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Does gender matter in politics?

Renee Toy

As a woman, would my gender matter if I entered into politics? If so, why does it matter?

Upon leaving her role as the nation’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard said:

“The reaction to being the first female Prime Minister does not explain everything about my Prime Ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my Prime Ministership…

“What I am absolutely confident of is it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that and I’m proud of that.”

So just what does it mean to be a woman in politics today? I asked the ACT Minister for Women, Joy Burch, for her thoughts, including what it means to represent women’s issues in Canberra.

Do you think women are unfairly scrutinised in politics, whether for their dress, look or otherwise?

In the ACT we have been fortunate that we have had three female Chief Ministers and women have consistently been well-represented in the Legislative Assembly, so I think the debate has moved on here in Canberra and we are able to debate on policy and issues of substance.  I am confident and hopeful that with time we will reach a similar stage in national politics.

In the meantime, as a community we have a responsibility to ensure that we do not discourage young women from entering a career in politics for fear that they will be unfairly judged because of their gender, because ultimately that is a bad outcome for a representative democracy.

Putting aside your ministerial responsibility for representing women’s issues, do you feel a personal responsibility to give a voice to women? 

Over my life I have met a number of extraordinary people, extraordinary women, who have defied the odds and fought the hard challenges life has thrown their way.

As a former nurse, I have seen firsthand the unique health needs of women and have had the opportunity to work with people with disabilities. I have lived and worked in the Northern Territory where I witnessed the daily struggles faced by families in isolated communities. I have also owned and operated a childcare centre in the Snowy Mountains when I had small children, so I understand the challenges that working mothers face.

My most important work has always been, and will continue to be, helping my community. It is a special responsibility and a great honour to be able to give a voice to those who need it.

What are the current issues you see as important to women in the ACT?

In my capacity of Minister for Women I am exposed to a whole range of issues, concerns and achievements which relate to Canberra women.

I am proud that female participation in the ACT labour force is 68.6 per cent, compared to the national average of 58.7 per cent, and as of November 2012 the unemployment rate of women in the ACT sat at 3.7 per cent, which is also significantly below the national average of 4.9 per cent.

Although ACT women achieve well professionally and financially, we know this is simply not true for all Canberra women. We know many Canberra women face significant challenges. Financial empowerment and understanding, promoting women in non-traditional trades and addressing violence against women are still priority areas for me and the ACT Government.

One in three Australian women has experienced physical violence from the age of 15 and gendered violence knows no financial, cultural or racial boundaries. As such I am proud to have launched the ACT Prevention of Violence against Women and Children Strategy 2011-2017 which makes it very clear that violence against women is unacceptable, and that its prevention is a whole-of-community responsibility.

We also know that compared to men, women are less financially secure in their retirement and are less confident in planning for their financial future. We also know that financial independence can be one of the many keys which help women escape a violent relationship. As such the ACT Government has provided funding to key community organisations to roll out women’s financial literacy programs and to develop comprehensive, long-term and accessible financial information.

Another priority for me is to facilitate and promote women’s participation in the building and construction industry, where they remain significantly under-represented. To this end, last year I launched the ACT Government’s Women in Construction project, which will bring together a female project manager, female architect and tradeswomen and women working in the industry to meet, support one another and form networks. Located on a site at an existing Housing ACT property in Richardson that has recently become vacant, this property has been identified for development as part of our normal renewal of housing stock and will be specially modified to house people with or a person with a disability.

Renee Toy

Although her natural habitat is as close to a beach as possible, Renee Toy has embraced life in Canberra with her husband and one very energetic Jack Russell Terrier. Likes taking said puppy for a walk (or rather the puppy likes taking her for a walk), and enjoying a coffee in the sunshine. Tricks of her trade include journalism and law. Tweets sporadically @reneeltoy More about the Author

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