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International Women’s Day: Mid West women uncover gender bias, prejudice in politics

In honour of International Women’s Day, the Guardian caught up with several local women in politics who have broken through the glass ceiling to obtain positions of power and influence.

Through no fault of their own, some say they have had to work harder than most to earn the respect of their colleagues just because of their gender. While progress has no doubt been made, they say more work must be done to demolish gender stereotypes.

Mid West women continue to excel in traditionally male-dominated industries, but some have had an easier journey to the top than others.

According to the Local Community Attitudes and Experiences of Violence Survey conducted in 2019, more than 90 per cent of Geraldton residents believe political leadership does not depend on gender and both men and women can be capable leaders.

Even so, 14 per cent of males said men made better leaders than women, with 1.5 per cent of females sharing the same view.

Former TAFE lecturer Lara Dalton has not let these attitudes hinder her political career, making history last year as Geraldton’s first female State MP.

Ms Dalton said now was an excellent time to be a female in politics, with women making up more than 50 per cent of the current caucus.

Member for Geraldton Lara Dalton.
Camera IconMember for Geraldton Lara Dalton. Credit: Supplied

“Out-of-date stereotypes regarding a ‘woman’s place’ are not at all appropriate and will not be tolerated. The culture I am lucky to be surrounded by is one of support and comradeship,” she said.

But Ms Dalton recognised there was still much to be done to close the gender gap in political empowerment, economic participation and opportunity and health.

“Our leaders, our communities and our people must recognise the disparities and take action to close the gender gap at local, State and national levels,” she said.

But her Upper House colleague Sandra Carr has seen a different side to politics, which she says remains a male-dominated space.

“The entire culture of Parliament is very ‘male’ — the hours, the language, even the chairs in the chamber are better suited to the male physique and a number of my female colleagues struggle to reach their feet to the floor,” she said.

“In terms of the everyday work I perform as a Member of Parliament, the bias is subtle, but it is there. For example, if I am in a meeting and there is a male counterpart in the room, those I am meeting with will largely address their discussion to the man in the room.”

Ms Carr said gender bias had historically “excluded, limited, and even harmed” women in the workforce.

“We only need to look to the treatment of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard to see a woman’s gender will be used against her, and there is gender discrimination at all levels of government,” she said.

Member for the Agricultural Region Sandra Carr.
Camera IconMember for the Agricultural Region Sandra Carr. Credit: Supplied

“Women can be reprimanded for behaviour that might be celebrated in a man. I find that very challenging to accept and work very hard both to challenge that and not to hold women to a less tolerant and more restricting standard.

“At times I get angry, but by and large I feel more determined. I made an undertaking in my inaugural speech to call out sexism early and I intend to keep my word on this.”

At a local government level, Liz Sudlow became the first female president for the Shire of Northampton last year. She said she and her fellow female councillors had been well-respected by the community and the council.

She was the third female to chair WA Angus, with Cr Sudlow saying those in the agricultural industry have also treated her with respect.

Cr Sudlow said it was encouraging to see more people start to call out examples of gender bias and discrimination.

“When I compare myself as a young woman with my daughters, I believe they are far less tolerant of inappropriate behaviour than I would have been. They would call it out — back then, I just ignored it,” she said.

City of Greater Geraldton councillor Natasha Colliver said she had at times been forced to fight to have her voice heard.

At the 2020 Gingin Bull Sale was WA Angus Committee chairwoman Liz Sudlow.
Camera IconShire of Northampton president Liz Sudlow. Credit: Bob Garnant/Countryman

“As a woman in a leadership position … I have experienced gender bias, both conscious and unconscious. It manifests in many ways — the struggle to be heard, to be taken seriously and to feel as valued as my male counterparts,” she said.

“I have thought about the many lost opportunities because I have been socialised to be nice to men, because I have worried more about how I make them feel, than the issue at hand.”

Cr Colliver said women had been pigeonholed as society’s “peacemaker”, a role which often carried a high personal and professional cost.

Fellow councillor Tarleah Thomas said she had been fortunate to have avoided many of Ms Colliver’s experiences with gender bias, with the former deputy mayor describing the council as a respectful institution.

She also helps manage her family’s farm outside of Mullewa, but said she had not been the victim of gender-based discrimination while working in the typically male-dominated agricultural industry.

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