Australia’s “Year of Women in Local Government”

The text 'Women in Local Government' with a smiling white face of a woman on the right. Official logo of the initiative.
Australia has declared 2010 to be the “Year of Women in Local Government,” launching an empowering new website to promote the initiative. The most common statistic cited in the speeches surrounding the program shows that in 2009, women accounted for less than 30 per cent of councilors, 20 per cent of senior managers and only five percent of CEOs.

The Government’s commitment includes:
– $250,000 for a three-year 50:50 Vision: Councils for Gender Equity program which will audit councils and shires to determine the status and role of women in leadership roles as well as their participation in the workplace.
– $100,000 in scholarship funding to enable senior women in local government to participate in the new Executive Leadership Program being developed by the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government and the Australia and New Zealand School of Government;
– $100,000 to improve the collection of data and reporting on the status of women in the local government sector; and
– $40,000 to the Local Government Managers Australia for their 2010 Management Challenge, which will involve around 130 councils identifying strategies to promote gender equity in their councils.

Hand in hand with the new initiative is a $20,000 six-month study of the causes of low rates of women’s entry into the workforce.

“Just 55.2 per cent of women were in the workforce and, of those, fewer than half were in full-time jobs.”

A couple of concerns remain. The site’s “ambassadors” of the movement are almost all white, with one Aboriginal woman. Second, the government has invested in the idea that the best way to recruit and retain women in local government is to conduct studies.

By default, an investment in diagnostics is an investment in male leaders. When women are underrepresented in government, and men comprise 70 percent of councilors, 80 percent of senior managers, and 95 percent of CEOs, handing money to local government asks leaders who are predominantly male to solve the problem of underrepresentation of women. Increased representation in government certainly must involve the cooperation and work of male leaders to facilitate a work environment more friendly to women, but what if Australia chose to invest directly in the women leaders they hope to find and cultivate?
Such an investment could potentially be modeled on the work done in the U.S. by, for example, Emerge America, Running Start, the Women’s Campaign Forum (WCF) and its sister organization, the WCF Foundation. All of these organizations identify, recruit, train, and support rising women leaders in America. The WCF Foundation also performs diagnostics and research on barriers to representation similar to those the Rudd administration hopes to investigate.
It would probably behoove Australia to use a two-pronged approach like this to boost representation of women. At least they’ve taken the first step.

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