The Sydney Morning Herald
By Melissa Grah-McIntosh
Amid all the debate over gender ratios in politics, sometimes real figures can tell a story more powerfully than rhetoric.
The World Economic Forum released the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report last week and it shows that while Australia ranks first out of 136 for gender equality in education, we are at a dismal number 43 for political empowerment, even with a female PM for the past three years.
These are pretty cringeworthy findings. Perhaps we should be even more embarrassed that the report found Australia to be completely outranked by the countries we most relate to – the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, which just dips out of the top 10 into 12th place.
The WEF measures political empowerment by looking at the number of women making political decisions at the highest levels, and it brings us back to the fact we now have only one female politician in the federal cabinet.
But this isn't an issue for the Coalition alone and it's a concern at all levels of politics. It's a problem we need to address with perspective and practical solutions.
Whether it is politics or business, it's hard to expect women to magically appear in the cabinet or at the board table if you haven't developed a talented pool of frontbenchers or chief executives to choose from.
Women need to have been given the support and opportunity necessary to reach their career goals, and at a basic level the political sphere and workplace requires a positive culture that attracts the best female talent.
One of our country's most experienced female politicians, Marie Ficarra, parliamentary secretary to the NSW Premier, says that in politics women are faced with barriers before they even enter Parliament.
“It became clear to me early in my career within politics - which I was able to contrast with many intervening years in the private sector - that Australian political life and the party structures are challenging for both genders, but particularly women where no quota system operates, such as in the Liberal and National party preselection processes.''
It's not an excuse, says Ficarra, but “for a necessary critical mass of women MPs for political leaders to choose from, we must take the issue of attracting capable women into politics seriously in the first place”.
If there was a focus on encouraging women to become local MPs, with mentoring and support strategies for when things get tough in parliamentary secretary and ministerial positions, we may be able to keep more women in politics and build consistent gender balance at the top.
There's no question that women need support to get into, build and then sustain a political career. In 1999, Jackie Kelly was the first woman to have a baby while serving as a federal government minister, and it was huge deal.
It was said at the time there were big issues that needed to be addressed to support female politicians who had children.
Has much changed in the 14 years since the first ministerial baby? Perhaps the answer is in the fact that after 10 years in federal government, Jackie Kelly left politics to spend more time with her two children.
In the US, as the hours closed in on the debt ceiling crisis, a team of bipartisan politicians banded together under the umbrella of compromise to come up with a plan that would end the government shutdown and halt the wheels that were turning towards a failure of the world's largest economy.
Who was in this remarkable group of people who masterminded the solution? Spearheaded by Republican senator Susan Collins, the team included a handful of both Republican and Democrat female colleagues who threw away the finger-pointing politics and dug deep to work out a plan.
“In the hours that followed, those discussions attracted more senators, including some men, and yielded a plan that would lead to genuine talks between Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell to end the shutdown.”
It is a pretty amazing story; a group of women joining forces from both sides of politics to prevent a catastrophe.
But this isn't a one-off showing of collaborative spirit in the face of potential disaster, the coming together on common grounds happens quite often among the 20 female senators.
The group has been working on building relationships over many years with dinners, mentoring and the sharing of celebrations.
Nevertheless, at number 60, the US ranks even lower than Australia for political empowerment in the 2013 WEF Global Gender Report.
Solutions may be emerging, but there remains a lot to be done on both sides of the Pacific.
Politics will always be a tough and competitive endeavour for anyone wherever they are, but there is no reason why female politicians shouldn't be able to engage in successful careers in a culture that values the integration of work and family. That would be to everyone's benefit.
Melissa Grah-McIntosh is director of the Women in Leadership project for the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
Jay Newton-Small will present at the Public Knowledge Forum hosted by the centre at the Sydney Opera House on November 3-4.
This article originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald online.