Earlier this year, Labor women from across the country met in Queensland to discuss policy issues and progressive reforms for the country. It’s amazing what gets done in a bloke-free environment. Commitments to equal pay, a care economy, gay marriage and a carbon price — every one of these progressive reforms passed with barely a whisper of dissent on the floor. A far cry from the, at times, rancorous debate and tight votes on some of these issues at the ALP national conference on the weekend.

In the past 72 hours we have seen a lot of Labor women leaders. Julia, Penny and Tanya took to the stage with a flair many of their male colleagues failed to match. Jenny McCallister, newly re-elected national president, marshalled delegates with professionalism and discipline while Louise Tarrant, Michele O’Neil and Nadine Flood, female federal trade union leaders all, spoke with passion about their members, calling on their parliamentary colleagues to stay true to the party platform.

But the upfront presence of female faces — remarkable and wonderful as they may be — masks a dismal backroom reality.

In a party where only numbers count, nothing says so much about the prospect of reform for Labor than these figures: 41% and 0%. The first number is the percentage of women on the Labor conference floor; the second is the number of women occupying a paid role as a senior Labor Party organiser.

Never mind that there are 96,400 more women in Australia than men, the oldest political party in the country is still trucking a long way behind the national demographics. Only Tasmania’s delegate list matches the national profile, with 52% of its component of the conference, women.

This is the full gender breakdown of the conference, based on the list of delegates recently supplied to Crikey.

ACT 7 2 5 28%
New South Wales 108 44 64 40%
Northern Territory 6 3 3 50%
Queensland 73 29 44 39%
South Australia 35 13 22 37%
Tasmania 23 12 11 52%
Victoria 88 35 53 39%
Western Australia 43 19 24 44%
National 383 157 226 41%

At a parliamentary level, the representation of women is even less than this of course, with only 37% of Australian Labor MPs women. Labor delegates were reminded of the discrimination early on the first day of the conference by EMILY’s List Australia, who gave out jars of jelly beans — only 37% full for the fellas. A bittersweet reminder of how far women have to go. At the current rate of change, women will have to wait until 2038 before there is equal representation of the s-xes in parliament.

These statistics — the lack of gender parity on the floor of conference and of parliament — is enough to make anyone pessimistic about the possibility of structural and ideological change within the party or of recruiting the 8000-plus people we need to sustain the Labor movement.

But numbers are only part of the story. The problem in formal representation of women pales beside the gender ghetto of informal power within Labor.

It is as true today, as it was 120 years ago, that faceless men run the ALP. Only they are not so faceless any more. Thanks to social and other media, everyone knows who they are. In fact, for anyone attending the conference, the influence of the backroom boys was obvious to even the remotest observer.

Never mind blaming Julia Gillard for the parlous state of polling, it is the men gathering at the sides of the conference; in suits and ties or rolled-up shirt sleeves, clutching fags, phones and manila folders of lists and names who need to be held to account.

At one point, just before the vote on marriage equality, NSW state secretary Sam Dastyari and Anthony Albanese summoned a group of organisers working the factions on the far side of the stage, way out of view of the TV cameras.  A scrum of men, mostly in their mid-30s, gathered in a tight conspiratorial circle, discussing tactics, votes and the imminent count. It’s in these exclusively male gatherings that the ongoing patronage and mentoring of Labor men takes place. For many women, it is not just off-putting but dispiriting to see Generation Jones male factional leadership schooling another two, Gen X and Y, to perpetuate the brotherhood. While many of those younger, up and coming factional powerbrokers should know better, it is telling that not one of them thought to include a female colleague into the mix.

While these machinations were taking place, a few metres away faceless women were slogging their guts out for Labor. A team of femme heroes working Labor’s digital campaign ensured that #alpnc trended nationally on Twitter for almost three days. It is a credit to Tegan Gilchrist and the other Labor women who huddled in front of computer screens and came up with the sensational Conference 2011 Social Media Guide. Reaching out to the community — online or otherwise — is likely to be women’s business.In EMILY’s List Australia’s submission to the Faulkner/Bracks/Carr review, we lay some of the blame for the dismal 2010 campaign on the lack of women leaders within the hierarchy of Labor Party organising. It is a self-evident truth that you cannot be sourcing the best and the brightest strategic political minds if you are excluding 52% of the talent.

This is why, while debates on uranium, offshore processing and marriage equality were important, the real battleground at conference 2011 was party reform. Less inner circles and greater transparency for rank and file is in the interests of women. This is why, in the few short years there have been direct elections for party president, women keep winning that vote.

More democratic and open communication will help Labor grow. The road to reform that makes the party more inclusive began with Affirmative Action 15 years ago and must continue through the direct election of delegates to conference. There is a lot more for women, and men, committed to these reforms to do. The disarray and disagreement among the factions on this issue at conference — obvious by the hour-long delay before the start of the debate, the slumped shoulders of Dastyari and Howes and the ultimate referral of this issue to a committee — is a sign of hope to campaigners for Labor renewal. It is clear the male powerbrokers don’t really know how to solve a problem of their own making.

Gender parity, once an internal party problem, is now an electoral albatross around the ALP’s neck.

Until there is equal representation of women in decision making within the ALP, until there are women running the back rooms not just the stage — we will not begin to see the kind of cultural change the ALP needs to reposition itself as a political force in this country.

Recently, there appears to have been some acknowledgment of the importance of gender-based campaigning within the ALP. The PM’s commitment to equal pay for women carers — an initiative every Australian can believe she believes in — has helped turn around Labor’s approval ratings, as much as the PM’s poised and professional presence at CHOGM, APEC and the Obama visit have contributed to her standing as an international leader.

The National Labor Women’s Conference passed without comment by the press and, more disconcertingly, by the ALP itself. Trawl through the Labor Party website and you won’t find a copy of the resolutions passed in May. You have to visit the EMILY’s List Australia website for that. EMILY’s List — an organisation that has for 15 years now been keeping the ALP accountable for it’s representation of women in the only way it knows how — by operating outside and inside the system.

*Tanja Kovac is a research fellow and former national co-ordinator for EMILY’s List Australia. She was an observer at the ALP national conference 2011.