Mar 4 / Emma Broomfield

Women in local government: A progress check

Current state of representation

As a starting point, it is helpful to take stock of the current state of representation of women within political office across Australia. Put simply, women have historically been underrepresented in political leadership at all levels of government and this still remains the case today. The current stats according to Women for Election are - 37% across States and Territories, 44% within Federal Parliament and 38% within local councils across the country. 

Change is happening but it is slow. In the last local government elections in NSW, women accounted for 39.5 per cent of all councillors. This was an 8.5 per cent jump on the proportion of women elected in 2016/17 (LGNSW, 2022). Whilst this was a positive shift in the right direction, there is still some way to go to reach gender parity in representation within local government in NSW.
The study, The Missing Cohort: Women in Local Government, reviewed representation within Victorian local councils after the elections in 2020. Whilst representation is higher than NSW (being 43.8%) the study found that women's representation varies by age and other characteristics. Representation tilts towards middle ages, with a gap for women under 40 and over 65 years old. Women are also half as likely to be in full-time employment compared to men. Interestingly, it also found less women nominate for election but have a higher success rate. And women serve less time in elected office than men. 

Why equal representation matters

Much has been written about why equal gender representation in all tiers of government is important. At a local level, local government is said to be the government of the people as it is most closely connected to local communities and its role is to deliver outcomes that meet the needs and aspirations of the community.

Local councils are also governed by a group of individuals who come together to make decisions on behalf of their communities. It is important that this group of people are reflective of their communities so that decisions are made that reflect these diverse needs and interests. As the Former Minister for Local Government, Shelley Hancock has said:

"It goes without saying that organisations flourish when they have gender parity and our councils are no different. Strong, effective councils are those that reflect the diverse communities they serve and represent."
In addition, local government can be a pipeline into state and federal politics. If women are not adequately represented at a local level, it has knock on effects for gender parity at other levels of government. Studies have also shown increasing the number of women can alter the culture of those workplaces (and for the better!) and as the saying goes "it is impossible to be what you cannot see!". 

Common barriers for political participation

The first female ever elected into government in Australia was over 100 years ago. Her name was Grace Benny. She was elected in local government to Brighton City Council in South Australia. Since then, women have faced a number of barriers in entering political life. Common barriers at a local government level include:
  • Awareness of local government and the role of councils and councillors
  • Feeling unqualified for the role and lacking in confidence
  • Juggling caring and work commitments
  • Investment of time and money
  • Perceived culture of councils and councillor conduct
  • Concerns about financial and career insecurity
The Missing Cohort study also looked at the barriers facing women entering politics at a local level. It considered this through the lens of the roles that we take on in our lives such as work and family committments. It noted that being a councillor is a high pressure role which can often cause conflict with other responsibilities. Despite both younger men and women (18-45 year olds) being equally likely to have young children, it is younger women who do more of the unpaid work (11.8 hours / week for men and 24.6 hours / week for women). For many women, the juggle is real and it is simply too much to take on the extra responsibilities (and consequent sacrifices) that come with being an elected leader. 

Other research conducted in 2021 in Victoria revealed that women in local government (both candidates and elected councillors) have experienced more negative behaviour as compared to men. This includes receiving offensive emails, texts or social media posts and being subject to demeaning, rude or derogatory remarks about their gender during the election. This is reflective of incidences of sexual harrassment by Federal and State politicians and the apparent negative attitudes towards women within politics broadly.

It also reflects findings from the Plan International report from 2022 that 72% of young Australian women don’t feel politics is an equal or inclusive space for them. Recent research from the Global Institute for Women's Leadership found the number one barrier for young women entering politics is concerns about workplace culture.

What else can be done?

In NSW recent changes to councillor working conditions have been a positive shift that support greater participation by women in civic office This includes the: 
  • Introduction of superannuation for mayors and councillors
  • Requirements for councils to cover the reasonable cost of childcare arrangements to allow them to undertake their civic duties
  • Opportunity to participate in council meetings virtually
However, there is still room for improvement. For example, the lack of paid parental leave was cited as the reason for high profile City of Sydney councillor, Jessica Scully, stepping down from her role last year. Another factor is the relatively low pay of the councillor role and the financial pressures this can cause when combined with caregiving and employment responsibilities.

The Missing Cohort study concluded that there is a need to better support the unique needs of women councillors, particularly young women balancing high housework and caregiving demands on top of paid employment. This includes better pay, more flexibility in the payment of childcare expenses and an allowance to outsource housework. 

The latest research shows Australians are generally supportive of giving women politicians a range of resources such as better compensation, childcare and housekeeping funds, and more flexibility with online meetings, to help keep them in office.

Reasons to take the leap

Despite the common barriers identified above, it is important not to lose sight of the many benefits for women who chose to take on the leadership journey of being a local councillor. This includes being part of creating change and having a positive impact on your local community. Especially on issues that directly affect women, young women and girls, parents and families that may otherwise have a underrepresented or skewed representation. There are also opportunities to learn new skills and knowledge and it can be a stepping stone to a future political career at a state or federal level.

For women thinking about standing in the local government election, there are resources available to help you to decide whether to nominate and run a successful campaign. Check out support available on the Women for Election and Australian Women for Local Government websites, as well as the NSW Electoral Commission website.

You can also take our 7-day candidate launchpad challenge. Gain clarity in your motivation to run for civic office and decide whether its the right fit for you right now in your life.

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