Women in politics: The suits have given way to the prams

Federal MP Maria Vamvakinou reflects on the way women in politics are viewed over her 30-year working life in Canberra

2021 has been a watershed year for Australian women. Early in the year, women marched in streets all over Australia demanding ‘enough is enough’. They demanded that the time was now for respect to be restored to the way Australia treats and acts towards women and girls, and they took it all the way to the steps of Parliament House.

Because it was Parliament House that was on notice. The place that yields the most power in Australia, the place that creates the laws and sets the standards was tarred with allegations of rape, sexual harassment and bullying.

Last week was the final sitting week of Federal Parliament; it was also the week the Jenkins report was handed down. Titled ‘Set the Standard’, the report has 28 recommendations to Government on how to create a safer and better workplace for all members and staff.

So, it begs the question, how did we get here?

Representing the Victorian seat of Calwell, Federal MP Greek-Australian Maria Vamvakinou has been in Parliament long enough to draw from experience.

“What this report has done is it has empowered people to act, without fear of reprimand, and call out bad behaviour when they see it,” she said.

“(The Jenkins report) is an important milestone as it’s marking red lines for bad behaviour and attaching consequences to them.”

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Ms Vamvakinou first entered Parliament in the late ’80s and has worked there both as a political staffer and now for the last twenty years as a Federal MP.

“It was very clear to me when I first went into Parliament that it was a male oriented place and politics was very much a boys club where bad behaviours went largely unchecked,” she said.

“There were no consequences to your actions in parliament, and even though I personally didn’t feel in any danger because of it, I definitely knew I was in the minority.”

In her first term, Ms Vamvakinou was on the Procedures Committee which was then working on changes to the gruelling Parliamentary Sitting Calendar. Back then, MPs could see themselves debating Bills in the chamber until 3am.

“At first there was a lot of push-back (to the changes) but we managed to modify the sitting hours so Parliament could adjourn at 7:30pm rather than 10pm.”

She notes that as being the difference between “being able to call your kids before bedtime, having a decent meal with friends and even being able to manage your own personal well-being by getting out for a long walk”.

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This work/life balance may be explored once again with the Jenkins report recommending the Government look at the Parliamentary Sitting Calendar and the hours members, senators and staff work as this may be contributing factor to the unsafe and unhealth working conditions at Parliament House.

Carmen Lawrence was one of the driving forces behind reform in parliamentary sittings and sitting hours showing again why it’s important for female politicians to be involved in the decision-making processes.

The change in the mindset of the time was in its infancy and it was a slow process, but it was happening Ms Vamvakinou recalls.

“The cultural changes in parliament house were part organic and part by demand – but I’m certain were happening because more women began entering politics,” Ms Vamvakinou said.

“I used to test all my male colleagues. I would ask them ‘do you know what your children are doing this this very moment?’ and most didn’t, not because they didn’t care, but because they didn’t have to.

“I knew minute by minute what my kids were doing, and I realised that was a difference of me being the female politician – it was palpable, and it was cultural as well.

“Today I delight at seeing many of my younger male colleagues feel comfortable in expressing their family values, and their concerns raising their children as a not supplementary to, rather as part of their role as parliamentarians.”

When Ms Vamvakinou entered politics, not only was there a significant lack in women, but there was a significant lack of female MPs with young children.

“We didn’t even have a crèche. The child-care centre you now see at Parliament House used to be the bar – how is that for progress?” she muses.

With the increase of women in the corridors of power, children for example became visible. Whilst reflecting on this, Ms Vamvakinou thinks back to the early days of having to navigate her time as a rookie Federal MP as well as a mother of two young children. She reflects on Christmas concerts missed, sports carnivals come and gone, school graduations, teacher parent interviews, birthday parties – the list of sacrifices are endless.

“When I came into parliament, it was a sea of grey suits. Now we see prams and babies in the chamber – the suits have given way to the prams.”

These are just some of the significant cultural changes that she has watched happened over time in her workplace for the better, but it’s not enough just having women involved, it’s diversity that also matters.

One of the key recommendations made in the Jenkins report was for the Parliament to develop gender targets and diversity targets so parliamentarians, and their staff better reflect the Australian population.

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Greek Australian MP Maria Vamvakinou is the member for Calwell. Photo: Supplied

Affirmative action in the Australian Labor Party was in place when Maria Vamvakinou was preselected, and won, the seat of Calwell in 2001.

“The Labor Party would not have the number of women today in parliament without affirmative action,” Ms Vamvakinou said of her federal and state colleagues.

And even though to this day the Liberal Party is accused of having a problem with women, they still don’t see quotas as the answer.

“Quotas are used to redress an imbalance quickly and effectively,” Ms Vamvakinou explained.

“In terms of gender, quotas have made a change in terms of prioritising policy areas such as maternity leave, childcare, homelessness, women’s health, domestic and family violence and addressing the gender pay gap.

“Quotas enable women, especially younger women, to get involved in politics by giving them an encouraging hand.”

Yet Ms Vamvakinou is quick to point out that diversity of female politicians shouldn’t just be dependent of what political side of the fence they sit on, they need to reflect the diversity of our nation.

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“If you look at the women in politics as to whether they reflect the diversity of the community, I would say at present, they don’t.

“We need cultural diversity of women, not just a diversity of ideology”.

To achieve this, political parties need to draw from culturally diverse electorates where women are front and centre working in their community.

“My experience as a female member of parliament is that the electorate is more likely to be drawn to a female candidate because they identity with them.

“They see women working in their community, they are often more likely to have jobs that are seen as trustworthy, caring, and empathetic, easier to relate to like teaching, nursing, aged care.

“They have a natural want to get involved in politics because of their community involvement.

And now, the broader community is seeing first-hand the infinite benefits of having women at the decision-making table.

With female politicians and their staff making important changes to the place, now is the time to seize the moment and build on the momentum for real change.

“I will continue to say to young women what I have always said to them –politics is by its nature tribal and adversarial, but it should no longer be an excuse to tolerating bad behaviours, nor should it be a reason for them to avoid a career in politics.

“My experience is that parliament is a creative place, where you can make meaningful change, where you can make a real difference; to have a say and have a voice and that is so important for the community you represent.

“To me that’s what politics is,” Ms Vamvakinou said matter-of-factly.

“And because of this, I will always encourage women, especially young and diverse women, to not just take a seat at the table, but grab the seat with both hands and make the changes needed so they can see themselves reflected in Australia now, and into their future.”

Maria Vamvakinou MP with then staffer Penni Pappas at the Midwinter Ball at Parliament House.