Women in politics

Australia was one of the first nations to begin the process of enfranchising women, but we now lag well behind international benchmarks for gender equality such as the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index with our collective failure to extend gender equality into the parliamentary workplace.

Why do women remain under-represented in politics? How can we improve the representation of women in leadership positions? Rather than gender equality being about fixing women, it is instead about fixing the gendered structures in our society that oppress women. We need to change the culture.

The glass cliff

With Professor Alex Haslam, our inaugural Director, Professor Michelle Ryan, uncovered the phenomenon of the glass cliff. The glass cliff is a pattern whereby women achieve success and attain leadership positions in times of crisis or where their position is precarious –that is, women are allowed to step in when men aren’t interested. While political parties are publicising their efforts to increase the number of women candidates they put forward, we need to look at whether these candidates are simply stepping into seats that males aren’t interested in, or if they will genuinely increase the diversity of our Parliament.

Recent GIWL research found that women candidates were running in unwinnable seats in the 2022 federal election. Whilst increasing the number of female candidates they put forward at each election is important, it is equally important to make sure that these female candidates are running in seats they can reasonably be expected to win.

A code of conduct

GIWL recently presented a submission to the Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Standards on what should be in new codes of conduct for the Commonwealth Parliament.

Australia has been rocked by serious allegations of sexual assault and harassment that have poured out of parliament house. In February of 2021, GIWL Visiting Fellow Brittany Higgins revealed a toxic workplace culture for political staffers when she spoke about her own alleged assault. As others have come forward with their stories, we have witnessed a reckoning about sexism and misogyny in our political culture.

As part of our submission to the Jenkins’ Independent Review of Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, we stressed the importance of increasing diversity in political institutions, and particularly the representation of women in politics:

As diverse Australians we lend our voices to the pursuit of a better Parliament and a stronger democracy. We lend our voices to those who have felt abandoned by the structures and cultures of our political institutions; where gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, language, age, disability, religion, or economic status have been a source of exclusion for too long. We believe our Parliament must not merely reflect our diverse society, but lead it. We are standing up to demand change.

Research conducted by GIWL bolsters the case for the full implementation of the Jenkins’ Review’s 28 recommendations. Read more about the code of conduct:

Additional information, articles, slides and other useful resources on a Code of Conduct for Parliament can be found on the 2021 event page here.

Women's leadership in foreign affairs

International affairs has a gender problem. Despite a rise in feminist-informed foreign policy in some corners of the globe, gendered (and racialised, heteronormative, classist, and so on) power structures continue to impact women's representation internationally. In a new study, we uncover why women remain underrepresented in international affairs. 

Gender and other inequalities remain pervasive in national security. The under-representation of women, First Nations peoples and other minorities is just the tip of the iceberg. Ongoing inequalities and bias affect everything from security clearances, to pay, workforce segregation, the types of roles and opportunities available, harassment, micro-aggressions and leadership and forward decision-making. Read more here.

Taking an intersectional perspective is also important when it comes to considering how people with marginalised identities are treated in politics. Recent GIWL research looks at furthering LGBTIQ+ inclusion and rights through feminist foreign policy.

What's next?

The 2022 federal election was widely seen as a turning point for women in politics – both in the impact of their votes and the record number of women being elected to Parliament; however, a significant gap still exists in terms of diverse political representation. We believe that our government should not just reflect our society, but also lead with best practice. GIWL seeks to bridge the gap between research on women in politics and taking practical steps to increase the representation of women in political leadership positions. 

Read more GIWL research on women's political participation:


Updated:  21 November 2022/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications