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What's it going to take to break the glass ceiling?

Meet two country women shining a light on how far we still have to go for gender parity in government.

Helen Dalton in Narrandera. Image supplied.

Helen Dalton expected a bit of ‘rough and tumble’ entering politics. But she always assumed that respect was a given.

“I never thought about it because I just thought everyone would be respectful. I knew you had to bare your soul a bit and you were under public scrutiny… but I didn’t expect to be called so many names,” she explains.

Mrs Dalton’s 2019 campaign saw her smash 35 years of National Party incumbency to be only the second woman to represent the electorate in its nearly 160-year history. However, she realised early on that her gender made her a perceived target in the parliamentary bubble.

“They like to strip you down,” she said, explaining how she has tolerated many offensive verbal attacks that she believes, never would have been directed at her if she were a man.

Helen Dalton is not your polished, Julie Bishop-esque, career politician. She reflects the no-nonsense attitude that she no doubt inherited from her farming family heritage. But what is clear speaking to her is the unfeigned commitment she has to regional communities.

“I hate seeing people not getting a fair deal. I think everyone should get a fair deal,” she says.

“I want to see good education, good health outcomes and I don’t want us to be disadvantaged out here.

“I’m not interested in maintaining the status quo. I want change for the better.”

However, Mrs Dalton says the odds are stacked against women getting into political representation. From working hours that are not ‘woman-friendly’, to tolerated alcohol consumption mixed with sexist behaviour and zero accountability; many women confess to her that they would not willingly sign up to be a leader for their community.

And then there are the verbal sprays she has copped.

Mrs Dalton has been called a ‘disgusting human’, ‘aggressive’, and comments on her physical appearance have been flung at her with the goal of what she believes is to remind her to stay in her ‘place’.

“I think as women, we get so used to (sexism) that we think that’s just the way life is,” she said.

“Sometimes things are done and said and I think no, we should be pulling them up on that. But I think we have been down-trodden and this has been the behaviour forever. This is not good enough.”

However is simply ‘pulling them up on it’ enough to achieve lasting, long term parity?

Wagga City Council representative Vanessa Keenan came forward in May with a statement regarding her treatment by a male councillor throughout her term.

In the statement made to her community on Facebook, she stands by her decision to attend Council meetings remotely after enduring ‘disturbing’ behaviour, inappropriate comments about her personal life and constant attacks on her character from the male colleague.

This is not about a “few bad apples” she says.

“We’ve got a culture that is accepting of this kind of behaviour.

“I think it’s starting to change and we are starting to realise that it’s not okay. But in saying that, it’s not going to change if it’s only women that are standing up to this. We really need men to stand up as well. If it’s just women, nothing is going to change.”

Councillor Keenan, like Helen Dalton are ‘firsts’: the ones that make the first cracks in the glass ceiling that limits women’s upward movement. They willingly paint targets on their backs to beam a spotlight on the gaping chasm of experience between men and women’s paths to representation.

The question is, what's it going to have to take in order to finally shatter it? What other women see, those watching from the sidelines, is that the glass ceiling seems unbreakable.

The result is that women represent less than 30 per cent of seats in local and state government nationally, and in the Riverina, it’s even worse. Of the 83 Council seats across the Murray electorate only 21 are held by women.

We need to listen to the experiences of women like Helen Dalton and Vanessa Keenan chipping away at that glass ceiling. They are showing us just how much more work still needs to be done to achieve leadership reflective of its population.

If we truly value equal gender representation, systemic and cultural change must be the priority.

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