Increasing female representation in politics: A top down approach to gender issues across Australia

Kyle attended the 2017 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women 61st session representing the University of South Australia. Kyle is studying a Bachelor of Arts - International Relations with a Bachelor in Social Work.


While roughly 50% of the Australian population is made up of women, the number of women in Australian politics is significantly less. Not only does a government comprising mostly of men not accurately represent the Australian community, it also runs the risk of not putting forward issues that matter to women. Furthermore, women approach issues in a different way to men, providing different perspectives based on their values, concerns and experiences, which ultimately provides a new insight on current issues (UN Women, 1995. p. 120). Therefore, it is imperative to have the input of both men and women in Australian parliament. This fact is summarised succinctly and clearly by the Youth for Technology Foundation (2013), who states “no government can claim to be democratic until women are guaranteed the right to equal representation”.

Former Prime Minister John Howard recently stated at the National Press Club in Canberra that gender equality in Parliament is unrealistic due to the fact that women are often hindered in the pursuit of a political career because of family and caring responsibilities (McIlroy, 2016). While family responsibilities may be a key reason as to why women are less likely to pursue a career, political or otherwise, this should be seen as an obstacle that needs to be overcome, not an inherent aspect of life that cannot be altered. Three recommendations will be put forward in this paper as a means of overcoming such obstacles, in order to ensure that women are in a position to run for political office.


  1. Wide spread gender-specific training and support provided to women in leadership positions who have political aspirations.

  2. A Canadian style ‘#askhertorun’ campaign to take place prior to the next election, in which women are supported and empowered to run in state and federal politics.

  3. Affirmative action for women to occur in the form of a quota system, in which political parties would be required to put forward between 30% and 50% of their candidates as women in an election, or be penalised in political funding.


Currently, a male bias exists in the process of policy making, in which policies ultimately reinforce male power, therefore creating systematic disadvantage for women (Lombardo, et al., 2016. p. 5). This lack of female representation resonates throughout society, and can also be seen in the private sector. The Australian Institute of Company Directors has set a target of 30% of board seats to be filled by women by the end of 2018. However, this target is expected to fall short. In fact, between 2011 and 2016, the number of female CEOs among the top 100 companies in Australia did not change, and the number of female CFOs decreased (Khadem, 2016). This demonstrates that the current system of involving women in the decision making process of not only our government, but also our leading companies, is failing. Therefore, a significant shift needs to occur at the highest level, in which women need to be included in Australian politics. This change cannot be tokenistic as has been seen before, and must guarantee that gender equality will occur in the Australian parliament. A 50/50 gender split in Australian politics would allow women to use their experience to help bridge the gender gap in other areas of society.

The aim of these recommendations will be to create a ‘top down approach’ to better women’s issues in general, and address the economic empowerment of women across society. This is as opposed to the current ‘bottom up approach’ which has proven to be slow, and ineffective. The current approach sees a government consisting mostly of males, implementing policies aiming to better the lives of women across society. The hope of this ‘bottom up approach’ is that one day, the lives of women will be improved to the extent that they will be equal with men, in which the ultimate goal is to have equal female representation in management positions in both the private and public sectors, including in government. However, this has proven to be very slow, and in many cases, ineffective. The aim of the ‘top down approach’ will be to increase the number of women in the Australian government to 50%, and then allow those women to use their experience and knowledge to better women’s lives across broader society.

The three recommendations presented in this paper take a holistic approach to gender equality, and therefore it is essential that all three are implemented in conjunction with one another. All three serve a different purpose in the overall goal of increasing female representation in Australian politics. Step 1 will equip women with the skills and knowledge necessary for politics. Step 2 will encourage women to take part in politics. Step 3 will ensure, through legislation, that this is possible for women in a male dominated environment. All three steps aim to empower women.

Step 1 – Equip - Gender Specific Political Training

While the government does provide funding to help bring women into positions of leadership, such as the ‘Women’s Leadership and Development Strategy’, there is not adequate training or grants that are solely aimed at the political arena (Australian Government 2016). Numerous structural barriers, together with discriminatory practices, have created an environment in which women are less likely to become leaders than men. UN Women (2016) have stated “individual women have overcome these obstacles with great acclaim, and often to the benefit of society at large. But for women as a whole, the playing field needs to be level, opening opportunities for all”.

Based on workshops run by UN Women, the government must identify women in positions of leadership in the community, and/or women with political aspirations, and equip them with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in politics. As stated by the Beijing Platform to Action (UN Women, 1995. p. 120), women are less likely to seek political office for several reasons, including discrimination, the high-costs of seeking office, and family/child-care responsibilities. If these community workshops are able to equip female leaders with the skills and knowledge to be able to overcome these obstacles, this will be the first step in achieving a satisfactory level of female representation in politics.

Specifically, this gender-specific training would equip women with the political skills and knowledge to overcome the numerous obstacles that face women who intend on running in an election. These workshops can include the teaching of leadership skills, including development of self-awareness, self-confidence and self-empowerment, as is taught in workshops by the National Democratic Institute (2016). Moreover, the Political Institute for Women (2014) provides numerous types of workshops, both for general political skills such as media training, public speaking, debating and policy writing, and also gender-specific training around preparing women for political appointment and how to prepare a campaign.

