27 September 2023

Take a seat: How a university program is helping women win in politics

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Liz Main* says a program run by the Melbourne School of Government is helping counteract the chronic underrepresentation of women in politics.

A university program run by the Melbourne School of Government to counteract the chronic underrepresentation of women in politics is helping women from across the political spectrum set up links with the country’s top political players.

Dr Katie Allen (pictured) said the program “absolutely” helped her win pre-selection in her Victorian Federal seat of Higgins in February.

“It provided skills and expertise I didn’t know I needed,” Dr Allen said.

“It provided a network of support that was incredibly encouraging.”

The non-partisan program is aimed at women planning to enter politics at local, State and national levels of government and offers practical training sessions as well as networking opportunities with the likes of retired Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and political commentator Annabel Crabb.

“Women say, ‘I can do that’, when they see other women have,” Dr Allen said.

It was important to create a space for women to openly talk about potential roadblocks and solutions to entering politics, she said.

“Women engage in communication slightly differently to men.”

“Sometimes it’s good to be in an environment where we can freely communicate.”

In Federal Parliament, only one-third of seats are occupied by women.

Australia lags behind other countries for female representation in national Government, ranking fiftieth in the world.

The non-partisan program was established by a partnership between the University of Melbourne, the Trawalla Foundation and the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia.

It has received 302 applications since 2016, but intake is limited to 25 spots each year.

So far 75 women have graduated from the program.

Dr Allen was the first participant to win a Federal Parliamentary seat, in the 2019 election, after completing the program in 2017.

Three other graduates, Juliana Addison, Kat Theophanous and Bridget Vallence, won seats in the 2018 Victorian Election.

Like Dr Allen, Juliana Addison said the course equipped her to win pre-selection for the seat of Wendouree in regional Victoria.

Ms Addison started the course alongside Dr Allen in July 2017 and was pre-selected in November that year.

“The timing was hand-in-hand,” said Ms Addison, who recalled her excitement on the first day of the course.

“On my very first night, I got to have dinner on a table of nine people with Quentin Bryce,” Ms Addison said.

“Literally we could ask her anything. I was inspired.”

‘Forewarned is forearmed’

Ms Addison said the program helped to counteract the networking disadvantages of living so far from a major city.

“As a woman from Ballarat … how would I ever get to have a conversation with Peta Credlin, with Cathy McGowan, with Jacqui Lambie?” she said.

“The fact that Pathways to Politics brings people from across the political spectrum is one of its greatest strengths.”

The program was helpful for “demystifying” how political parties work for those who haven’t had exposure to politics before.

“We often talk about the ‘faceless men’ and people don’t understand the process of politics,” Ms Addison said.

“Forewarned is forearmed.”

“To be prepared is half the victory.”

“If you actually know the challenges that lie ahead of you and you can prepare for those challenges, it means you are in a stronger position to be successful.”

Dr Allen said she has recommended the program to women she mentors who plan to enter the political arena.

“That’s always a great thrill,” Dr Allen said.

“I’m a huge supporter of it.”

Former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Vice-Chancellor of Queensland University of Technology, Professor Margaret Sheil launched a Queensland version of the program on 25 June, which will commence next year.

* Liz Main is a journalist for The Australian Financial Review in Melbourne.

This article first appeared at www.afr.com.

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