In the past weeks my attention has been drawn back to the role of women in one of Australia’s most cutthroat industries – politics. The ABC documentary The Killing Season has relived in concise and gory detail the disturbing saga of the Australian Labor Party’s time in leadership, focusing in particular on the relationship between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard and the challenges they both faced as Prime Minister.
It was particularly disheartening to be reminded once again of the constant barrage of sexism that Gillard faced, which served to undermine her credibility as the first female prime minister of Australia. Seeing the then-Opposition Leader’s smiling face in front of incredibly offensive slogans (that don’t deserve any further airing) really cements how ingrained and accepted sexism can be in such a public setting. As Gillard herself pointed out in the program, how was that not a career-ending move for Tony Abbott?
Also last week, when asking a question about the Government’s action on climate change, Greens senator Larissa Waters was asked by a Nationals senator, “You’re married aren’t you?” Putting aside the irrelevancy of this question, it is obvious that a male senator would not receive the same questioning, and reinforces the reality that Julia Gillard also faced – when women in the limelight do not conform to traditional gender expectations, they are criticised for it. Never mind that it has no bearing on their competency as a politician or their ability to represent their constituents.
It is important to keep talking about this issue for a number of reasons. Firstly, it just keeps happening! No one deserves to receive hate or criticism focused on their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc., even if they are in public positions of responsibility. Secondly, by improving the atmosphere of politics in this country we would do a lot to attract our brightest and most diverse talent to what seems now a very unfriendly place. Just like any organisation, the Australian Government could achieve more with a more diverse leadership group.
Finally, the public arena of politics does reflect on Australian society as a whole – any woman who aspires to a high-profile position with great power and responsibility, in the private or public sphere, may face the kind of challenges encountered by our female politicians. We need to see women rising to the top based on their abilities and potential, not dragged down by ingrained sexism.