“A Silent Struggle for Women” – Women and Sexism in Parliament

Here’s a much awaited copy of Izzy Manfield and Hannah Tilling’s speech (UQWC, represent!) from the UQ Social Justice forum held back in April this year. Our topic was “Women in Parliament” :) 

Hi everyone! I’m Izzy…

And I’m Hannah…

And we are here tonight to discuss women in Parliament, and how our perception of women and our reluctance to grant them power has prevented and is preventing equality in the Australian Parliament.

Let’s cut to the chase with some stats. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, women comprise approximately half of Australia’s total population. However, women are less than one-third of all parliamentarians in Australian parliaments. Considering Australian women only achieved the vote in 1902, you might say this will only take a matter of time and us women shouldn’t be so pushy. But is time all it will take to achieve equality in Australian Parliament?

We are here to tell you that we need more than time. We need a complete renovation of our female stereotypes in all walks of life and in all professions and situations. We need to investigate the role of women and the sexism they face to combat this discrimination. It’s a difficult issue to overcome. While this speech may not change the world straight up, we are hoping it will give you food for thought that all of you, both male and female and anything else, can and should take this information into your own workplaces and your own careers.

Sexism is difficult because it’s rarely out in the open. It’s covert, it’s hidden, it’s a silent pressure and a silent struggle for women. It’s hard to detect and even harder to prevent.

When a woman is in Parliament, no one is going to blatantly disclaim they are uncertain of her leadership capabilities because she is a woman. They disguise their uncertainties by dragging attention to her manner of dress, her intimate relationships or family or lack thereof or any other factors that have traditionally been applied to women to keep them out of power and in the household.

How can this be changed? What are we doing about the issue now, today, so we can have a better tomorrow? What will we see when we ‘look towards the future’?

In the past half decade, all appears to be looking up for women in Parliament in Australia. With Anna Bligh, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, there seems to be a lot of recent firsts for women in Australian politics. But is this enough?

A lack of women in Parliament isn’t simply going to solve itself by us pumping BULK female members into seats. The issue is how society perceives women in daily roles and the public’s perception of ideal leadership qualities. The lack of women in Parliament starts with who you think is most worthy of your vote. If there are a man and a woman with equal capabilities and they are equally level-headed policy makers and both are excellent organisers and public speakers, who are you going to vote for?

And it’s not even that. Do we really have a society that makes it socially acceptable for a woman to be interested in politics? And once a woman is involved, is she actively encouraged to be as engaged with the debate and can she actually take control of the meeting room without receiving increasing criticism from her peers?

I know you’ve heard it all before. The stereotypical qualities of a man include being responsible, protective, capable, and in control. When a man is assertive, he is perceived as in control; while for a woman, she is instead aggressive and abrupt. Even if a woman is assertive, we disguise this quality by applying these feminine qualities (such as bitchiness) which all have negative connotations. The way we can accept women into positions with power is to redistribute the adjectives we use to describe them. Masculine words are seen for the most part as gender neutral, while feminine words are explicitly engineered for women alone. We think Nicki Minaj sums this up quite nicely in her infamous ‘Bossed Up’ clip.

Since a woman is seen to be aggressive if she’s assertive, therefore a woman is conveyed as quite manipulative, secretive and passive aggressive: none of these qualities are desirable for leadership positions and hence make acquiring such positions as a woman all the more difficult. These qualities are more than just a stereotype, they are expected behaviours that are covertly enforced.

A woman can never win when it comes to leadership in this climate. Even if she isn’t manipulative or secretive, she is just thought to be cunning enough to hide her true character; instead being branded as fake and a liar. Take Julia Gillard for example. Her appointment as Prime Minister was entirely justified under the Australian political system, and yet her entire reign has been poisoned with her fellow Australians calling her a liar; a cheat; a back-stabbing bitch. Just imagine if Kevin Rudd’s and Julia Gillard’s positions had been switched with Gillard running for office in the election and Rudd then taking over shortly afterwards, how different the public reaction would have been.

Leadership qualities should be encouraged in all women, not just those who seek a political career. We can’t keep pretending all women are naturally submissive and family-orientated except for the rare, outstanding few ‘career women’ who are different. ‘Career women’ are not some aspirational, testosterone-pumped, genetically variant breed of female who are just men disguised in a woman’s body. All women have the potential to grasp and maintain power through a successful career; only in our current culture, it is seen as too difficult. I mean, the ideal woman is a fashion model for goodness sake! Yes, there is this painful idea that a woman can exist as an entity known as the ‘career woman’. This creature first appeared in the fossil record circa the second world war, but the species really began to thrive in populace during the seventies. The ‘career woman’ is, simply put, a mutant female specimen who has sacrificed her womanhood for her career. She is not expected to care for a family, and if she does she is encouraged to sacrifice her career; or vice versa. But of course, career and family cannot be combined by any female, not even this new ‘career woman’ type. Of course, family is only a lovely pasttime for a man, as opposed to a full-time job for a woman. Women who choose career over a family life are doomed to a lonely existence as a spinster and are missing a key organ that is a key characteristic of the ordinary female: the heart. If these career women don’t have an interest in fashion or a particular interest in how she presents herself, she is never going to get very far. Accordingly, the process of natural selection acts to remove such women from the gene pool through discrimination and criticism. The reality is, labelling women in power as ‘career women’ is demeaning and just goes to show how shocking a woman in power still is to the public eye.

It’s not just an annoying social dilemma with a bit of ‘shock factor’ to boot. Sexism in parliament is a form of harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace. Somehow there is still a covert kind of status quo that appears to rank women incapable when it comes to making decisions and executing them.

Instead of sweeping this under the table, we need to recognise it for what it is. Sexism. In the words of Prime Minister Julia Gillard in her internationally acclaimed Misogynist speech – ‘Sexism should always be unacceptable’. Why should we take the opportunity to disregard women in politics, such as Gillard herself, and cast off our negativity simply as political banter. Women should be encouraged to speak out and be passionate about social justice issues; to be honest and assertive, not be afraid to have leadership qualities and to be empowered. Looking forward to the future, I think that our country and the global community have a huge potential for equality in Parliament.

Instead of looking to others and waiting for this thing we call society to pick up its game, you, the people sitting in this room right now, need to recognise you are a part of this society and what you say, do and – even more importantly – think really impacts on even big things like equality for women in Parliament.

For if not now, when? If not here, where? If not you, who? This change starts with you and it starts when you assess your own behaviours and realise that sexism is everywhere – even in your own subconscious mind.

We hope this short speech has perhaps opened your mind to the possibilities for women. Imagine a world where women were given equal opportunity to participate in politics at a Parliamentary level, and imagine a world where the new glasses of a female Prime Minister didn’t make frontpage headline news.

So good evening. We hope you’ve learnt something new and we hope you can question your own thinking enough to see more women in power, and thus more women in Parliament. Achieving this will open the window of opportunity for Australian women, which make up 50% of the population, to have equal representation in decision making for the country.


One thought on ““A Silent Struggle for Women” – Women and Sexism in Parliament

  1. Alison Saw says:

    Why is it so important for women to want to get in parliament?

    There are other jobs which men dominate in and I don’t see feminists complaining about this.

    The labours jobs, the war, all these are dominated by men, yet I am not seeing any arguements as to why men dominate these areas.

    Tell me why are the only jobs women want in Parliament? That seems grossly unfair.

    Whilst there are men in male dominated areas dying in their workplace, priviledged feminist women are only advocating for their own gender to be seen in the rich political area.

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