Australia Has Launched its First University Program to Get Women Into Parliament

Women hold less than 30 percent of parliamentary jobs in Australia. Melbourne University wants its Pathways to Politics program to even the score.

by Livia Albeck-Ripka
25 November 2015, 11:48pm

Women were scarce in Australia's first parliament, and have remained that way since. Image via

No one is going to blow any minds by saying that politics in Australia is a man's world. Despite Prime Minister Turnbull's recent efforts to restore the gender imbalance in his own cabinet, women still hold fewer than 30 percent of parliamentary jobs. Yesterday, in response to the continuing disparity between the genders in the upper levels of government, the University of Melbourne launched the country's first tertiary program designed to address the dearth of women in politics.

Pathways to Politics Program for Women is based on similar venture out of the US—From Harvard Square to the Oval Office—and designed to train and support women aspiring to be elected to office at local, state, and national levels. Open to Melbourne University graduate students and alumni, the program will begin intake in 2016.

The non-partisan course was launched in Canberra by minister for foreign affairs Julie Bishop, deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek, and chair of the Women's Leadership Institute Australia, Carol Schwartz—who said she hoped the program would help tackle "unconscious bias."

Comparing the experience of her female colleagues with their male counterparts, Carol reflected: "women who are putting themselves forward for pre-selection are asked questions as to how they will cope with a family and a life in politics." Continuing, she said the greatest challenge in any woman's career was overcoming the "stereotyping of roles that are deemed appropriate for women and those that are deemed as appropriate for men."

This trend is obviously not exclusive to politics. According to a 2014 report from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency Australian women hold a 3.5 percent of CEO positions despite making up nearly half of the workforce. Additionally, women working full time will earn on average 17.5 percent less than men doing the same hours.

Reflecting on the widespread trend at yesterday's launch, Tanya Plibersek said: "We know that if there's a job ad and a bloke has one out of the 10 requirements in it, he'll think, 'I'm ready for that job,' and women will think, 'I have to have eight, nine, or ten out of ten of the qualifications that they're looking for." She went on to cite confidence and networking skills as crucial to success in the "awfully competitive" political landscape.

It's this lack of a firm network to support women that the program is planning on remedying. Professor Helen Sullivan, the director of the Melbourne School of Government who is running the program, told VICE they'll be providing education and networking opportunities for women including seminars and lectures from leading politicians.

She also explained that "program participants will learn from members of parliament, campaign strategists, advisors, consultants, and elected officials." The partnership with the US program will also allow graduates to form an international network of women in office.

In her address, Tanya emphasised the importance of female solidarity, detailing the positive impact of female mentors on her own pathway into politics. Concluding she noted, "If you want one of those positions, you have to be prepared to fight for it".

But this is an issue that stems from broad cultural gender assumption that reach beyond politics. Carole herself admitted that they still face the challenge of first getting women to "take the leap into a life in politics". But despite the numerous obstacles we still face in ensuring female representation in government, she said that she hopes the course will at least provide women with a "greater understanding of what a life in politics entails".

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Julie Bishop
Vice Blog
Malcolm Turnbull
Tanya Plibersek
Melbourne University
Pathways to Politics Program
Carol Schwartz