FORUMS TOP TIPS FOR BRINGING WOMEN IN POLITICS
Key suggestions by Julia Banks, Cindy McLeish and Sonya Kilkenny for young women wanting a career in politics:
- Get a good education and have a career before politics.
- Do it because you want to ‘make a difference’
- Research politics in your area: organise a meeting with your local MP. Volunteer for a political party.
- Volunteer in your community: join groups and get involved in their operation and activities.
- Support quotas for women in all political parties.
- Seek out support groups such as Emily’s List, which provides financial, personal and political support to ALP endorsed women candidates. There is no formal equivalent for the Liberal Party, but networks exist within the Liberal Women’s Section.
- Find a mentor – they will help you.
EVENT REVIEW: Careers before politics best way for women entering public life
HAVING a work career before entering politics was an important aspect of success in public life, said all three guest speakers at a women in politics forum at Langwarrin on Thursday 28 March.
Julia Banks, Cindy McLeish and Sonya Kilkenny all offered variations on this advice when addressing more than 50 women of all ages at the inaugural Louisa Dunkley Women in Politics forum, held at McClelland Sculpture Park and Gallery. Organised by the Committee for Greater Frankston to address the under-representation of women in politics, the forum was held in the new Sarah and Baillieu Myer Education Pavilion overlooking part of McClelland’s world-famous sculpture garden. The audience included 10 politically aware young women from secondary schools, four from Frankston High and two each from McClelland Secondary, Toorak College and Bayside Christian College. They were hosted by Dunkley federal MP Chris Crewther, Labor’s candidate for Dunkley Peta Murphy, and Frankston councillor Quinn McCormack, all of whom also attended.
Speaking first, Julia Banks – the rebel Liberal-turned-independent who is standing against former colleague Greg Hunt in Flinders electorate at the federal election in May – said the best politicians were those who’d had “a real job” before entering politics. This enabled them to better relate to voters and people in general, she said. Cindy McLeish, the Victorian Liberal Party’s deputy leader, said she’d had several careers before standing for state parliament, gaining real life experience and knowledge, which had helped her be a more effective MP. Third speaker Sonya Kilkenny, the state Labor MP for Carrum and assistant minister for early childhood education in the Victorian government, said a good tertiary education and working in the world of commerce were important prerequisites before considering a career in politics.
Ms Banks, who has spoken publicly about how the federal Parliament is a decade behind the business world in promoting women to leadership positions and “has an entrenched culture of bullying”, chose women’s independence as the theme of her talk – independent thought, financial independence, and independent achievement.
“My parents were both denied an education for different reasons, but believed in the transformational powers of a good education and worked hard to give one to my brother and me,” she said. “My mother gave me an important lesson early on – financial independence is key to the future; don’t rely on a man.”
Addressing the young women in the audience, Ms Banks said they should “play to their strengths – don’t let people define who you are; define yourself”. “What you want in life has to come from the heart. Always be authentic and honest.”
Asked why she entered politics: “I’ve always fought for cultural and gender equality, so wanted to take this into the Parliament. Women make up 52 per cent of the Australian population and we need more women in all fields of endeavour.” She was surprised on entering the Parliament in 2016 that there was no Parliamentary Friendship Group for women’s health in general so she formed one. (Friendship groups are to raise awareness among parliamentarians and the wider community of specific issues.) It had been successful in getting government support for women’s health issues, she said.
Ms Banks’s final statement arguably gave an insight into why she left the Liberal Party: “As an independent, you can say what you believe in. You can fall back on an independent spirit.”
Cindy McLeish had several careers before entering the Victorian Parliament in 2010. After attending the University of Melbourne, she was a maths and science teacher (and “remains passionate about science”), trained as a psychologist, gained an MBA (Master of Business Administration), raised a family, became a management consultant, worked at WorkCover, and was CEO of Women’s Golf Victoria just before entering politics.
“When I was growing up, my father ran the farm, where my family has been since the 1800s, and my mother ran a hotel in the town near where we lived, so it seemed normal to me for women to have important jobs,” she said.
Ms McLeish said it was easy to have a lot of careers nowadays and breadth of life experience was good for a career in politics. “I entered the Parliament having worked in the private sector, the public sector and for small and big businesses, and this gave me a broad range of knowledge. I was comfortable speaking about many topics in the Parliament.”
She advised young women considering a political career to start by speaking to their local MP. “We will have ideas about networking; we’ll be happy to give advice. Most of us [MPs] like talking to people of all kinds: it keeps us grounded.”
Politicians can help drive change for our community, she concluded.
Sonya Kilkenny holds qualifications in law and arts from two universities and has worked as a corporate and commercial lawyer including on Norfolk Island, for Kimberley Land Council in Broome, and for Australian Children’s Television Foundation. Prior to being elected in 2014, she was head of the legal dispute resolution team at ANZ.
Ms Kilkenny said she had pursued gender equality “in all spaces” during her careers in business and politics, including equality of pay. Better decisions were made at all levels of society when women were involved, she said. The MP said one of the underlying causes of family violence was gender inequality. “Bad attitudes lead to bad outcomes.”
It was very important for all levels of society to have women role models. Ms Kilkenny amused the audience with a story about her young son accompanying her when she was campaigning for Carrum electorate in 2013 when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister (2010-13). He was asked if he wanted to be prime minister one day and replied: “Oh no, I can’t be prime minister. That’s only for girls.”
