POLITICIAN KATE ELLIS
on SEXISM IN PARLIAMENT
Soon after I entered Parliament in 2004 I was approached by a political staffer at work drinks who had a question. In the coarsest possible terms, he asked how many men I had to sleep with to launch my political career. I am quietly confident that John Howard and Kevin Rudd were never asked this question, though I have no way of knowing for sure.
“So what?” some people might say. Sexism, misogynist slurs, all this neanderthal nonsense happens in all walks of life. Indeed it does. It is bad when it happens anywhere. And it is bad when it happens within the nation’s number one decision-making forum, the place that wields power over us all, but where 51 per cent of the population hold just 30 per cent of the seats in the House of Representatives and struggle to wield power at the Cabinet table.
We need to make politics more attractive to women. In 2017, one survey of young Australian women said zero per cent – zero – would consider politics as a career. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. There have been many reports of the treatment women receive in politics. We have seen two cases go to court that centred on the “slut-shaming” of female members of parliament. We have seen allegations that women are bullies. We have had studies confirming that women MPs don’t only face a disproportionate focus on their appearance, clothes, hair, makeup and body shapes, but that the problem is actually getting worse. A recent report found more than a third of female federal MPs now suppress their home address due to concerns about their personal safety as the abuse they receive continues to increase.
It isn’t just elected MPs. In 2020, Four Corners aired a program alleging serious mistreatment of women working as staff members for politicians. This year we heard worse. Brittany Higgins bravely spoke out alleging that as a young staff member she was raped by a colleague in a minister’s office in Parliament House. She felt she had to choose between reporting it or keeping her job. It is unthinkable.
Over 15 years I experienced firsthand the unfair treatment that women receive in Australian politics. I spoke to women from across the political spectrum and every single one had a story to tell about the challenges they faced – but crucially, why it was still worth every second. I have no doubt that whatever I do with the rest of my life, I will never have a job that is more rewarding, more inspiring and more challenging. The truth is there is no job where you can achieve so much change on issues that matter to the community. There is no job where you can help more people and transform millions of lives.
Parliament works better, makes better laws and sets a better example when it looks like the community that it represents. We need more women in politics but we also need it to be better for them. Much better. We need to demand that the culture of Australian politics changes to better reflect a modern workplace. It should better reflect the Australia that we are and that we want to be.
Kate Ellis’ book Sex, Lies and Question Time (Hardie Grant, $32.99) is out April 21.
WRITER BRI LEE
I was delivering a lecture to some postgraduate writing students after I published Beauty in 2019. During questions at the end, a middle-aged man said, “I got halfway through Beauty and felt like I’d read it all before, because I worked in magazines for a couple of decades.” He went on to be oddly patronising, finishing with a combative statement phrased as a question. I felt sorry for him. It was transparent he couldn’t see why I was the lecturer and he the student. The subtext was clear: just another girl whingeing.
His comment about Beauty stuck with me because in a matter of seconds he illustrated the precise problem I was trying to get at in that essay: women are made to feel shit about their bodies, and then their struggles are mocked and minimised when they try to discuss and deal with them.
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