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Why Young Women Are Worried About Aspiring To Politics

We need to work harder to set an example that women can and should be able to lead.

18/10/2017 11:08 AM AEDT | Updated 18/10/2017 11:08 AM AEDT

Today, all over the country, girls are sitting their high school exams -- studying like crazy, reaching for that final score that will determine their future. They're dreaming of becoming doctors and teachers and business leaders and politicians. There should be nothing holding them back.

Unfortunately, there are a few other scores that seem to be affecting the future girls get to create.

Sixty-two percent. That's the number of young women aged 18-25 who think it is harder for women to become politicians in Australia.

Seventy-seven percent. The number of young women who believe it would be easier for women to get ahead if they weren't judged on their looks over their abilities.

Forty-one percent. The number of young women who say their desire to start a family is a barrier to entering politics. Only 11 percent of young men feel the same.

The schoolgirls who are today preparing for their final exams will have retired by the time women have equal representation in parliaments around the world. The slow crawl towards 50/50 equality is projected to take another 50 years.

Every girl whose potential we waste, and whose ambition we crush, is a cry for urgent action.

In Australia, women hold less than a third of seats in parliament. As of January this year, there were 49 countries doing better than us, from Mozambique to Mexico, Sweden to Senegal, Nicaragua to New Zealand.

In a new report released today, Plan International has found that this has a profound effect on young women's confidence to enter political life. They notice that women are still a minority in parliament.

More than half perceive that female politicians are talked over more than their male colleagues. And two-thirds (57 percent) say women in politics are scrutinised unfairly by the media, for everything from what they wear to whether or not they have children.

It's been five years almost to the day since our first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, courageously stood in the Senate and delivered an incredible speech calling out misogyny in Australian politics. How much has changed since then?

When you consider how women in politics are still the target of snide remarks, how a Prime Minister can be called a 'witch' or a Senator hissed at simply for stating her opinion -- and all of this discriminatory behaviour in the public forum of the Parliament -- it's no wonder young women are put off by a life of politics.

Girls are observing these harsh realities during the very years when they are forming their future aspirations. The result is shocking: more than a third of all young women in Australia believe their gender is the biggest thing holding them back from becoming leaders.

We've come a long way towards gender equality in Australia in recent decades. The first senator to breastfeed in Parliament made front page news around the world earlier this year. Parties are working towards gender balance and some have already reached parity.

As a nation, we are even offering leadership on the issue internationally, with the Foreign Minister prioritising gender equality and women's empowerment in our aid and foreign policy.

But as long as we still have girls believing that their gender will make it more difficult for them to get into politics, or that they'll be treated more harshly when they get there, we need to work harder to set an example that women can and should be able to lead.

There are those who say it doesn't matter if women don't have equal representation. Evidence from all over the world shows that it does.

Since the introduction of 50/50 quotas, Rwanda now has the world's highest proportion of female parliamentarians which has led to new laws protecting children from violence and allowing women to inherit land. In India, research has found 62 percent more drinking water projects in areas with women-led councils, along with lower levels of corruption. These things benefit not only women, but everyone.

We can't afford to keep sitting on the sidelines waiting for things to get better 50 years from now. Every girl whose potential we waste, and whose ambition we crush, is a cry for urgent action.

Girls have told us that they've been steered away from politics, advised to choose jobs 'more suitable to their gender'. That's actually a quote from one girl's career adviser at school. For girls who are also marginalised on the basis of their sexuality or religion, their experiences of gender inequality can be even more pronounced.

That's why today, Plan International Australia is supporting 17 remarkable young women to step into the shoes of MPs and Senators for the day, to break down barriers and demonstrate that young women belong in Parliament House.

We've spoken to young women and men all over the country, and they've laid down a challenge. Let's get ready for Australia's first Gender Equal Election, and demonstrate to girls that women in politics can be treated better. Not in 50 years, not next decade, but now.

It isn't that difficult. Australian girls are urging political parties to step up, enforce 50/50 targets and ensure women are pre-selected to stand in winnable seats. They are calling for a federal ban on sexist reporting, to ensure political commentary doesn't focus disproportionately on women's fashion choices or family life.

And finally, they want parliament -- and all employers -- to review and extend flexible working arrangements for all parents, so that no one is deterred from leadership just because they want to start a family.

To the girls sitting their exams and preparing for their futures, this says, of course you can lead. Of course you can change the world. Of course we won't stand in your way. Gender equality should be this simple.

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