Under-representation of women in Federal Parliament

The under-representation of women in federal parliament is undoubtedly concerning.

It should be instinctive to be concerned when half of Australia’s population only hold 30% of the representative positions in Australia’s parliaments (McCann & Wilson, 2012). The struggle for gender equality is at the heart of this discussion, because in a world with unequal representation of genders, it is unviable to suggest that genders are equal. In Australia, women and still being payed considerably less than men and gender equality is still a predominant concern among many in the workforce. I will attempt to asses what factors contribute to the under-representation of women in federal parliament, and whether it is enough to consider political system faults, when our societal constructs of women are undoubtedly in serious need of development.

Gender equality is an important principle which allows equal access, opportunity, and reward to all people regardless of gender. In Australia, women comprise 45.8% of all current employees and full-time working women earn 17.5% less than men who are working full-time (Workplace Gender Equality Agency, 2013). Along with the indisputable ethical need for gender equality in all employment positions, there are many national economic advantages that come with equal representation of women in the workforce. Closing the gap between male and female employment rates is estimated to boost the Australian GDP by 11% (Workplace Gender Equality Agency, 2009).

The notion of political equality is fundamental to the existence of democracy. Men and women as equal citizens should share equal responsibility of public decision making and have equal representation in governance. It could be argued that democracy does allow for equal opportunity by the presence of institutions that grant access for both men and women to run for public office (Tremblay, 2007). Countries with democratic electoral politics and specifically stable democracies, for example Australia, United States, The United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand, are not listed in the current top ten countries with the greatest representation of women in national parliaments. It is interesting to compare these countries with Rwanda and Cuba which rank number one and number three in the list but are classified by the Democratic Index 2016 as having authoritarian regimes, without democracy. It is also worth noting that Sweden ranks as the country with the fifth highest representation of women in parliament and is also classified as a full democracy in the Democratic Index 2016.

If the success of a country’s democracy has no obvious correlation to the representation of women in parliament, then perhaps there are more critical issues to be considered in this exploration. It is important to identify whether it is women that are not choosing a life in politics, or whether this can be identified as a fault in the political system. Studies have shown that there is a direct link between a nations electoral system and the representation of women in parliaments. Countries with proportional representation electoral systems have a consistently higher number of female legislators than countries with single member district electoral systems (McAllister & Studlar, 2002). A common justification for this is because in a proportional representation system, political parties are more likely to broaden their appeal by including women, and the perceived electoral risk associated with women candidates decreases if they are part of a group (Caul, 1999).

Candidate selection within political parties plays a major role in why women are under-represented in national parliaments. Political parties select the candidates they believe will maximise the number of seats they win. It has been understood that major parties believe that endorsing female candidates will not get them the votes they want. Quotas can be used as a mechanism for increasing the number of women representatives within political parties, but it is up to the party itself to decide to enforce them. Although mostly voluntary, quotas may also be inscribed in the constitution or mandated by law (Sawer, Tremblay, & Trimble, 2006).

If the political system in place has little influence over the amount of women present in national parliaments or in fact it is too big of a challenge to change it, perhaps it is the our societal system that is at fault and in need of changing. Introducing quotas for reserved seats of women in parliament would be a positive step in addressing the under-representation of women. If we choose to look at this issue from a socially constructive view, and asses the need for justice and equality in our federal parliament, we need to reevaluated the prevalent cultural opinion and gender bias of women. Cultural attitudes regrading gender roles is a predominant obstacle for women in the political sphere. Distinguishing traits that are commonly associated with politicians are education, high-status careers, networks, confidence, negotiation skills and particularly, masculinity (Murray, 2013).

These common associations are hindering the fight for equal representation in governments.

Women in politics are generally associated with ‘soft industries’ and issues like education healthcare, poverty, welfare, families and the environment. Men in politics are generally seen as strong and assertive, and are associated with issues like crime, economics, military, foreign policy, taxes, security, and terrorism (Herrick, Mendez, Thomas, & Wilkerson, 2012).

A book written in 1974 by a group of female anthropologists titled Woman, Culture, and Society suggests that the highest political power women can achieve is by influencing men who hold authority using strategic manipulation, and that this must change (Rosaldo, Lamphere, & Bamberger, 1974). Considering that this opinion of women in politics is not commonly held today, perhaps the perception of women only being interested in, or capable of, holding authority within ‘soft industries’ will change over time as well.

The underlying social constructs of women being confined to the ‘private sphere’ hinders the ability for individuals to construct their own personal social standing. The private realm goes hand in hand with the natural (as opposed to the civil) sphere and also with women (as opposed to men) (Pateman, 1988). The assumption of a women’s presence being essential in the family and not within politics is in drastic need of changing. The social constructs of women and the continuing gender bias within politics is having an extreme effect on the amount of women who enter politics. That being said, once women have obtained a successful political career there are undoubtedly persisting obstacles that are not the case for men.

