A bi-partisan research and training program for women is creating accessible pathways to local, state and federal government.
A research and training program at UNSW Law & Justice is addressing the underrepresentation of women in Australian politics. The Pathways to Politics Program for Women is a non-partisan national initiative funded by the Trawalla Foundation. The program delivers practical training and drives research-driven reforms to make political participation more accessible for women.
Addressing barriers to political participation for underrepresented groups is integral to operating more effectively as a representative democracy, says Professor Rosalind Dixon. Prof. Dixon is a global expert on comparative constitutional law, design and democracy. She designs and directs the NSW program with co-directors Lynsey Blayden (2022) and Elizabeth Perham (2021).
“The NSW program introduces participants to role models, helps foster community and support as well as developing their skills and confidence to become strong political players,” she says.
"We want to see the full diversity of New South Wales [communities] reflected in our parliaments and councils."
Professor Rosalind Dixon
The program is hosted by Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at UNSW in NSW, alongside other state and territory-based university partners, including Women’s Leadership Institute Australia, University of Melbourne, QUT and Charles Darwin University. It equips participants with the skills, knowledge, confidence and networks to run for office and thrive as political leaders.
“The program is committed to changing the face of politics,” says Sarah Buckley from the Trawalla Foundation. “We believe in the value of increasing female representation, in ensuring men and women share power, leadership and decision-making to optimise outcomes for our country.”
The NSW chapter incorporates a legal lens developing participants’ leadership skills, political vision, campaign planning, speechwriting and understanding of our constitutional system.
“[It addresses] ethics and the rule of law, integrity and the big issues of the day, including the Voice to Parliament, and how to make parliament more gender inclusive. So, it’s got a mix of reform and skills base,” says Prof. Dixon.
In 2022, the Albanese federal government became our most diverse government to date, significantly improving female representation. Women make up 38% of the House of Representatives and 57% of the Senate of the 47th Parliament – a record for both chambers.
In local government, women make up 39.5% of all councillors in NSW in 2022, an 8.5% increase on the women elected in 2016/17. In the decade prior, women represented just 27-31% of all councillors.
While there is more work to be done to achieve gender parity – women make up just over 50% of Australia’s population – representation lags even further when it comes to cultural diversity. 23% of Australians claim a non-European ancestry, but just 6.6% of federal members – 15 out of the 227 – have overseas or non-European backgrounds.
“[Diversity in parliament is important] not for diversity's sake but for what diverse politicians bring into parliament,” says Sally Sitou, the Member for Reid and alumna of the inaugural NSW program in 2022. Ms Sitou is Chinese-Australian and the daughter of refugees; her parents fled Laos because of the Vietnam war.
“You bring different experiences and perspectives, different ways of looking at the world, and that is what's going to make our parliament stronger and our democracy stronger.”
The NSW program offers identified places for equity cohorts, including First Nations people and those with CALD backgrounds, as well as people identifying as LGBTQIA+, those without a university degree, and those with disadvantaged socio-economic circumstances. Additionally, the program works in partnership with Politics in Colour, an organisation that supports people of colour progressing to politics.
“The power of seeing yourself reflected in parliament cannot be underestimated,” says Kate Sinclair, a proud Dharug woman and alumna of UNSW Bachelor of Law LLB and the 2022 Pathways program. “But representation needs to be at all levels. It’s wonderful to see the record number of Indigenous MPs elected to Federal Parliament, but at the state level – responsible for the criminal justice and out-of-home-care systems, where our mobs are gravely over-represented – NSW is significantly lagging.
“What is heartening is the Pathways to Politics program addresses this issue head on. Being part of this program and working with a truly diverse community of women – all driving for change – was both insightful and a pleasure.”
The program models a future way of working within parliament that is accessible and inclusive. “It is designed to accommodate work, and care responsibilities, and distance [through its hybrid delivery model], recognising that NSW is a big state,” Prof. Dixon says.
“We want to help participants to stretch their imagination of what they can achieve, while being compassionate about self-care and [personal] limits.”
The program reinforces mutual respect and the value in cross-partisan dialogue – for participants as well as program advisors – to make existing structures more hospitable to women, Prof. Dixon says.
It is supported by different parties and representation on its advisory group, including The Hon Courtney Houssos MLC (Labor); Ms Jenny Leong MP (The Greens); Ms Liesl Tesch AM MP (Labor); The Hon Gabrielle Upton MP (Liberal); and The Hon Leslie Williams MP (Liberal).
“[Of course,] some challenges are partisan challenges ... For example, the Labor party believe in [gender] quotas whereas the Liberal party doesn't. We try and find common ground while acknowledging differences of opinion,” Prof. Dixon says.
“But the ideal is that in 20 years, the people who are in the Parliament who've been through this kind of program together will have a really strong foundation in constructive cross- and multi-partisan working relationships.”
Professor Rosalind Dixon
While international advocates, such as Sheryl Sandberg, have championed the value in encouraging women to assert themselves at work and at home, this needs to be supported at a structural level, Prof. Dixon says. “There’s a tendency to put the onus on individual women to make change rather than on the structures to change to [better] accommodate their needs.”
To combat this, the program conducts research into and advocates for reforms to create a more inclusive government.
Care responsibilities, for example, present a significant barrier to participation in Australian politics, she says. Women undertake a disproportionate amount of caregiving responsibilities.
“Australians care deeply about the availability of high-quality, affordable childcare for themselves and their families. They should also care about how care is accommodated within the Commonwealth and state parliaments,” says Prof. Dixon.
Prof. Dixon co-authored a report with UNSW alumni Dr Kate Jackson and Dr Matthew McLeod that argues for a more family-friendly parliament to ensure it’s more accessible to those with care responsibilities. Their lobbying resulted in the Legislative Assembly delaying the start of divisions – the time when votes can be called – until 10.30am, allowing ample time for members to complete school drop-offs.
The report also calls for the removal of children from the definition of ‘strangers’ that excludes them from chambers; the alignment of the parliamentary calendar and sitting hours with childcare and school holidays; the introduction of parental leave for MPs; increased investment in childcare facilities and remote-learning for school-aged children of MPs; and more hybrid options for parliamentary hearings, such as committee hearings.
“Parliaments are unique workplaces, because of their role in democratic decision-making. And there will be times when the unpredictable demands of lengthy sitting hours and last-minute travel may be at odds with caring obligations,” says Dr Jackson.
“However, this should not be a barrier to introducing structural reforms which acknowledge and actively address the gendered shortcomings of our current parliamentary practices.”
Accommodating those with caring responsibilities is crucial to ensuring that Australia can achieve a gender equal parliament, Prof. Dixon says.
“If we're going to crack this, we have to crack it [for people caring for children] from birth to 18 [years old and] … take the view that every family is going to be different. We need to try and maximise flexibility, from parental leave all the way through,” she says.
“If we're going to have representative parliaments, if we want women to be in cabinet and to be prime minister, [then] getting in [to politics] is just the beginning.”
The NSW chapter receives interdisciplinary support from UNSW’s Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, the Australian Graduate School of Management at the UNSW Business School, the Australian Human Rights Institute, the UNSW Centre for Ideas, and the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW Arts, Design and Architecture.