Lara Giddings became Tasmania’s first female premier yesterday, after her predecessor David Bartlett resigned to spend more time with his family. When Giddings was first elected at just 23-years-old, she became the youngest female ever elected to parliament in Australia. In 2008, she was elected deputy-premier, only the second woman ever to hold the position. When announcing his departure, Bartlett declared that as far as he was concerned, “Lara has always been heir apparent.”

Yet The Australian greeted readers this morning with this front-page story, proclaiming “Leftist Lara still looking for Mr Right.”:


Not that The Australian was alone, much of the mainstream media focused on Giddings being a single female. Is this really how it is for women in politics?

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Crikey asked former Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja, former Liberal MP Fran Bailey and former Democrats leader turned former ALP MP Cheryl Kernot for their take on women in politics and whether anything has changed at all.

What do you think of the treatment of Giddings? Are you surprised?

Bailey: Part of me is, because here we are in 2011 and people still have these sort of attitudes. But then, there seems to be such a superficial focus on women, either talking about their dress, hair or their marital status. It’s very disappointing.

Stott Despoja: I’m a little surprised, I was hoping that the coverage would focus more on her political challenges less than her so-called personal challenges.

Kernot: It surprised me that it still happening in 2011. How far have we come from Joan Kirner and the polka dot dress when the first thing they want to talk about is that she’s looking for Mr Right? Have we asked any men that recently? I don’t think so.

It’s a backhanded article [in The Australian], talking about her long experience and her capacity, so why doesn’t that get the headline? That should be the headline — ‘Capacity to Lead’.

So what if she doesn’t have a male handbag, do you think it’s affected her brain? And there’s the implication, that if she doesn’t have Mr Right, or has an empty fruit bowl, then she’s less of a person and not a good leader. It’s insidiously malignant.

Instead, it panders to that gossipy side of women’s lives, which happens to women who occupy positions of influence, but particularly in politics. Do we see much about [CEO of Westpac] Gail Kelly’s life, comment on her clothing? No we don’t, we accept her capacity to run a bank. It’s just so out of date and it’s frustrating.

Were you overly aware of the press asking  you different questions or framing articles about you around looks, personal issues and relationships because you were female?

Bailey: I can’t say that relationships ever came in to it, but often attention was made, comment was made about your dress etc, and to be quite honest I think most female MPs take it in their stride. I spent over 18 years in politics and I thought it had got better. But then you hear this response [to Giddings] and I just shook my head and just thought ‘Men. How pathetic.’

Stott Despoja: I think in the history of women in public and political life there has been at times a disproportionate focus on personal lives, including martial lives and parental status, as well as appearances, but I had hoped that some of us had borne the brunt of that already. There were other trail blazers, like Joan Kirner and Cheryl Kernot.

It’s improving, but to highlight ‘the search for Mr Right’ is pretty out there.

Kernot: I wrestled with challenging it. I got reduced to a red boa.

Once, I dyed my hair a bright pinky red, the colour was called ‘Titian’. I did it deliberately, I was coming back from being ill and I knew there was going to be a beat up and I wanted to see who would cover it. And only the men did, Laurie Oakes rang up Greg Turnbull in Kim Beazley’s office and asked ‘Why did she dye it?’

Is politics really a boys club?

Bailey: Of course it’s a boy club, it always has been. Until you have a critical mass of women in parliaments around the country and they are there for a long period of time, it will remain like it is.

It’s the same in regard to female CEOs, yes we have some outstanding, highly qualified women in some of the most senior positions around the country, but I don’t think these attitudes by some sections of the media will change until we have that critical mass.

Stott Despoja: Look, it’s a male dominated profession and I’m a staunch believer that critical mass makes a difference. The more women in representative institutions, the less of a novelty it becomes to have a woman in a position of power. I am enthused by things that have taken place, I do believe that life in politics is now easier because of other women who have paved the way, and that’s how it should be.

I really believe the public is more conscious of this and the public is sick of tired of ridiculous portrayals and stereotypes and there is some old mainstream media that are perhaps a little slow on the mark but this will change. Overall, I’m positive that things have changed and Lara Giddings represents a new milestone and sometimes mainstream media are not sure with how to deal with that kind of novelty. Now she’s there, focus on her politics, policies and the difficult circumstances she’s dealing with.

Kernot: I think it’s changing. But the fact of the matter is, it can’t change significantly while all the major newspaper editors are male, all the major political commentators are male, while all the faction leaders are male and all the leading party apparatchik are male. The only one that gives women political commentators an equal go is Insiders, where women commentators feature prominently. The rest of the political media, it’s been Laurie Oakes, Kerry O’Brien, even Chris Uhlmann will be doing The 7:30 Report interviews.

Affirmative action’s helped. But it makes you wonder if we’ve made any progress when this can be the front page of the newspaper. Because the subtext is that there’s something wrong with her. That men are allowed to devote themselves to a political career and be a full time politician without any comment but women can’t.

Does this kind of attention discourage women from entering politics?

Bailey: Entering politics is a very hard decision for women to make, because you do have to give up a lot. There’s a lot of travel, time away from your family, those are the issues that do affect decisions by women that enter the federal parliament, that overrides the media issue.

We need to make it much clearer to the public the role that women can play in making such a difference as law makers. I would favour emphasising all the positive things that female MPs can achieve, rather than the negatives. Women bring a different perspective to politics; a keen sense of public service, the attention to detail. Women ask far more questions than men. A lot of people won’t ask questions because they don’t want to make a fool of themselves, while women will always ask the probing questions.

Stott Despoja: I’d like to think the standard of media treatment of newer female MPs and leaders has improved. MPs like Kate Ellis, Nicola Roxon, they don’t suffer the same ridiculous stereotypes some of us did on occasion.

I am a passionate advocate for diversity in our representative bodies. Whether that be women or different backgrounds, ages, indigenous and non-indigenous, diversity is what matters to me. But a lot of women are certainly put off by the added double standards and scrutiny.

What advice would you give to Giddings?

Bailey: What I’m sure what she will do is get on and do the best job that she can.

Stott Despoja: Don’t lose focus, don’t let them distract you. My advice for the media: get over it. The days of double standards of reporting of women in public life are surely over soon. We have women in the top political positions, it’s time to move on and not be so surprised.

Kernot: Just continue being herself. Hasn’t let her down yet has it? Continue being herself, pursuing the priorities that she thinks are important, trusting her judgment and challenging them when they insist on asking these questions.

When Julia was asked personal questions — like the one about the earlobes — she should have confronted that and collectively we have to keep confronting it. But there’s a funny subtext: women don’t confront and challenge, they whinge. I can’t tell you the times I was accused of whinging rather than raising a point of interest to me.

But she’s a competent women, appropriate for the job, and that ought to be what we are celebrating.