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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  • lauredhel

    Ariel, do you have some data to present that demonstrates that Australia needs to take a leaf out of America’s book when it comes to women in politics?
    Are you aware that our numbers of women in parliament are around double that of the USA? That our Deputy PM (who has been Acting PM a number of times) is a woman? That our Governor-General is a woman? That there have been projects for women in leadership before? That this is nowhere near the “first step”?

  • Ariel

    Not necessarily a leaf out of America’s book, but rather a leaf out of the playbook of those great women’s political orgs– who happen to be American, because those are orgs with which I’m familiar.

  • kandela

    A couple of concerns remain. The site’s “ambassadors” of the movement are almost all white, with one Aboriginal woman.
    I realise most of the people who frequent this forum probably aren’t overly familiar with Australia’s demographics. So, to give people a better idea of how many non-white women should perhaps have been amongst the 18 shown to be ambassadors (and 2 men), I thought this breakdown of the ancestry of Australians might be useful:
    According to the C.I.A.* factbook (apparently correct as of September 2009), the breakdown of Australian ethnic groups is: white 92%, Asian 7%, Aboriginal and other 1%**
    A more dietailed breakdown of Australia’s ancestry from the 2006 census can be found on Wikipedia:
    Australia is a rather multicultural society (especially in Sydney and Melbourne). The 2001 census showed 26% of persons born in Australia had at least one overseas-born parent, that is, they were second generation Australians. Of Australian-born children with at least one overseas-born parent 43% had both parents born overseas. Historically most immigrants to Australia have come from Europe and the U.K., which probably explains why the C.I.A. figure is 92% white. Most Asian immigration has taken place in the last 30 years or so, one would expect this trend to continue, and for the portion of Asian Australians to increase in the future.
    It is also worth noting that not every Australian with Aboriginal heritage has a dark skin colour. Skin colour in children of mixed race fades generationally in the Australain Aboriginal population. This fact was in fact exploited by racist policies in the early 20th century in Australia, to try and ‘breed out’ the colour of Aboriginals. Today there are many Australians who consider themsleves Aboriginal despite not looking black at first glance. Judging by the facial features of those pictured, I’d say that maybe another 2 of those women have Aboriginal heritage. Of course, I can’t be sure, but neither can you, and simply labelling them white on the basis of their pictures is culturally insensitive.
    So, on the raw figures, you would expect out of 20 people nominated as ambassadors 2 would be non-white, probably you would expect that 1 or 2 would be Asian. In that respect the group is not entirely representative, but it’s not that far off either.
    Ariel, I want to ask this question in the most neutral way possible, do you think ambassadors should have been selected specifically with an eye to more proportional representation of non-white demographics?
    *Yes, that CIA:
    **Other sources give the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population as 2.5%.

  • kandela

    Also, some Premiers (that is State leaders) are now and have been in the past women. The current N.S.W. Premier and her deputy are both women. This isn’t insignificant. The states wield a lot of the power in Australian governance.

  • Ariel

    Yes, absolutely.
    I really appreciate those demographic statistics– I took 2 minutes and I couldn’t find them when I was writing this piece. I think that the proportionality of the population is different from the proportionality of representation: I would guess (I don’t know for sure) that while Asian citizens comprise 7% of electeds and “Aboriginal/other” citizens comprise 1%, they compose nothing close to this number in current elected office. As models to young women and spokespeople for this Year of Women in Local Government, I would hope that deliberately identifying non-Caucasian women elected officials for this campaign could help boost representation of those communities.
    Because there was only one non-white woman and several white men among the ambassadors, it felt like the single Aboriginal woman was tokenized. Now, knowing that Asians comprise a larger part of Australia’s population, it seems even more like a political maneuver.
    The final part is that I am an American, and my knee-jerk reaction to seeing the front page of the site was, “Why is there a white woman on the front page?” I know that demanding some type of accountability on ethnic representation can’t be a cookie-cutter model for America and Australia.