Workshops targeting just women as opposed to mixed-gender workshops are beneficial to women for several reasons. On this, The National Democratic Institute (2013, p. 16) states:

Women-only programs provide women with a more supportive, non-threatening environment within which to learn and practice new skills such as public speaking. They also allow women to more openly discuss sensitive topics, such as women’s legal rights, or concerns related to violence against women or women’s health. These programs focus, explicitly and implicitly, on women’s empowerment, providing women with an opportunity to develop lasting relationships and support networks, which may be more difficult to cultivate and attain in a mixed audience.

Therefore, these workshops will equip women with the skills necessary to succeed in politics. However, this is only the first step in increasing the political representation of women.

Step 2 – Encourage - Australia’s time to ‘#askhertorun’

In regards to Canada’s #askhertorun campaign, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discussed the difficulty in convincing a woman to run for politics (Parker, 2016). For this reason, women need to be encouraged and empowered to step into politics. This campaign would ask those in the community who know a strong, prominent female in a position of leadership, to ask and encourage her to run for her local seat. In Canada, this has seen women with great talent and experience being encouraged to run for office, and subsequently has seen the female representation in politics increase to 50% (CBC News. 2015). This however, was run jointly with a voluntary quota system, which will be further discussed under recommendation 3. Similar to the way the ‘Recognise’ campaign has been given funding in order to promote Indigenous constitutional recognition to the wider community prior to an expected referendum, an #askhertorun campaign needs to be established and promoted across Australia prior to the next election.

The success of this type of campaign is not only restricted to Canada. UN Women has run campaigns in numerous countries, with and without quotas, to encourage women to run for political office, and for voters to vote for women. For example, this type of UN Women campaign in Kenya saw the number of female legislators rise to over 20% in 2013, which is more than double what it previously was. Furthermore, after encouraging women to run as candidates in Timor-Leste in the 2012 elections, Timor-Leste consequently had the highest ratio of female legislators in Asia, at 38% (UN Women, 2016).

Therefore, this type of campaign has proven to succeed in increasing female representation in politics. While step 1 will equip women with the abilities to overcome structural barriers in pursuing a career in politics, step 2 will encourage and empower women to step up and take on the challenge of running for political office.

Step 3 - Ensure - The Case for Quotas

‘Merit-based’ political appointment, in which a candidate is selected due to impressive performance from previous opportunities, is in itself, inherently flawed. Selecting an individual based on merit holds its own gender-based bias. Selection on merit is based on an individual’s skills and abilities, together with prior performance when provided an opportunity to demonstrate those skills and abilities. However, for various reasons, including the fact that family care responsibilities still often fall on women, men are frequently afforded more opportunities to demonstrate their skills and abilities than women, and therefore have a greater chance of being selected on merit. This is not a reflection on ability, but on the amount of opportunities given to demonstrate ability. For this reason, merit-based political appointment is inherently flawed, and tainted with a male bias (Williams, 2015). So what alternatives are there to purely working off a merit-based system?

The Australian government acknowledges that the countries around the world with the highest representation of women in politics have a quota system (Parliament of Australia, 2013). Quota systems are not uncommon, with over 100 countries worldwide having some system of candidate quota (Sawer 2015). Regardless, quotas are voluntary in Australia, with the Labor Party holding a quota of 40% for women, and the Coalition parties choosing not to support gender quotas (Parliament of Australia, 2013). The Australian Labor Party (ALP) has recently resolved to have 50% representation of women across the party by 2025. As 44% of all current ALP parliamentarians are female, this goal is achievable (Peatling, 2016). Many current and former Liberal party politicians have used this as an opportunity to push for a similar system within the Liberal Party, however MP Christopher Pyne has stated that the Liberal Party follows the merit principle, and a quota system is contrary to this (Sawer 2015).

The third and final step in these recommendations suggests that a mandatory quota system be introduced for all parties in Australia, and be used in conjunction with, not as opposed to, merit- based appointment. There are several different types of gender quotas that could be used in this process. This paper will advocate for legislative candidate quotas as opposed to reserved seat quotas. Reserve seat quotas allocate a certain number of parliamentary seats to women, while legislative candidate quotas require parties to preselect or nominate a certain number of females as candidates for an election. This does not necessarily mean that these candidates will be elected, however, this ensures that women are afforded the same opportunities to run for parliament as men. Legislative candidate quotas are seen in numerous countries around the world, and are often accompanied by rewards to parties that comply, and penalties to parties that do not comply. For example, parties in Timor L’este that have at least 30% female candidates are given a greater amount of radio and television time, while in the Republic of Ireland, parties that do not meet the minimum number of female candidates are penalised by losing half of their political funding (Parliament of Australia, 2013).

This mandatory quota system would start with a minimum of 30% female candidates at the next election, would increase to 40% the following election, and then finally, would reach and stay at 50% in all subsequent elections. This quota system would be used in conjunction with the merit system, in which the individual’s selected to run, would be selected based on merit.


As women constitute just over 50% of Australian society, to have significantly less than 50% of our political representatives as women is simply undemocratic. Through the three recommendations put forward in this policy paper, it will not just be possible, it will increase female representation in Australian politics. This increase would bring new and different insight into current and future issues that are dealt with by parliament. Ultimately, this ‘top down approach’ will allow women to use their unique experience and knowledge in order to help bridge the gender gap across Australia. Not only the gender gap in terms of women in leadership positions, but also in other aspects of Australian life, including the gender pay gap in which Australian males are paid 20% more than women on average, and the issue of domestic violence against women, recently labelled as an epidemic (Taylor, 2016; ABC News, 2016). Therefore, these recommendations have the potential to not only improve gender equality in the Australian government, but to better conditions for all women across Australia.


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