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Women and Politics

About two months ago, federal Labor politician Kate Ellis announced that she would resign from her seat at the next election. She is pregnant with her second child and can’t see a way to make motherhood and her job in federal politics work.

Sadly, this is not an uncommon reason for women resigning as politicians, and from Australian workplaces in general.

It’s true that politics is a demanding role for males and females, and their families alike. A federal backbencher is required to spend a minimum of twenty weeks in Canberra. That’s a minimum, so presumably, if the politician wants to do the very best they can for their constituents, then they’d be spending over and above the minimum requirement. That’s hard for marriages and families.

We don’t particularly care what your political bent is, whether you think Kate Ellis did a great job or a profoundly bad job. This is not the point of this post. The point is to argue why, in this post-structuralist world, as a society we are sticking to a workplace structure that is a relic from the past? Why are we making it so difficult for those who want to contribute to the economy through paid work, and to society via raising a family, to do so?

It’s true that the nature of jobs like that of a politician attracts a certain type of person. We can easily see that from a cursory glance around parliament, right now. It’s made up of mostly men, white and middle-class, and there’s a few women thrown in. The majority of women who stick with politics are childless. It just doesn’t seem to work for women who want to be the best mother and the best politician they can be. Something has to give. And that something is always going to be the job, isn’t it?

Outside of parliament, in other spheres of working life, for example in middle to senior management roles, it looks startlingly similar. There are lots of men who’ve risen to the top (and I’m not begrudging their place, either) in many high-powered roles around Australia and the world. There are many women who’ve rightly risen to the top in their chosen field too, but it impacts differently on women and their families.

But why should it have to be?

Many aspects of the Australian employment model, including those of Federal politics, are remnants from a period when women were expected to stay at home upon marriage and provide a nurturing and supportive environment for their husband and the children. The men from this era had no reason to make an effort in the home, and married women rarely looked outside the home for work, at times because they couldn’t: it was illegal for women employed in the public sector—a politician’s workplace.

In 1902, Australia was the first country in the world to give women both the right to vote in federal elections and also the right to be elected to parliament on a national basis [1]. However the Public Service Act 1902 explicitly required women to resign upon marriage, while giving women the right to equal pay for equal work in theory, but not in practice. The ‘Marriage Bar’ for women, as it was then known, was only removed in 1966 [2], providing women with the legal right to work in the public sector after marriage.

Over the past hundred or so years, as society has changed, our attitudes towards women who work outside the home should have changed exponentially. But the reality is, women’s role in a work environment is still fraught; the balance for mothers who work outside the home is always at tipping point. Ample research shows that the division of domestic labour is still done by the woman in the partnership, regardless of whether that woman works full-time or part-time outside of the home. Working mothers often choose part-time hours, of if they stay as full-time staff, then outsourcing help with children is required, whether it be through grandparents, after-school programs, or a live-in nanny or au pair. While there are some fathers who take on part-time hours in order to care for children, they are in the minority.

What does any of this have to do with Kate Ellis resigning? Everything. If Australia had adopted a path of progressive change in line with the changes to the above mentioned legislation, society would now be seeing more flexible and family friendly work environments. Workplaces where women who are primary carers in management positions are not forced to choose between having a family and having a career.

We think again of the second-wave feminists from the 1970s, who worked so hard to bring changes for women in society in general and in public and private workplaces. We applaud them, we thank them, but, as we can see from the resignation of Kate Ellis, and Natasha Stott Despoja’s years earlier, we still have a long road ahead.


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