Sexist attacks shouldn't put aspiring politicians off

The rough and tumble of public life is something that all public figures, including myself, need to deal with on a daily basis, but the criticism and general disrespect that displayed towards the Prime Minister of our nation over past weeks can only be described as a new low in public discourse.

One of the greatest features of our society is the fact that young women can aspire to high public office and make their mark on the world in the same fashion as men. I constantly meet young women who tell me of their hopes and dreams and this sometimes even includes political aspirations.

Meeting aspiring female Prime Ministers or Chief Ministers is always encouraging, but it is worrying that debates like the ones we have witnessed in recent weeks and months, about the gender divide, could dampen the aspirations of young women.

It would be entirely reasonable for women to think twice about getting involved in politics particularly when your gender, your sexuality, your marital status or even your reproductive status is considered fair game and could be routinely served back to you or, as has been in the Prime Minister’s case, served up to the entire Australian community on a platter to feed over and dissect.

I’ve had my fair share of both overt and subliminal sexism in my working life, most women have. But I have never had to endure the nastiness, the sexism, or the deep intrusion into the most personal aspects of my life that the Prime Minister has had to endure.

These attacks haven’t come out of the blue. Over the past three years the simmering undercurrent of sexism has gradually seeped into public life and into accepted national dialogue. Last week it peaked and spilled over in an out of control, ugly and pathetic way that shocked the majority of Australians.

It’s because of where we find ourselves today that the call for the next generation of women politicians has become even more urgent. Instead of putting young women off, the current political climate should fuel the desire for female engagement and improve our understanding of why it’s important to have women not only involved in political life but as leaders of it.

A male only ALP caucus is what initially motivated me to put my hand up as an ALP candidate back in 2000. In one election, and with a strong female campaign resulting in a strong female vote, the ACT Legislative Assembly went from 11.7% female representation to 41%.

To be successful parliaments must be representative of the communities they are elected to serve. Women constitute approximately 50% of the Australian population yet only constitute 24.7% of current House of Representative seats. The reality is we need more women politicians not less. We need to make sure that female Prime Minister’s are not novel, that gender balance within cabinet is normal, that female leaders of political parties happen as often as men and that female representation within our political organisations at a minimum equals that of the men.

Future female leaders will not have to endure what Prime Minister Gillard has because she has taken on the full force of the attacks to the point that most reasonable people believe that the attacks on her and the office she holds have gone way too far.

There’s is only one way up from here.