Two relatively recent examples of powerful women reacting to and addressing sexism in the political arena include, Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech (Attard, 2012, October 10), and Leticia Van de Putte, a Democratic member of the Texas Senate, stating “at what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognised over her male colleagues?” during a filibuster against an abortion bill (Dart, 2013, June 27).

The media plays a crucial role in the politics of power and the way the community perceives public figures. This issue is critical to the well-being and safety of women and children around the world. When women are constantly portrayed as passive, weak, and are victimised and sexualised by the mass media it becomes increasingly acceptable. This is an unhealthy and unethical portrayal to be depicted to impressionable citizens as it influences people to believe that it is unusual for women to hold positions of power in society. This depiction affects both men and women’s societal gender bias and is a significant factor in the under-representation of women in federal parliament.

Women represent only a third of the full-time journalism workforce and only 27% of the top management positions, which means they have limited decision making abilities about the structure of media companies and how they choose to describe and represent women (UNESCO, 2011). The importance that the mass media places on appearance, fashion, family, marital status, and age is considerably higher to woman than to men. Although not all coverage of these aspects of female politician’s private lives is necessarily negative, the fact that they are being covered more predominantly than politically relevant topics are, is concerning. Journalists need to be trained and rewired to focus on politically relevant topics, and encouraged to think beyond the double standard (Jenkins, 2002).

The mass media has typically chosen to highlight two irrelevant portrayals of powerful women in the public domain, attributing to the sense that women can’t win either way. Depending on the individual’s private romantic lives, they are either married with a family and are therefore rundown, a bad mother, and their ability to balance work and family is questioned, or they are single and are portrayed as flimsy, out of touch with the working class families, and can be distracted by their sexual lives (Braden, 1996).

These are common stereotypes that lead to discrimination towards women and are rarely directed towards men.

A great example of this is Bob Hawke’s comments about possible new Labor leaders, when he suggested that Tanya Plibersek was an impressive candidate but having a three-year-old child made her unsuitable (Ireland, 2013, September 10). Let it be known that Bill Shorten, who won the leadership and is indeed a man, also had a three-year-old child.

Gender differences and gender stereotypes influencing news coverage is dangerous and consequential because of the reliance citizens have on the mass media (Kahn, 1996). In a world where equal representation of genders in government is not commonplace, the low number of women itself, will be the dominant factor contributing to the stereotypes and discrimination towards women in politics. The lower the number of women in politics, the higher the notion of it being abnormal. Increased female participation and acceptance, and to have equal gender representation in government, will hopefully see the diminishing of gender bias and stereotyping within society and the media.

The questioning of the structure of democratic representation, whether it be trustee, delegation or descriptive/mirror representation, has played a crucial part in understanding and critiquing the under-representation of women. In descriptive representation, the representatives resemble those being represented, and the population of women being represented is proportionate to those in government. Minority groups should have the ability to elect a representative to defend and articulate their interests, because the prolonged political under-representation is hindering the democratic ideal (Lien, Pinderhughes, Hardy-Fanta, Sierra, & Frasure, 2009). Whether the representative needs to ‘look’ like the group being represented or if they just understand the interests of these minority groups, has been long debated.

If we use the arguments that ‘gender shouldn’t matter’ and ‘it should be the individual’s merit that counts’ in our fight for equal representation, descriptive representation makes it completely about what gender or ethnicity the candidate is. Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, an influential figure in the development on representation ideals, argues that a descriptive representation focuses more on who is present and not what they are achieving (Pitkin, 1967).

Just because a woman is representing an electorate, it doesn’t mean that the female citizens in that electorate will automatically feel adequately represented. This particular woman might come from a very wealthy family or a certain ethnic group, and might not completely understand the struggle, or interests, that lower class, or a different ethnically grouped female citizen may have. Or she may in fact be suffering from ‘Queen Bee Syndrome’ (Staines, Tavris, & Jayaratne, 1973) which describes a woman who has made it in a man’s world and cannot understand why other women cannot achieve the same, in affect hindering the process of gaining equal representation.

In descriptive representation, where is the line?

The under-representation of women in federal parliament is concerning, and there are a number of ways we can improve the situation. Gender equality in the workplace is the first step, only then will women have the ability to successfully obtain their goals without being hindered by discrimination or gender bias. A proportional representation style of electorates allows for greater female participation, but this can be more effectively achieved by mandating quotas for female politicians during candidate selection.

If the elimination of the current socially constructed portrayal of women in the mass media is only completely possible once equal representation is commonly accepted, then we need to work hard to improve our governmental structure. The establishment of non-government and parliamentary institutions when combined with the cultural commitment to gender equality and eliminating gender bias and sex stereotyping will effectively benefit our fight for equal representation.


Attard, M. (2012, October 10). Australia’s prime minister comes out swinging in sexism row, CNN. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2012/10/10/world/asia/australia-gillard-sexism-row/index.html

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Dart, T. (2013, June 27). Wendy Davis’s remarkable filibuster to deny passage of abortion bill, The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/26/texas-senator-wendy-davis-abortion-bill-speech

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Feature image credit: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/casey-cavanagh/why-we-still-need-feminism_b_5837366.html

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