“It doesn’t matter what side of politics you’re on, we need more women in politics.”
Ms Kilkenny introduced Peta Murphy who spoke about the legacy of Louisa Dunkley, a skilled Morse code telegraphist who founded the Victorian Women’s Post and Telegraph Association in 1900 and campaigned for equal pay for women.
A Q&A session followed the talks with questions from several of the female students prominent. Discussion focused on why fewer women had been attracted to politics in recent times and what needed to be done to change this for the next wave of young women interested in politics.
Committee for Greater Frankston board member Pippa Hanson, managing director of The Sports Injury Clinic in Frankston, asked about getting the right women candidates. Cindy McLeish said women tended to undersell themselves; men don’t. “It’s a confidence thing. Men tend to speak up and go for it more than we do,” she said. Sonya Kilkenny said quotas were an important tool for correcting the gender imbalance. Gender bias also needed to be overcome. “It’s common to see this during interview and selection processes; an unconscious bias.” People overplayed the so-called merit argument, she said.
Lily of Frankston High asked how young women could find their way into politics. Ms McLeish said many people were now disengaged from politics, but one way was to “meet your local MP or volunteer to assist a political party”. “It’s the same with any role you are considering: seek out people who can answer your questions and help you,” she said. Ms Kilkenny said politics was in “everything” so young women should get engaged in the community by joining special interest groups. This might be a school committee, an environment club, even a vegetarian group, for example. “I recently met a grade 6 girl who was receiving a leadership badge at her school in Skye. We were introduced and I expected her to say something about her class or the school, but she said quite forcefully: ‘I want the voting age lowered to 12 so I can vote next year’.”
The panellists were asked about equal pay. Ms Kilkenny cited the gender pay gap in the Victorian Public Service of 12 per cent (national average is 17 per cent) and state government moves to tackle inequality through various reforms, including gender equality on paid government boards, “which was achieved last year”. She said one reason the gap existed was due to the distribution of women working in traditionally female-dominated areas, which were also lower paid jobs, including junior clerical roles, education aids, nurses, teachers and welfare support workers. Ms McLeish said there were a number of industries where pay was equal. “Women often don’t haggle and bargain like men over wages.”
Peninsula author and polio advocate Fran Henke asked how to best counter male insults directed at women “without becoming a bully yourself”. Ms Kilkenny said this behaviour should be called out: “You don’t need to be a bully; you just need to say this is not good enough, this won’t be tolerated any longer.” Ms McLeish said “an assertive response is important” for this kind of behaviour. “Don’t let a man get away with it,” she said.
Frankston councillor Quinn McCormack said she had experienced criticism “that was gender-based not performance-based” and heard comments such as “Oh, she’s just overemotional”. She asked if there were cross-party groups in the Victorian Parliament to counter this sort of attitude. Ms Kilkenny said she had done a lot of work in this space: “I also entered politics to promote education of women and gender equality. We have a group in the Parliament that promotes these aims and I’m the chair. We organise visits of the Parliament by schoolgirls, and have mentoring and support programs. Achieving a critical mass of women in parliaments is the key.” (Ms Kilkenny is Emily’s List Victorian co-convenor, Victorian Labor Women’s Caucus co-convenor, and Victorian branch chair of Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians.)
Ms McLeish said she had never felt personally demeaned in any way, but knew it was a worldwide problem. Many parliaments had anti-harassment policies but there were none in Australia.
A question about how women gained skills needed for a political career drew a strong response from Sonya Kilkenny. She elicited applause after saying there were “so many incompetent men in politics” and “they should be concerned”. “We need governments that support women to enter politics. There’s no point setting them up to fail. Provide them with skills and then support them.” Australia needed more voices around the tables of decision-makers: a diversity of voices, not just more women, she said.
Asked about what structures were in place to support women, Ms Kilkenny said the Victorian government had in place leadership and scholarship programs for women. “All state government boards are now 50-50; this includes groups as disparate as water boards and judicial appointments.” Ms McLeish said universities had women in science programs and others designed to bring more women into certain sectors.
Alexia of Toorak College, reflecting on earlier references to women having financial independence and their motivation for entering politics, asked if women had to suppress their basic natures to enter politics and become successful. Ms Kilkenny said the lack of support for women in society generally was one reason she had gone into politics. Two aspects in particular were a focus – women’s health and sports facilities for girls and women. She had advocated for more money in state budgets for these areas, including basic requirements such as changing rooms for females. Funding for women’s health issues that had previously been under-resourced had been achieved by looking through a “woman’s lens”. Cited was the disorder endometriosis, which can cause painful periods and even infertility, but would not have been discussed and included in health budgets in the past. Having more women in parliaments yielded different results at budget time.
Poppy of Toorak College asked if Australia would follow Sweden’s lead of having equal parental leave for women and men. Ms McLeish said this was common in the business world and “the future is rosy”. Ms Kilkenny said it was important that more men took parental leave. “The next step is to make it normal for men to go back to work part time as it currently is for women,” she said.
Committee board member Kim-Maree Jackson, executive manager of The Village Baxter, rounded out the event by thanking guest speakers and all women attendees. She had the final word: “It seems to me that young women today are not scared of pursuing equality; I encourage them to join community boards and groups, to get involved.”
- Biographical information about the three guest speakers as well as the visionary Louisa Margaret Dunkley, the 19th century feminist after whom the forum was named, is below