Frankly our expectations have been low. All our lives, women have been underrepresented in public office.
We cringed through 2013 when there was only one woman in cabinet.
We, like so many other women, watched the unprecedented personal attacks on Julia Gillard with horror, but without particular surprise.
Some of the most powerful men in Australian politics have made it plain that they see women as intrinsically less suitable to public life.
In 2016, John Howard clued us up on what he saw as the “mainstream” view that we probably wouldn’t see equal representation of men and women in parliament because “women play a significantly greater part of filling the caring role in our communities, which inevitably will place some limits on their capacity”.
Craig Kelly let us know that there wasn’t bullying in parliament, it was just that Julia Banks didn’t have the mettle for politics; it being a rough-and-tumble game where politicians had to roll with the punches. It felt like Piggy had the conch.
We have always been annoyed that women are paid less for the same work as men. All women know that they have to perform that work better than men to be given the same opportunities to advance.
Election after election, we have heard politicians use the words “mums and dads” to refer to a simple constituency.
With grinding repetition, the parties make broad statements about women being given opportunities, about the future and express a commitment to equality.
Specific analysis, when we see it, is predictably about the amount of childcare rebate, parental leave and family assistance, as if that is the complete universe of women’s interests.
Meaningless terms about “middle-class welfare” and “working families” don’t even come close to addressing the concerns of women.
We kept calm and carried on — until we could ignore it no more
There is a raft of issues that affect Australian women about which we don’t hear any meaningful public debate.
To name but a few: the fact that taxation policy is not gender neutral; the horrific rates of domestic violence; that abortion is a crime in New South Wales; the vast amount of unpaid work done by women; the poverty experienced by many women in retirement; and the underrepresentation of women in corporate leadership positions.
In our working lives, we have seen no serious political engagement with the fact that it is legal to tax deduct your conference in Whistler, but not the cost of child care while you’re at work. Women speak about these issues all the time. Politicians rarely do.
Like almost all of the women we know, we kept calm and carried on. We conscientiously progressed our careers and cared for our families.
Our conversations with other women about these issues have always been so much more sophisticated than what we hear from our elected representatives.
We adopted a policy of wilful blindness to the disheartening discrepancies between men and women in public life.
Then, on August 24 last year, Julie Bishop was bypassed. And we could ignore it no more.
The topic dominated our conversations for weeks. It seemed unimaginable that a loyal deputy who had creditably performed the foreign affairs portfolio and was outperforming all her peers in the polls would not progress to leader.
The professional women we know have no doubt that if she were a man, Ms Bishop would be prime minister.
Instead we had to listen to men who seemed to have achieved less in their lives, pontificate about merit.
We have no option but to conclude that improving the position of women, and increasing their representation in public life, is not a priority for the majority of our politicians.
As middle-aged women, our youthful expectation that the world would be different by the time we were in our professional prime has been proven wrong.
We are fuelled by the discontent expressed by hundreds of women
It feels like little has changed. The female political force we had anticipated has not emerged.
We have concluded that unless the female electorate holds politicians to account, the issues about which women are most concerned will not be addressed in this election.
And so, we feel compelled to step up and contribute what we can. We encourage all women to do the same. It’s time for gender to feature in this election.
We created WomenVote because we are unable to sit by and watch yet another election devoid of substantive public debate about the important issues that affect women.
WomenVote is not partisan, nor is it supported by any party.
We will directly ask politicians about their policies that affect women and analyse their impact. We will finance substantial research about the likely effect of those policies and direct women to the existing body of analysis that is so rarely referred to by our elected representatives.
If candidates decline to engage with us, we’ll record that too.
Our goal is to help restore those issues to their appropriate position in mainstream public discourse.
We intend to focus on candidates’ policies in five broad areas:
- the representation of women in the public and private sectors (including the number of women running for winnable seats and the role of quotas and other affirmative action type measures in the public and private sectors)
- women’s workforce participation (including the gender pay gap and access to child care)
- women’s financial security (including the prevalence of women in part-time or casual insecure work and women’s superannuation)
- violence against women (including access to legal advice and other support such as shelters)
- women’s health and reproductive rights (including access to abortion)
We are deeply involved in our own careers and families; none of us are political activists.
We are also not alone — we are fuelled by the discontent expressed by the hundreds of women we know about the status of women, and issues affecting women, in Australian politics.
Among our colleagues and peers, there is palpable dissatisfaction about the marginalisation of important issues that affect half the electorate.
Vanessa Whittaker, Maria O’Brien and Sera Mirzabegian are the founding directors of WomenVote.
This mission statement was published as an opinion piece by the ABC on 8 February 2019.
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