A Woman In Politics: My Experience
By Isabella Pennings
Before I begin this article, I want to highlight that I write this article from a place of privilege. I write this as a white woman, one who was lucky enough to go to a very good high school, be part of a supportive family, and grow up in a major city. I believe it’s important to recognise this due to the many disproportionate barriers of entrance to politics that many face such as class, race and indigeneity. As such, I would like to acknowledge these factors, the privilege I have enjoyed, and also recognise that I can only speak on my own experience within the political sphere. Within this piece, I only represent my own perspective, and I do not claim to speak for all women, all white women, etc.
When I walked into the PPE induction during O week in 2017 I was immediately intimidated. As I’ve found myself doing subconsciously these days, I counted the number of women in the room and determined that the ratio of women to men was around 1:6. I often tell this story as a joke, making the crack that “it was like the gender ratio of real parliament”. While this softens the blow of an uncomfortable story, it’s a stark reminder that in terms of female representation in politics, Australia has a long way to go.
The Liberal Party has recently come under fire with accusations of bullying and harassment towards women, but this is merely the tip of the iceberg. Within both major parties, although numbers of women are increasing, there are still a disproportionate number of men in leadership positions. This has sparked public debate with most of the discussion focusing around how to encourage more women into politics, especially via quotas and leadership programs. However, within this discussion, I rarely see the voices of young women being heard; the voice which should be most crucial in this discussion. From this, I would like to share my experience of being a woman within the political sphere, in order to shine a light on how more women could be encouraged into politics.
The truth of the matter is that I increasingly feel unsafe in politics; especially within youth politics. As I said, I can’t claim to speak for everyone, but I strongly doubt that this is an isolated experience, owing to the stories I’m told by other young women. Before I began studying at UQ, I was never really involved in politics directly and through more involvement (especially within political parties) I found my experiences, and those of my fellow women, to be extremely confronting. What I found to be most distressing was accounts of sexual assault and harassment. While sexual assault is depressingly prevalent within general society; the power dynamics which are created within political situations (especially within parties) are often especially threatening. As well as this; the extent to which institutions deal with these reports is, at best, inadequate, and at worst, harmful.
It is a despicable reality that when I engage within political spaces, especially in a university setting, it is inevitable that I will be forced to come into contact with known abusers; with people who have harassed myself or people I know, and will never be held to account.
These abusers have the de facto protection of institutions that are impenetrable for most.
The narrative of the “reality of politics” as one which is necessarily brutal and harsh, is one that is inherently sexist. It is used to dismiss women’s claims; it is one which punishes women for femininity. Women are often, and I have been personally, criticised for sensitivity, for being emotional; qualities which I believe we need more of in politics. I have done my best to resist these systems and I have endeavoured to learn how to operate in these systems as a woman. However, the advice I get from workshops and seminars on this topic involves very little discussion of systemic change. I am told to speak up, I am told to be assertive, I am told to tolerate sexism; but none of that is anything that will create a system which is easier for women.
For me the solution is changing the culture of politics. It shouldn’t be the case that every young woman who gets involved with politics should have to be a trailblazer. It shouldn’t be the case that harassment is just something that should be tolerated. This can be a confronting reality for people; that change can’t be created through having nice women’s breakfasts and leadership classes. What it also means is that a lot of the burden of this falls upon men. Men, and all people in power, have the responsibility to work to change the system; and I think that accepting this is the real first step that we can take to make the political space one which women can safely inhabit.
Isabella is a PPE student, mentor in Queensland Youth Parliament, former president of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition-UQ, and a lover of loaded fries.
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