Councils still a man’s world

Hedy Kirkbride

Hedy Kirkbride

Gender equality remains a prominent issue in local politics, despite significant progress being made through legislation and social change.

Since the Baw Baw Shire was established 24 years ago, the representation of gender in the political landscape has changed substantially.

Hedy Kirkbride served as a councillor for the Warragul Shire, one of the three councils which amalgamated to make Baw Baw and was one of the first women elected to a Victorian council.

“It was extremely interesting and pretty full on”, Hedy Kirkbride said.

“I didn’t know what I was signing myself up for but I was encouraged to stand by people who knew me and my views.”

“I also wanted to contribute to the community I lived in.”

“There was a particular female councillor, Marg Malick, who encouraged me as well. People said to me ‘we need someone like you on council’ because, I guess, I was fairly outspoken.”

Ms Kirkbride’s term lasted from 1989 to 1991 and during that time was instrumental in passing progressive legislation.

“The first thing I did, the very first day, I stopped councillors from smoking inside the council rooms,” she said.

“They refused to pass the motion that I put up that the rooms be smoke free. They didn’t support it but they decided out of courtesy that they would stop and they did.”

“In those days you could smoke anywhere, inside the arts centre and council offices.”

“The other thing that I did notice, very early on, was the sexist language in council minutes, agendas, which is what was happening a lot back then.”

“Some of the other councillors didn’t understand what I was on about and we hads huge discussions. I tried to change the words chairmen to chairperson, which they did. Everything also said ‘he’ there was never ‘he or she’.”

Ms Kirkbride said there was widespread sexism in the council at the time, which contributed to her work sometimes being an uphill battle.

“I remember once getting an invitation to something [which was addressed to] ‘Councillor Kirkbride and wife,’ which I found highly amusing,” she said.

“I remember having a go at one particular councillor because when we had a break, she would go and make tea for the blokes and pick up their cups and wash them. That was what women were expected to do. I was quite horrified by it.”

“There were instances where, for example, either I or Marg would raise an issue that would get voted down and then one of the men would later get it through because he raised it. They supported him and not us. Just like things sometimes, like wanting to go to a conference and they said ‘you don’t need to go’.

Following the 2012 council elections, the number of female councillors in Baw Baw dropped from four to three. Female representatives have never been a majority in Baw Baw.

According to Warragul ward councillor Mikaela Power, there had been “a campaign organised by local representative bodies to get more women elected” at that election.

“My view of local government is that there are some more spaces [avaliable] for women to be working,” Cr Power said.

“There needs to be a greater representation of women in council. It’s a generalisation but I think a lot of women are hesistant to stand. There is the mentality of ‘I can’t do all of those things so I won’t have a go.’ Most councils are stuck in a traditional mindset of an old white bloke; to go against that view is difficult.”

“We should be encouraging all sorts of people including women to have a go.”

Ms Kirkbride added: “I know there is a push in politics to have more women involved in government. I am also aware there has been a push to encourage more women on local council. It stands to reason that women should have a big representation by other women because there are issues that concern women that perhaps men don’t have that edge about.”

Although the elected representatives, headed by a female mayor, are not equal, the Baw Baw Shire’s executive team achieves a gender balance; a female CEO with two male directors and one female director.

“It’s obvious by the numbers that there are more men than women, particularly at a management level,” Cr Power said.

Both Cr Power and Ms Kirkbride said they believe the societal expectation associated with gender is one of the main factors, contributing to the gender imbalance in elected officials.

“People could aruge there are reasons for this difference. Traditionally women had [a greater amount of] responsibility, especially in regard to childcare and were required to childcare and were required to put their careers on hold,” Cr Power said.

“Women with more than one child find it hard to maintain one child find it hard to maintain their career because of kids in child care.”

Ms Kirkbride said “it’s not easy.”

“We had little primary school aged kids; I couldn’t have done it without the support of my husband,” she said.

“Some days I would go to a breakfast meeting, a lunchtime meeting and an evening council meeting. I was on thirteen committees at one stage and so I was in and out a bit. I couldn’t go shopping without people stopping me to raise some issue. [My husband] did what had to be done; pick up the kids, cook, clean, shop. That was really good.”

Despite significant progress being made, including the implementation of the Victorian Local Government Women’s charter by the Victorian local Governance Association, there is more work to be done.

A report by the Victorian Workplace Gender Equality Agency showed that this year 29.5 per cent of councillors across the state’s 78 municipalities are female.

Less than one third of women are represented on councils in Victoria and only a fifth hold executive level positions.

Cr Power said government and industry working together was crucial for improved representation across all fields if there is to be any hope of achieving gender equality.

“The fact the gender of the newly appointed governor general is newsworthy means there is still a long way to go,” she said.

“Government and industry need to industry clear actions that will change things and develop a clear plan of attack, a plan of action. We go ‘oh it’s a problem; it’s a bit too hard.’ There is no coordinated approach.”

“For politics in general, I’m in favour of creating opportunities for women to run for leadership positions. There currently exists a 50 per cent target for women on boards, who have to go through specific election process and an election process.”

“We have been saying for the last 15 or so years we should have more women but went backwards in council elections. We need to do more.”

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