Your community needs you: Why more rural women should run for local government
By Kat Vella
When women run for public office, they get elected. The bad news is, not enough are running, especially in the regions. Is it time more women stepped up to represent their local communities?
CEO of Women for Election Australia, Licia Heath, says absolutely.
“Your community needs you at that table,” Licia said.
“The worst that can happen is that you lose. I lost and it didn’t kill me. It’s absolutely the worst thing that can happen.”
Licia ran as an independent in the Wentworth By-Election in 2018 after Malcolm Turnbull’s resignation and she says, while she didn’t win, the experience was very worthwhile.
"It was one of the most positive experiences of my life," she said.
“It was basically the exact opposite of what 99 per cent of people told me it would be like.
“People would say, don’t do it: people will go through your garbage, or they will find where your kids go to school, and they’ll be harassed. All those narratives that say it’s so toxic and why would you want to be involved…these are deliberate to keep women out.”
And it seems to be working.
In NSW, women make up less than 30 per cent of councillors and in the regions, it's worse, with some councils not having even a single female representative. Licia says, for the benefit of communities, this needs to change.
“When you have diverse experience at the table, the ability to cater to your community needs is massively amplified and the benefactor is the community,” she said.
It’s vital to understand how having greater gender diversity in government brings broader lived experience to the decision-making table, Licia explained, and that can only be good for a community.
“If you have 10 councillors, men, all between the ages of 48 and 68 then it is likely their experience is quite homogenous. Homogenous experience equals homogenous outcomes,” she said.
Despite what many women have been led to believe, they are already very qualified to be an effective public official as they are more likely to be directly engaged with their communities. They are on school boards and the ‘P&Cs’. They are the ones sourcing childcare or aged care for children and loved ones. They are the ones who notice changes in their communities with housing, accessibility, mental health, education and health care because it directly affects them and their families. But most importantly, they are the ones trying to do something about it through volunteer networks, community service organisations or fundraising initiatives.
All these skills are highly transferable to a local councillor role, Licia says.
However, this could be part of what’s holding women back.
“Women are already doing nine-tenths of what a good council representative should be doing: being out in the community, seeing what needs to be improved and then going about trying to improve it. That is the role of a councillor,” she said.
“This is all noble work, but jeez it keeps us busy!
“We just need women to pivot from that thinking to ‘I am going to get a seat at the decision-making table where I can have a greater impact.”
So why aren’t more women running?
“We understand the barriers as to why women in general may not run, whether that’s caring responsibilities or lack of cash, but women are still standing up in the suburbs and in the metro fringe… But the number of women actually standing in the regions is so starkly different and I don’t understand why."
A study conducted by La Trobe and Melbourne Universities into the 2020 Victorian local government elections found that women are more likely to have responsibilities that keep them from getting on the ballot in the first place.
The study surveyed candidates, of which 60 per cent were men and 40 per cent women, as to their motivations for running and their current work and life responsibilities. They found that women were more likely to have caring responsibilities than men and more likely to be engaged in fewer hours of paid work. They also found more men aged 30 or younger ran, whereas young women waited until later in life.
This does not explain the disparity between the metro areas and the regions, however, where only 38 per cent of candidates were women.
“We understand the barriers as to why women in general may not run, whether that’s caring responsibilities or lack of cash, but women are still standing up in the suburbs and in the metro fringe… But the number of women actually standing in the regions is so starkly different and I don’t understand why,” Licia said.
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The good news is, the study concluded that women had much more success than men when it came to getting elected. Of the 813 women (just under 40 per cent) that ran in the October, 2020 elections, 44 per cent of them now hold seats in local government. By contrast, 60 per cent of the candidates were men and only 55 per cent were elected.
At the very least Licia says, consider what you running might mean to the people watching, especially the women in your community.
“It’s fantastic for your children to see you run, it’s fantastic for other young women to see you run. You have no idea what fire you might start in somebody else’s belly," she said.
There are many resources people can access to help prepare their campaign, including Women for Election’s EQUIP seminar held online in September.
The EQUIP program consists of two, intensive webinars, held over two weeks. The course is limited to 20 people so register now to secure a spot.
There are also free resources through the Office of Local Government website, through Local Government, NSW, Women for Election, Australia or the Australian Local Government Women’s Association.