Julia Gillard

The day before the Coalition’s offensive dinner menu surfaced, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said an Abbott government would “banish women’s opinions from the core of political life”. But are female MPs really at the core of politics now, under Labor?

Women are outnumbered almost two to one in the federal House of Representatives, but that hasn’t made them shy. Data from Bond University’s project indicates that the 37 females in the lower house are proportionally just as likely to gain ministerial roles, ask questions, make speeches and be involved in committees as their 113 male colleagues.

There are some gender-related differences, however. The data shows female MPs are more likely to ask questions to their own party (Dorothy Dixers) during question time than men. As a result, they are on TV during question time more, making it seem that there are more female MPs than there really are (women are also more likely to come from marginal seats, which means more TV time).

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“There is a large dominance of men in the ministry … so when [females] are given the Dorothy Dixers for the day they are given the opportunity to question,” former leader of the Australian Democrats Natasha Stott Despoja told Crikey. “I know they are strategically placed depending how much profile [they have] … and also of course depending on [their] level of interest.”

Parramatta Labor MP Julie Owens says because marginal seats are placed behind the prime minister in Parliament, it looks like there are more females in the lower house. “You would think we were 70% women,” she said. 

While the number of female politicians has steadily increased, women still make up just 25% of lower house MPs. According to the Inter Parliamentary Union, Australia comes 45th out of 139 countries on the representation of females in Parliament.

The IPU considers the minimum benchmark for equal participation to be 30%. Only 30 countries have reached this, including New Zealand in 27th place.

Stott Despoja would like to see more female MPs: “When you have a majority of the population who is female, you deserve the population to be adequately and fairly represented.” She says issues such as the media’s perception and portrayal of female MPs, difficulties balancing family life, and treatment by other politicians are partly responsible for the under-representation of women.

“I look at [the recent] leadership debate and I think: who would go into this profession now? There needs to be structural changes, and I am a big fan of anything that facilitates better representation of women,” she said.

The ALP has an affirmative action policy to preselect women for 40% of “safe” seats, but is struggling to meet its target. Then Liberal Senator Judith Troeth unsuccessfully petitioned in 2010 for an affirmative action plan to be put in place for her party.

Political researcher Dr Mary Crawford has noted differences in the way politicians contribute. “I found in my work that women MPs said they would spend 80% of their time on electorate work and queries, whereas … male MPs see spending time with their peers as much more important,” she said.

In Dr Crawford’s 2010 journal article Gender equality in national politics: The views of Australian male politicians, an anonymous MP said “men can use particular types of adjectives, but it would be unbecoming for women … women aren’t as robust in debate … and wouldn’t like to be seen as vocally verbose as men.”