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A Few More Cracks In The Glass Ceiling

It was a good night for women in America. A record number will serve in the US senate (19 seats and counting). And there is growing consensus that the women’s vote proved decisive in the election results. (CNN exit polls also showed that women voted for Obama in far greater numbers than men — 55 per cent to 45.) More on that later.

But for all this the US ranks just 78th for female political representation in the world, according to UN Women and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (Australia’s number 41). That puts them about the middle of the gender representation ladder. And those 19 senators are still heavily outnumbered in the 100 people-strong senate. Before this election, just 39 women had served in the United States Senate in its 200-plus year history.

<p>Darren Hauck/Getty</p>

Darren Hauck/Getty

US Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin celebrates her victory. Baldwin will be the first openly lesbian senator in US history.

And that decisive women’s vote comes only after a campaign punctuated by bitter, divisive (and sometimes amusing) debates about women: their rights, their biological superpowers, their place in the binders of presidential candidates.

Women don’t necessarily vote for other women, and they don’t always vote on “women’s” issues. But as New York magazine’s snapshot of women voters in New York shows, women do consider such things when they go to the polls. And the debate in the United States this year, sometimes dominated by issues such as birth control, abortion and equal pay has obviously had an impact on women voters.

But, if after a campaign this devisive, there are still so few women representatives — how do we shift the balance? One Democrat senator reelected on Tuesday, Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand of New York started a campaign to get more women not only in Congress, but in leadership positions across all fields.

This is the same thinking that has led Australia’s finance minister Penny Wong to launch a new government initiative called BoardLinks in Sydney on Wednesday. Its aim is to have women fill 40 per cent of all public sector seats. Asked on Twitter if she thought this was “reverse sexism”, Wong replied: “Equality is not sexism. Ignoring half the talent pool is not sound economics nor is it fair.”

The statistics show women are not gaining that kind of representation now, and no-one believes that’s because there are fewer talented women than men out there.

Well, almost no one. In October Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells basically argued just that in a newspaper column. She described the women of the Labor party as “quota girls”. The Australian Labor Party has a policy of preselecting women for 35 per cent of all winnable seats, in place since 1994.

“When all else fails for the quota girls of Labor, when their backs are to the wall, they begin screeching about sexism. Politics is a tough game. It's still predominantly a man's game. That's why the ALP has quotas and Emily's list,” she wrote. There are plenty of problems with the ALP’s quota system — it’s not enforced uniformly, it’s used by “faceless men” and “union thugs” to get preselection for women from their faction into winnable spots as opposed to men who aren’t — and the biggest one of all is that the quota system doesn’t even seek equal representation of men and women in the ALP. And that still just 24 percent of lower house seats in federal parliament are held by women.

If it were true that the half the population who are women voted only with women’s issues in mind, or routinely preferenced women candidates over men, then we wouldn’t need quotas.

No, it’s more complicated than “have vagina, will vote for candidate with a vagina”. However, sometimes that stuff matters. In the United States, candidates with positions that alienate women did not do as well as they might have hoped. Richard Mourdock, who ran for the United States senate in Indiana against incumbent Democrat Joe Donnelly (not a woman), lost following gaffes including saying pregnancy from rape was “something God intended to happen”.

His Republican colleague in Missouri, Todd Akin, who rose to infamy after claiming in an interview that women’s bodies had ways of shutting down the reproductive system in cases of legitimate rape, also lost, to Democrat incumbent Claire McCaskill.

Perhaps the Republicans might do better dusting off those binders to find some more women to help argue their case.

6 comments on this story
by Marilyn

Yes, but this is 2012, we had the revolution in the 1960's and us grown up old girls do not feel the need to whinge about women being elected to this or that.

November 8, 2012 @ 4:59am
by Michael

It seems to me that the debate is centred on talent and ability.

What about ambition? Could it be that women are less interested in power games than men?

November 8, 2012 @ 9:04am
by Clare

The good ole 60s - yeah, whatever. Point is, those of us grown up girls who weren't around in the 60s (I prefer the very grown up word, women) - aren't resting on your laurels, 'cos there's obviously more to do. Especially when pointing that out is labelled a whinge, or when we have the likes of Connie F-W doing such a great job for men.

November 8, 2012 @ 12:08pm
Show previous 3 comments
by Marilyn

5 of the most powerful jobs in this country are held by women Clare, what sort of glass ceiling do they have to break now.

November 8, 2012 @ 2:38pm
by Anita

Perhaps we should be looking at countries where there is greater representation of women in politics and power. Quotas are probably necessary because all else has failed. Australia hasn't really moved far enough for women - I am forever frustrated with Australia saying that it is not a sexist country, and yet after spending time in Northern Europe (mainly Nordic) you quickly realise Australia has a lot to learn and should do something about getting positive outcomes. An attitude shift is necessary... but how do we begin?

November 10, 2012 @ 9:57am
by eva cox

It should be about changing political agendas and cultures to include the important areas of life that are defined as feminised, not serious and private, eg social values and feelings of connections that relate to good relationships. .Gender fairness is not the same as equal numbers but about serious social change.

November 10, 2012 @ 5:58pm
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