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Walking out of school and into parliament

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At a time when the role and respect of women in our federal parliament is under the spotlight, Canberra Girls Grammar School is taking the political gender imbalance into its own hands.

On International Women’s Day in March, the school launched its Women in Politics and Government program, which is aptly named ‘The House’.

The program unashamedly places girls in the pipeline for a career in politics or government. According to principal Anna Owen, “seeking power, and pursuing a seat at the table is courageous, but equally is a moral imperative. Who better than the Girls’ School up the hill from Parliament House to lead the program?”

The House seeks to specifically equip students with a range of skills required to follow a career in politics or government, allowing them to move down Melbourne Avenue and into the chambers of parliament.

One of its current Year 12 student Jaimie Noonan is leading a charge to gain community support for a statue of the only female Prime Minister in the history of Australia, Julia Gillard.

Canberra Girls Grammar School student Jaimie Noonan.

As she notes in her video pitch, just three percent statues in Australia honour non-fictional non-royal women. In fact, there are more statues of animals in Australia than women.

Jaimie believes Canberra needs a statue of Julia Gillard to highlight her history-making first-female Australian prime ministership. And to do so, she stands in front of statues of Prime Minister John Curtin and Treasurer Ben Chifley, neither of whom broke the glass ceiling.

Jaimie and her classmates believe gender equality in political representation is an urgent issue.

UN Women notes that currently, worldwide, just 25 percent of national parliament and 36 percent of local government positions are held by women. Only 21 per cent of ministers are women.

Without intervention, and projecting from current trends, parity in parliamentary places held will not be achieved before 2063, while women holding an equal number of Head of State positions will possibly be attained by 2150.

The House program, which is inclusive of CGGS students from Years 6–12, seeks to effectively prepare students for potential public life, through a combination of subject-based learning, experiential learning beyond the classroom and engagement beyond the school gates. Guided by a team of educators, mentors and professionals, the students actively participate in developing the program.

The program emerged more than 10 years ago, when the then CGGS Debating and Public Speaking (DPS) Captain, Georgia Lourandos, provided the catalyst for the birth of The House.

She framed leadership as being about enabling every member of her team to be the best debater and/or public speaker they could be. She also mentored a successor who carried on the vision. DPS has subsequently doubled in size to over 10 percent of the student body and is now an established forum for leadership training.

Jaimie Noonan and Anna Owen.

In 2018, a group of CGGS Year 9 girls discovered the work of Marion Mahony Griffin and were astonished that not only had they never heard of her influential work in the design of the city of Canberra but that there was no public recognition of Marion’s integral work.

Over the course of two years, the girls worked closely with multiple mentors and organisations including the National Capital Authority to improve public recognition of her role.

Ms Owen said that the DPS program had been incubating an idea that “young women could and should make a difference in politics. We are now articulating this idea and becoming a training ground for those who will lead change for an equitable and sustainable future through political leadership”.

She noted that this year’s unfolding political narrative surrounding Brittany Higgins’ allegations, has given gender in politics a redefined focus.

“Clearly more is needed than quotas, if quotas are indeed the answer. Women need to be prepared to handle the environment, as well as be equipped to change it,” she said.

While the program was still in fluid development because students were taking a lead in its evolution, Ms Owen said a success indicator would be “when the program’s name, The House: Women in Politics and Government, falls away and it is simply known as The House: Politics and Government.”

Photography: David Beach

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