions would decrease the prevalence of discrimination within the Parliament by invoking an accountability mechanism and therefore encourage women to further engage in public decision-making.

Recommendation Three: Creating and Funding Leadership/Mentorship Programs for Women

A 2015 study by Professor Michelle Ryan of the University of Exeter found that while women and men hold the same level of ambition at the beginning of their careers, the female’s drive rapidly decreases in the face of institutional obstacles. She posits this is not because of motherhood but rather because of the lack of ‘support, mentors or role models to make it to the top’ (Davey, 2015.) This is also referred to as the ‘glass walls’ that ‘segregate’ women into particular positions despite skill and earning potential (Perrewe & Nelson, 2004) - a variant of the ‘glass ceiling’ that Hillary Clinton predicated her 2016 Presidential Campaign on in order to empower women and assure them of their ability to engage in the decision-making process (Golshan, 2016). It is vital that mentorship and leadership programs are not only created, but funded and fostered, in order to empower women and recreate the political normalcy.

It is vital that the value of international mentorship programs, such as the Pacific Women’s Parliamentary Partnership Program and the Asialink Women in Leadership Mentoring Program, are recognised. The former, whereby female Australian parliamentarians mentor their Pacific female counterparts, is a ten-year project with approximately $320 million in funding. This was instituted following the realisation that only 5% of parliamentary seats in the Pacific region are held by women (DFAT, 2014. Or adversely, the $120, 000 Asialink Program, which creates transnational mentor relationships between prominent ASEAN leaders (AAC, 2015). There needs to be an assurance that there are female Australian leaders to ensure such bilateral programs are able to operate. This is where grassroots programs, such as Oxfam’s Straight Talk is vital. Established in 2010, Straight Talk allows Indigenous women to engage in the political process – through meetings with female politicians, to leadership and policy workshops – on a state and national level (Oxfam, Straight Talk). Over 550 women have benefited from this program thus far (Oxfam Australia, 2015).

Of similar status is Melbourne University’s Pathways to Politics Program, inspired by the similar American program ‘From Harvard Square to the Oval Office’. The program was designed to bridge the political gender gap by training, mentoring and workshopping women to their full, and influential capacity (University of Melbourne, Pathway to Politics for Women). However, admission to such a program is by application only for tertiary educated students. The Australian Government and other stakeholders must look at funding similar programs for primary-school and high-school aged students to empower and normalise a female decision-maker from her earliest and brightest potential.


For Australia to reach a semblance of proportional representation in public office, thereby working towards the international effort of achieving Goal Five of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, there needs to be certain societal and institutional assurances that female candidates will not fall victim to the personal attacks, discrimination and ill-support that their predecessors have. From media and political criticism focussing on appearance rather than policy; on a woman’s childlessness to criticism of a concerted effort to juggle mothering duties; from criticism for being too weak and soft to being a ‘bitch’ for being assertive, such attacks are rarely endured by male counterparts. It is therefore vital that not only is there accountability to stamp out inherent discrimination prevailing in the media and amongst the traditional ‘Boy’s Club’ of politics, but that there are established mentorship and leadership programs that encourage female participation. Gender empowerment is the only way to increase the quota of female candidates, to counteract the status quo and to successfully #askhertorun.


AAC. (2015). 2016 Asialink Women in Leadership Mentoring Program. Retrieved from http://dfat.gov.au/people-to-people/foundations-councils-institutes/australia-asean- council/grants/grantees/Pages/2016-asialink-women-in-leadership-mentoring-program.aspx.

AAP. (2007, November 13). Heffernan’s ‘deliberately barren’ the most sexist remark of 2007. Sydney Morning Herald, Retrieved from http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/remark-voted- the-most-sexist-of-2007/2007/11/13/1194766619713.html.

Australian National University. (2016). Research finds gender bias in Australian media. Retrieved from: http://www.anu.edu.au/news/all-news/research-finds-gender-bias-in-australian-media.

Brett, J. (2012). Gillard and the misogynists: They Had It Coming. Retrieved from https://www.themonthly.com.au/sexism-misogyny-and-power-social-media-they-had-it-coming- judith-brett-6770.

Davey, M. (2015). Women start out just as ambitious as men but it erodes over time, says researcher. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/nov/19/women- start-out-as-ambitious-as-men-but-it-erodes-over-time-says- researcher?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Mail.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. (2014). Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development: Regional Activities Summary. Retrieved from: https://dfat.gov.au/about- us/publications/Documents/pwspd-regional-activities-summary.pdf.

Golshan, T. (2016). Hillary Clinton’s Concession Speech Full Transcript: 2016 Presidential Election. Retrieved from: http://www.vox.com/2016/11/9/13570328/hillary-clinton-concession-speech-full- transcript-2016-presidential-election.

Inter-Parliamentary Union. (2016a). Women in National Parliaments. Retrieved from http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm.

Inter-Parliamentary Union. (2016b). Sexism, Harassment and Violence against Female Parliamentarians. Retrieved from http://www.ipu.org/pdf/publications/issuesbrief-e.pdf

Justin Trudeau on courage and standing up for gender equality. 2016. Retrieved from http://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/justin-trudeau-on-courage-and-standing-up-for-gender- equality/.

Liberal Party of Canada (2016). Invite Her to Run. Retrieved from: https://www.liberal.ca/invite-her- to-run/.

Marcotte, A. (2014). Do Women Not Run for Office Because They’re Scared of Being Judged? Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2014/08/13/why_more_women_don_t_run_for_office_a_ne w_study_says_they_don_t_like_being.html.

Murphy, K. (2013, June 13). Julia Gillard asked by radio station if her partner Tim Mathieson is gay. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com.au.

Oxfam Australia. Oxfam Australia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Program Straight Talk Value for Money Assessment. (2015). Retrieved from: http://resources.oxfam.org.au/pages/view.php?ref=1766&search=!collection127&k=3c3b50b293& curpos=3.

Oxfam. Straight Talk. Retrieved from: https://www.oxfam.org.au/what-we-do/indigenous- australia/straight-talk/.

Perrewe, P.L., & Nelson, D.L. (2004), The facilitative role of political skill. Organizational Dynamics, 33(4), 366-378. Doi:10.1016/j.orgdyn.2004.09.004.

Summers, A. (2012). Her Rights At Work. Retrieved from: http://www.annesummers.com.au/speeches/her-rights-at-work-r-rated-version/.

United Nations. (1995). Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women. Retrieved from: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/pdf/BDPfA%20E.pdf.

United Nations. (2015). Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/70/1&Lang=E

University of Melbourne. Pathway to Politics for Women. Retrieved from: https://government.unimelb.edu.au/us-pathways-to-politics-for-women.

UN Women (2016), Facts and Figures: Leadership and Political Participation. Retrieved from: http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/leadership-and-political-participation/facts-and- figures.

Walsh, K,A. (2013) The Stalking of Julia Gillard. Crows Nest, Australia.

Woodward, M. (2013). Ditch the Witch: Julia Gillard and gender in Australian public discourse (Unpublished Honours thesis). The University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia.

The World Bank Group. 2016. Population, female (% of total). Retrieved from: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL.FE.ZS?end=2015&start=1960&view=chart