Australian first research highlights unique experience of women councillors

Friday, 8 March 2024

“I’ve got to work out a way that I have the life balance to run again” – next phase of Australian-first research into women’s longevity in local government to be launched this week.

The Victorian Local Governance Association (VLGA) is an industry partner working with researchers to present Australian-first, internationally published and peer-reviewed research to shine a light on the unique experiences of women councillors in local government.

Part of a multi-year Australian Research Council (ARC) partnership agreement between the VLGA, La Trobe University and Melbourne University, this research has followed women and men councillors across their 2020-2024 term, assessing their trajectories, their representation and barriers to success and longevity in local government.

Over the past four years, the research has listened to the family demands, role strain and experiences with trolling and harassment of councillors, as well as their overall satisfaction with the elected official role. A number of research articles have been produced on this research to date, with The Missing Cohort: Women in Local Government highlighting a lack of engagement by younger women in local politics, and From Online Trolls to ‘Slut Shaming’ which identified women councillors are experiencing a range of gender-based harassment and incivilities at significantly higher rates than their male counterparts.

This latest report, Breaking Barriers, focuses on in-depth interviews with women councillors across regional and metropolitan Victoria, to better understand women’s experiences and barriers to participation across a range of local government settings.

The research shows women in local government are burning-out as they try to juggle the demands of work, family and politics. This strain is making it hard to close the gender gap within local councils as women are choosing not to recontest nor stand for an elected position, as the needs of their family outweigh those of the time needed to engage in local politics.

This fourth and final year of the project will align with local government elections in October. The time is now for the Victorian government to adopt the research recommendations and invest in specific and targeted resources for women councillors, if there is to be a significant influence on the state government’s target of hitting 50-50 gender representation at a local level by 2025.

The report will be formally launched by Professors Andrea Carson and Leah Ruppanner on 6 March at the Lyceum Club in Melbourne, hosted by the VLGA and ALGWA Victoria and chaired by gender equality champion and Co-Founder and CEO of Gender Lens Australia, Tanja Kovac. Commissioner Dr Niki Vincent will attend the launch, alongside a number of Councillors and supporters from across the local government sector.

Quotes attributed to Kathryn Arndt, CEO of Victorian Local Governance Association

“The VLGA is proud to be a part of this Australian first research which carefully listens to our women councillors and uses their lived experiences to form considered recommendations that improve the working lives of women across our sector.”

“The research shows, if we want to see women succeed in these essential roles, they must have appropriate support mechanisms and funded programs in place to guide them through the pathways to local office.”

Quote attributed to Professor Andrea Carson, La Trobe University

“Women’s representation in all levels of government is critical. Decades of research shows we can create a more equal society that benefits us all if we have more equal parliaments. What we need now is fresh thinking and policies from the Victorian Government that deliver women the resources they need to be empowered and engaged in their elected roles.”

Quote attributed to Cr Kylie Spears, President, Australian Local Government Women’s Association

“Women bring unique strengths to politics, yet are underrepresented across all local, state and federal Australian governments. This research shows we need a cultural shift to support women to stay in their elected roles, namely practical additional resources like childcare and flexible meeting times, which recognise the distinctive demands impacting women.”

Quote attributed to Commissioner, Commission for Gender Equality in the Public Sector, Dr Niki Vincent

“Tailored initiatives that empower women to engage in local government are vital if we are to see women step forward for election who are representative of our diverse communities. We must be promoting and championing local council activities that support women’s participation in local government.”