My sense of pride at being recently elected to NSW Parliament is heightened by the fact that I enter Australia’s oldest Parliament one of many Labor women proudly representing our party, its values, and our community.
Over years – over decades – Labor has fostered, mentored, supported and mandated women to be part of Labor’s parliamentary team. And in 2015 we’ve got a fantastic story to tell about the results of that work. Of our 15 new State MPs, 10 are women.
It’s particularly striking when compared to the position of women in the Liberal and National parties, who remain woefully under-represented on the Government benches. The international embarrassment of having only two women in the Federal Liberal cabinet is not much improved by the fact that in the recent state election not one woman from the NSW Liberal Party was elected to the Legislative Council.
It’s been a lot of tough, hard work getting more Labor women into Parliament, but we can see the results of that effort with the fantastic female faces taking it to the grey-beard brigade across the Chamber. And there is real diversity in these female faces too - NSW Labor has older women, young working mothers, lesbian women, indigenous women, women caring for relatives with disabilities and women from across the corporate and community sectors.
I’m honoured to be part of this team.
But I’m also realistic about the challenges NSW Labor still faces in empowering women to participate in the leadership of our party. I see far too many talented women structurally and culturally excluded from our campaign management and party administration – this is one of the final glass ceilings we still have to smash.
Like most Federal and State campaigns I’ve been involved in, the 2015 campaign saw men continue to dominate campaign strategy meetings. Preparation for key campaign events and decisions involved very few women, those in attendance were occasionally explicitly invited for a ‘female perspective’. Despite years of political or policy experience under their belt, the existence of their ovaries was their most useful attribute.
It is not true there were simply no women. Women like Deputy Leader Linda Burney and Labor Assistant Secretary Kaila Murnain were heavily involved in the campaign leadership, but there is no denying the fact they were heavily outnumbered.
None of this was caused by active decisions of the campaign leadership or the Leader’s Office. In fact in my experience, the men in these leadership positions are some of the most supportive of women playing an active role in the campaign and party office machinery. These blokes are not sexist or old-fashioned. They do not deliberately or even inadvertently exclude women (well, not regularly).
The fact of the matter is there were simply not very many women in a position to play a leadership role. Too many women have been turned off from the party administration and campaign leadership for too many years and now there are few women who would want to be included even if they were invited. If we want more women involved in our campaigns and in our party machinery we need to invest in building cultures and structures that actively encourage this. We can’t just offer tokenism. We can’t just assume it will happen.
It’s time we put the same effort into supporting women to be part of our campaign leadership as we do into ensuring they are part of our parliamentary team.
This task has some urgency around it as we approach the next Federal Election. Whereas in NSW Labor we have one female party officer, there are none in the National Office. Running campaigns that speak to the issues that matter to women is infinitely more difficult if pretty much your entire campaign reference group is men.
The good news in all of this? There were so many women involved at the local campaign level during the recent state election. Campaign Managers and Field Directors for seats like Blue Mountains, Swansea, Summer Hill, Campbelltown, East Hills, Maitland, Strathfield, Balmain and more – all women. Clearly women have an interest in this part of politics, it’s just that it’s a long and rocky road between running a local campaign and being part of the statewide or nationwide campaign leadership group. Women need to be given more support and mentoring in making that journey.
We can start by ensuring our leadership actively promotes the idea of careers ‘behind the scenes’ as a valuable contribution for women to make, the reality is not all women can or want to be on the parliamentary benches. We can build on that by an active acknowledgment by the blokes themselves that the blokey social and decision-making culture has to change. Interested women need to be mentored by other women who’ve navigated these rough waters before. They need to be offered meaningful parental leave and family-friendly work arrangements that include no loss of seniority upon taking time away from work.
It’s the long, tough slog of cultural change. It’s the little things we can do to make women value a career in campaign leadership and the party machinery. It’s making men understand that boys’ clubs don’t just look bad in the 21st century, they make it harder for us to win campaigns because we aren’t speaking to women. None of it is easy, but we’ve done it before – I’m a product of that in our parliament. I know we can do it in our party too.