Old stereotypes hold women back from pursuing careers in politics

By Professor Helen Sullivan. Director, Melbourne School of Government

Research shows that women are more likely to rate themselves as unqualified to hold public office.

Women are more nurturing. Men are leaders. Women are peacemakers. While these stereotypes may sound like something that Australian society has moved far beyond, tired clich├ęs still influence the career choices and trajectories of women.

Research shows that women are more likely to rate themselves as unqualified to hold public office, even while considering a man of the same experience to be qualified. Hilary Clinton was recently criticised by her opponent in the American democratic Presidential primary for being “unqualified”, a woman with decades of political experience who recently held the role of secretary of state. In this circumstance, one wonders what a qualified female candidate might look like.

Why do these gender myths persist and what can we do to encourage women that they are indeed qualified for elected office?

One reason that gender myths persist is that analysis and opinion over female politicians’ hair, bodies, and clothing still remains “fair game”.  This is not limited to criticism from the opposing side of the aisle, but rather those on the same side just as often do it. By focusing criticism (and compliments) on a woman’s appearance rather than her record, to be “qualified” means to have both experience with wardrobe and hair to match.

Lauren J. Hall and Ngaire Donaghue write“…women must overcome stereotype-based expectations that lead them to be considered less competent than men and work to overcome assumptions that they will not be ‘tough enough’ for the hard decisions and personal attacks of political leadership”.

Women are viewed as “less qualified” for careers in politics partly because they are still held to a higher, and more unrealistic standard.

While it’s true we have made progress in the last 30 years, women’s representation in Parliament stands at 32%, just barely meeting the “critical mass” standard set by the United Nations as the minimum level necessary for women to influence decision-making in parliament. It was only three years ago that then Prime Minister Tony Abbott introduced a cabinet to the Australian people, with one woman out of nineteen members.

Positive action by way of quotas can be helpful in this regard. But, arguably more powerful is the shift into a different mindset, recently and vividly exemplified by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He normalised his appointment of a gender parity Cabinet with the simple justification, ‘because it’s 2015’.

The presence of more women in government means that each individual woman bears less of the brunt of being a token public figure. It can also help dispense with the myth of ‘the woman leader’ – women’s leadership styles are as diverse as men’s and as informed by their background, culture and values.   If young women are surrounded with so many examples of female political leadership, aspiring to high office seems like a tangible and achievable dream. The late Joan Kirner said: ‘To have been the first woman Premier of Victoria was not only a great opportunity but also a great chance to say to the young women of Victoria, Liberal or Labor, “You can do it, too”'.

Having more women in all levels of public office will go far to combat the myth of “unqualified” women. At the same time, we should do more to bolster women’s confidence in seeking elected office. It is not enough that they are objectively qualified to run, but they must feel confident in their abilities and public persona.

Melbourne School of Government’s Pathways to Politics Program for Women is designed to begin to address this. Made possible by the generous support of the Trawalla Foundation established by the Schwartz family, this program is the first truly non-partisan effort from a University to set about equipping the next generation of female leadership in politics.

The focus of the program is to give women considering political careers the tools that they need to succeed in contemporary politics.  The political landscape has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. Today’s young (and older) women aspiring to office must understand how to communicate policy  in the social media world.  They must learn how to bring people together to collaborate on policy solutions. Finally, they must be strong in the face of insults based on their gender, and rise above the pressure to act as political warriors focused on winning at whatever cost.

The Pathways to Politics Program for Women will help women to meet those challenges. Modelled on the successful Harvard Program and adapted to fit the Australian context, the program combines in depth encounters with some of Australia’s most powerful and successful women politicians, with expert input on all aspects of political life, from making the decision to run for office, to navigating party machines, mounting a successful campaign and working effectively inside and outside the formal political arena.

The response to the program has been amazing. Politicians  - past and present- are united in their willingness to contribute their experience and expertise, as are experts in polling and media management and political strategy. Most exciting of all though is the response from potential participants. We could have filled the program four times over with the quality of applicants we received. Women from all walks of life, at all stages of their careers, and with a wide range of political affiliations and ambitions. But all keen to run. The number and quality of applications puts paid to the idea that Australian women are under-represented in political life because they do not want to engage. We look forward to working with these women to help them achieve their political ambitions and in so doing help change Australian political life.

Image credit: Wilfred Iven/Stocksnapio


gender; politics; social-policy Gender Watch; Politics; Social Policy