Inspired by the now infamous ‘Mr Right’ headline tacked above an article about Lara Giddings’ ascension to the position of Tasmanian Premier, this week Crikey spoke to a group of female ex-MPS on the double standards that the media employs when it comes to reporting on women in politics. A focus on appearance aside (Cheryl Kernot told Crikey she was “reduced to a red boa”), the real double standard at play is when kids come into the picture. Or more importantly, don’t. Far more than men, female politicians have their political identities framed around their family and relationship situation.

And it seems women can’t win: the presence of offspring makes for a ‘mum’ angle, and no kids? Empty fruit bowl anyone?

“In the media, I am always referred to as a ‘mum from Medowie’, whilst I’m also an experienced commercial lawyer,” Kate Washington, the ALP candidate for Port Stephens in the upcoming NSW election told Crikey. “I have been asked by journalists at least three times, ‘have you got thick enough skin to take on this role’ and more recently, I’ve been asked how I’m going to care for my children if I am elected. I don’t believe these questions would be asked of any male candidates. Aside from the sexism, it also doesn’t allow discussion of issues.”

Ex-WA Premier Carmen Lawrence, the first female to hold a state premier position in Australian told Crikey, “we’ve headed back to the 50s”.

Back when Lawrence entered politics in 1986 she estimates only 10-15% of MPs were female and “it was held to be desirable to get more women into politics, held to be desirable to get more women into senior political parties and that’s happened to a large extent, but the irony is that it hasn’t necessarily improved the way some sections of the media read women’s involvement.”

Marian Sawer hears similar questions being asked of Giddings that were asked of Prime Minister Gillard. The emeritus professor of social science at the Australian National University, with a particular interest in gender, believes politics is now a game for the young and, increasingly in western democracies, a first career choice rather than a later-life pursuit — putting women in the firing line.

But many successful Australian female politicians of an older generation — think Lawrence, retiring Liberal Senator Judith Troeth and former Victorian Premier Joan Kirner — went into political careers as married women with children.

“When I first stood for pre-selection, I was routinely mentioned as ‘Mother of Five'”, Senator Troeth told Crikey. “There were no other female candidates around in that district at the time, I was a novelty. People wondered how I would get to talk to the shearers in the pub.”

But as she gained political experience that attention ended, Troeth tells Crikey. “When I went into federal parliament and then became Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister for Agriculture, the questions like that stopped because it was obvious that I did that throughout my everyday life. It was due to getting into parliament and getting a meaningful position.”

Lawrence was also a married mother when she went into politics, “To be fair to the local press — The West and The Daily News — they didn’t run the ‘she’s a woman, she must have family responsibilities, children’ line. I expected it [the flack] might be greater than it was.” Even when Lawrence divorced and became a single mother, “that issue was never front of mind and never headlined.”

And there does come a day when the media focus on women is no longer on looks and relationships, says Troeth. “On the other end of the spectrum, having achieved ‘mature women’ status, I haven’t had personal questions for a long time.”

Cheryl Kernot suggested in Crikey earlier this week that female politicians should challenge people who ask derogatory or sexist questions. But attempts by female leaders to hit out against sexist coverage have sometimes proved counter productive. Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin, Sawer says, didn’t get much leverage in 1999 by criticising cartoonists — including The Australian’s Bill Leak — for sexually stereotyping female leaders. “I think a dignified silence might be best,” Sawer said.

Troeth agrees. “You have to be very careful sometimes to zip the lip and not make statements — particularly as Premier — in a throwaway manner. [My advice to Giddings is] To be very careful what you say in any interviews on the record. Because the press always remember it.”

Lawrence disagrees with the keep-quiet-and-don’t-question-the-media mentality. “I think the ‘just ignore the flack’ has been the modus operandi for 20 years and it clearly hasn’t worked,” she said.

“People don’t object enough to it,” said Lawrence. “When we were at the height of second wave feminism, people were very quick to jump on you — and reasonably so — if you treated women as having one role, one identity. But we’ve stopped saying ‘hang on’.”

When asked if Lawrence had any advice she would give to Giddings on how to cope with the press, she laughed and replied “Not that’s printable.”