Zero Percent Of Girls Want To Enter Politics. Here's Why.

There is an age-old tactic to make a woman feel like she doesn’t fit in a man’s world.

If you want to diminish us, simply reduce us to our bodies and our sex lives. Shame us until we no longer feel like we belong.

What Senator Leyonhjelm said to Senator Hanson-Young isn’t anything new. It’s just one more insult to throw on the pile of personal barbs hurled at capable young women in an attempt to embarrass them out of places of power.

Our Parliament has always been, and remains, a deeply sexist place. And in many ways, it remains a place where some Australians feel women have no right to be. Unfortunately, that’s one very big reason why young women are turning off a life in politics. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

When Plan International Australia surveyed more than 2000 Australian girls and young women on the subject of leadership, just two percent of girls aged 10-14 listed politics as a potential career option, rising to five percent for girls 15-17. And then as girls hit adulthood, that figure dropped to zero percent.

Zero.

There’s a saying that you can only be what you can see. So when all young women see is how smart, ambitious, strong female politicians are treated poorly by their colleagues and the tsunami of rage-fuelled online abuse they cop daily from ubiquitous faceless outraged blokes: is it surprising?

But is this really what’s going on? To test our assumptions, we asked young women who have considered a career in politics to tell us what’s holding them back.

Edie, aged 19, told us:

I want to go into politics in future. But the comments from concerned parents and friends are endless. Is that really a place you want to be as a woman? Do you think you could handle it? What if you want to have kids? I was a primary school age kid when Julia Gillard was elected and I watched the way she was treated. It made me believe that a career in politics would mean sacrificing my happiness and mental health for my career and I still believe that to be true.”

Edie said she considered going into politics but thought it would mean sacrificing her happiness and mental health for her career. (Source: Supplied)

Sixteen-year-old Lauren said she felt ‘dismay’ about the way female politicians are treated:

"I get told by my extended family I should be a politician all the time and I’ve definitely considered it. But I feel pretty dismayed about the way female politicians are treated and the pettiness of it all. I think male politicians need to continue to be called out on problematic, gender-based rhetoric.”

Alice, 21, added:

"I have quite seriously thought about becoming a politician. But every time I consider it, I think about being subjected to the awful sexism. My gender is probably my biggest reason why I have reconsidered going into politics, not because I think I'm unable, but because my gender will be used against me. I think [sexism in politics] is completely unacceptable. It tells people that undermining, sexualising and belittling women is okay because politicians are doing it.”

So it is true then. Why would any promising young woman want to put her reputation on the line when there are literally hundreds of other professions where you can be guaranteed a basic level of respect?

These sentiments echo the findings of our She Can Lead: Young people in Australia share their views on politics report.

One in three young women said their gender was a barrier to enter politics. Only one in 20 men said this was the case for them.

More than half of young women aged 18-25 we surveyed (56 percent) thought female politicians were treated unfairly by their male colleagues. Only one in three young men thought this was the case. We saw a similar disparity in opinion when we asked the same question about the media.

Statement Men Women
My gender is a barrier to a career in politics 4% 35%
Female politicians are treated unfairly by male politicians 36% 56%
Female politicians are treated unfairly by the media 31% 57%
Female politicians are talked over more than male politicians are 27% 52%
Political parties should do more to increase female representation 42% 63%
There are not enough opportunities for me to enter politics 26% 45%
It is harder for women to become politicians than it is for men 45% 62%
Wanting to start a family is a barrier to a career in politics 11% 41%
Women should focus on family life before political life 26% 13%

Interestingly, almost half (41 percent) of the young women we surveyed said starting a family was a hurdle for them, compared to only one in 10 men. One in four young men thought women should focus on family before politics.

But why can’t we do both? Just over 2000 kilometres east of Canberra, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden is proving that you can be a mother and lead a country too. Ms Arden, the youngest elected head of state in the world currently, rarely encounters the type of shameful sexism we see in our Parliament. So why are we so different?

Consider Julia Gillard.

I can’t think of any other workplace where the boss would be expected to just put up with being called a ‘witch’, a ‘bitch’, constant innuendo, snide jokes, insensitive and totally irrelevant comments on her childlessness, secret cartoons, private Facebook groups set up to humiliate her. All of these things would be considered bullying or sexual harassment. And at a scale that certainly no male Prime Minister has ever had to endure.

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks at the "Let Girls Learn" Global Conversation on September 29, 2015 in New York. (Image: Monica Schipper/FilmMagic)

Whilst there will always be spirited debate in the public arena on issues that are hugely important, this defaulting to personal and often sexist attacks under the guise of Parliamentary privilege and free speech is simply not good enough.

We seem to forget that the Parliament is a workplace, too. And we must do better.

So thank goodness we’re having this national conversation now. No matter what political party you support, the fact is that what Sarah Hanson-Young is doing now is for all the girls who will come after her. It sends a message that, as a community, our standards are changing to a point where sexism is no longer acceptable, anywhere.

Ultimately, no matter what the outcome, we hope it will inspire the next generation of girls look at the benches in Parliament and the red seats in the Senate and think: there is a place for me here.