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Op Ed: Women leaders are irreplaceable. Until that changes, there will never be enough

By WFE CEO, Licia Heath.

This article was originally featured in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 14, 2023.

The recent NSW election has yielded significant gains in the number of women elected to public office in the state. There are now seven more women in the lower house, while women maintain a slight majority (52 per cent) in the upper house, bringing the state ever-closer to achieving gender parity. The new government’s commitment to achieving gender balance around the cabinet table is another major win.

But what recent commentary has failed to consider is that these gains are only possible, and more importantly sustainable, with a strong pipeline of women candidates. As I’ve previously written, history shows that a single electoral cycle can undo hard-won gains if there is a lack of female candidates ready to step up to the plate to replace those who are voted out or retire.

Case in point? A decade ago Australia had a female prime minister and a female governor-general: the only women to hold these positions since the birth of the Commonwealth. A decade on, we have seen no other women elected to leadership of the major parties.

When Gladys Berejiklian resigned as NSW premier her primary reasons for stepping down was not a gendered issue, but the lack of highly qualified women available to replace her was. In addition, in recent months four female global leaders have lost or left – Sanna Marin (Finland), Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand), Natalia Gavrilita (Moldova) and Nicola Sturgeon (Scotland) – each replaced by a man. Time will tell whether their appointments were an anomaly.

The creation and maintenance of a strong pipeline of women looking to engage in politics is the critical piece that the headline figures fail to grasp. The reality is that candidates typically need to run more than once before being elected, with the lessons learnt from their initial campaign informing their long-term political trajectory, thus increasing their chances of future electoral success. 

It is therefore valuable to compare the pool of candidates who contested the election with those who have ultimately been elected.

Across all NSW lower house seats, an average of 39 per cent of candidates were women – several points higher than the percentage of female parliamentarians in the lower house prior to the election, which sat at 33 per cent. A total of 33 seats achieved 50 per cent or greater female candidates.

Accordingly, this enhanced pool of female candidates resulted in eight additional women being elected to the lower house, raising the percentage of female MPs to 41 per cent. Of these women, half replaced retiring incumbents, while the others ousted a sitting member. Upon further analysis, the eight seats that transitioned from male to female representatives had an average of 50 per cent female candidates.

But as the public has, unfortunately, come to expect, there is significant difference between parties in terms of their preselection of candidates. For major parties, in the lower house, Labor led the way with 47 per cent of female candidates, followed by the Nationals at 36 per cent and the Liberals at 34 per cent.

In terms of who got elected from each of the major parties, there is no escaping the fact that the size of the candidate pool is directly correlated with the proportion of women elected. Labor had 22 women elected (49 per cent of female MPs in the lower house). However, the Liberals had just nine (36 per cent ) and the Nationals two (18 per cent).Then there is the contest between independent candidates and sitting members, which proves interesting. In theory, independent candidates should provide a useful barometer for the overall proportion of women wanting to run, given they are not beholden to a party preselection process.

However, this isn’t necessarily the case. Having run as an independent, I learnt firsthand the level of political knowledge needed, as well as the support network and funds required to run. Unfortunately, due to persistent economic disparity in Australia – women still earn 13 per cent less than their male counterparts – they are not starting on a level playing field.

In the lower house, 39 per cent of independent candidates were women, and only 22 per cent of all independents that have been elected to the Lower House are women. However, it is noted that seven of the nine sitting independents went into the election with a significant margin and were re-elected.

Meanwhile, for the upper house, the Liberal Party fared much better, with 70 per cent women on their ticket, while Labor achieved around a 50-50 gender split, and the Nationals making room for only 20 per cent women on their ticket.

However, in a contest where position on the party ticket means more than the sheer number of women on the ticket, the story is more complex, and I am pleased to note that all major parties will have at least 50 per cent female representation in the upper house.

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