Australia: Female heads of State, but going backwards in international terms of political reps Print E-mail

 ¬ Thursday March 8 2012

The truth about sex and power in Australia

By Katharine Murphy

 Julia Gillard with Quentin Bryce at Government House after being sworn in as Prime Minister (Brendan Esposito)

WE have a female Prime Minister, two premiers and a chief minister.

For the first time in our history, Australia's chief lawmaker is a woman; and female representation in the Senate reached its highest point after the 2010 federal election.

But before politics watchers break out the celebratory bubbles on International Womens' Day — the news on achieving equal political representation in Australia is not all good.

Women comprise 50.2 per cent of Australia's population, but new Parliamentary Library research finds women ''comprise less than one-third of all parliamentarians in Australia, and occupy less than one-quarter of all Cabinet positions.''

The number of women sitting in the House of Representatives declined after the 2010 election, and Australia is going backwards if we look at political representation internationally.

''When comparing the proportion of women in national parliaments internationally, Australia's ranking has slipped from 21 to 38 over the past decade.''

The new paper from Dr Joy McCann and Janet Wilson cites Inter Parliamentary Union data collected from 190 countries to show women's representation in federal parliament declined significantly over the past decade when compared with national parliaments globally.

Australia is currently behind New Zealand — but ahead of the United Kingdom and the United States. Nordic countries have the highest female representation, and Arab States the lowest.

In Australia, women comprise 24.7 per cent of the House of Representatives and 38.2 per cent of the Senate.

''This compares with elected positions in the UK parliament (22 per cent in the House of Commons) and the US Congress (16.9 per cent in the House of Representatives and 17 per cent in the Senate).''

The paper points out Australia was one of the first countries in the world to grant women full political rights, but it was one of the last Western countries to elect women to its national parliament.

''One hundred and ten years after the first women contested a Commonwealth election, only one-quarter of members in the House of Representatives and a little more than one-third of Senators are women,'' the authors say.

''Despite the presence of several high-profile women in Commonwealth, state and territory parliaments in recent years, including Australia's first female Prime Minister (in 2010) and Attorney-General (in 2011), women continue to be significantly under-represented in Australia's parliaments, within Cabinets, and in senior ministries and parliamentary positions.

''Under-representation remains a significant challenge, both structurally and culturally, for Australia's parliaments.''