Record number of women elected in Victorian local council elections
Surgical nurse Ashleigh Vandenberg has made history in more ways than one by becoming the first Indigenous person elected to her local Melton Council.
- Some 272 women were elected to local council, making up a record 43.8 per cent
- Election ambitions for some were thwarted by domestic duties during the pandemic
- At least six Indigenous and 28 LGBTQI+ people elected in recent elections
The Wiradjuri woman is one of at least six people who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander to gain seats in the recent Victorian local council elections.
She’s also one of 272 women to be elected, bringing women’s representation in local government up to a record 43.8 per cent — the highest in Australia.
“I feel proud and honoured to be one of the women elected to local government, and I urge more women to do what they can to be a voice for their community,” she said.
“It’s important that women are equally represented in the political arena. It helps ensure the diverse needs of the community are well understood.”
It’s a sentiment that resonates with Anjalee De Silva, who immigrated from Sri Lanka to Australia as a small child and was elected to the City of Monash Council in Melbourne’s south-east.
Cr de Silva, who ran for the Greens, said it was one of the most culturally diverse parts of the state, with 45 per cent of the population born overseas and more than a third from non-English speaking backgrounds.
“Yet only one out of 11 councillors in the last term was a person of colour,” she said.
With her election, that number has now doubled, as has women’s representation on her council, from two to four.
“I am very much looking forward to working with my fellow female councillors to achieve outcomes that support and advance the interests of the women and girls of Monash.”
Chinese immigrant Li Zhang was elected to the City of Glen Eira and said she was “pleased and excited” after hearing a record number of women were sitting in local government.
“This is definitely a good trend. Because the elected councillors should reflect the diversity of the entire population in order to represent the people,” she said.
Obstacles still exist for women in politics
It’s been exactly 100 years since Mary Rogers, the daughter of Irish immigrants, was elected as the first female councillor in Victoria, and the second in Australia.
But the new councillors point out there are still barriers to women’s involvement in local politics.
“It’s hard to believe that only a century ago Mary Rogers’s election to local government was the first of its kind and the perception of women in leadership roles was frowned upon,” said Cr Vandenberg, who ran as an independent but is a member of the Labor Party.
Ms Zhang, who also ran as an independent but is a Labor Party member, said women’s responsibilities in family life could affect their chances of participating in politics.
“Some may not be man-made [barriers], but rather deep-rooted historic issues. For example, women mainly take care of children and undertake house chores in their families. This pattern still exists in most families,” Cr Zhang said.
“Especially this year, because of the pandemic, the children are studying at home. I also heard about women who were initially planning to run for the election.
The election campaign also took an emotional toll on Cr Zhang, who said unsubstantiated allegations of links to the Chinese Communist Party — claims she denies and against which she has launched a lawsuit — led to her being cyberbullied and disheartened.
Cr de Silva, a lawyer who recently completed a PhD thesis on hate speech against women and girls, said there was still a long way to go to reach gender equality.
“It is very much the case that women in public life are often subjected to scrutiny, criticism, and attacks in ways that men in public life simply do not experience,” she said.
“Women often have to work twice as hard to receive half the praise, and they have to do so while deflecting misogyny at every turn.
“The lack of female representation at all levels of government is something that feeds off itself, and I strongly believe that women are discouraged from seeking to enter politics simply because they do not see many others like themselves who are doing it.”
Attitudes towards female leaders slowly evolving
More than 300 people were elected to council for the first time, and the State Government said in general the councillors were younger and more diverse, with at least 28 of the new councillors identifying as LGBTIQ+.
Katrina Lee-Koo, an associate professor of politics and international relations at Monash University, said such diversity was welcome.
“For too long, political leadership roles have been predominantly held by one gender, and one ethnic background,” she said.
Professor Lee-Koo said when different communities were represented, governments were more likely to deliver policies and programs that addressed their needs.
“If you grow up in a migrant or Indigenous family, for example, you have a firsthand understanding of what your community’s needs might be around everything from access to education, to participating in community activities, to employment and accessing healthcare,” she said.
“You can then bring these experiences to policy discussions and the development of programs in ways that will strengthen the council or parliament’s overall decision making.”
She said attitudes towards women’s leadership were evolving.
“I think there is still a belief among voters that men make better political leaders because they are more likely to be strong, confident, assertive, and competitive. Women, on the other hand, are seen as being ‘too emotional’ or ‘too weak’ to be leaders,” Professor Lee-Koo said.
“We are beginning to recognise that both men and women can be strong, but also our understanding of what good leadership means is slowly changing. Many people now recognise that the qualities usually associated with women — like compassion, collaboration and consultation — are important elements of leadership.”
But she said the bigger obstacle to women’s participation in politics was structural, and that communities needed to make sure it was not more difficult for women to contest elections than for men.
She said more needed to be done to support women’s political ambitions, like men doing more work at home, making political work more “family friendly”, and putting women up higher on ballots.
“Women still do more of the care labour in our society, they are also less likely to have the financial resources to spend on a political campaign, and may not have access to the same networks to support their campaigns that men do,” she said.