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MAV Opinion Editorial - An invitation to women: Stand for council, stand for community, stand for change

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For women’s voices to be heard, they must be represented in every part of society, up to the highest levels of power.

It starts at the layer of government closest to the community. It is important our Councils reflect the communities they serve.

Fifty-one per cent of Victorians are women but only 38 per cent of Victorian councillors are women and there are 13 Victorian Councils with just one woman councillor including Colac-Otway, Hindmarsh, Mansfield, Moorabool, Moyne, Pyrenees, Queenscliffe, Towong, Wangaratta and West Wimmera. Under-representation can result in a deficit of decision making, skills and ultimately democracy.

To meet the Victorian Government’s target of gender equality in local government by 2025, we need to create systemic and sustainable change, starting with a diverse and balanced council. With four years between council elections, we must act now.

Victorian council elections are scheduled for October. To all women who have the drive, motivation and leadership attributes to make a difference, I ask you to stand up and stand for council.

2020 marks 100 years since Mary Rogers, trailblazed a path as Victoria’s first female councillor. Mary’s legacy as a community leader is extraordinary. She rose from being a cleaner to support her family, to become politically active, working tirelessly to improve community welfare. Mary was someone with 'force of character, devotion to principle, and great organising ability'. If you want to see how you can make a difference as a councillor, look at Mary.

You may think, ‘I’d like to do this, but I don’t have the right skills or experience’. But I say to you, ‘yes you do, look at your everyday life’. Do you run a business or farm, been president of a school council, kindergarten or neighbourhood House, worked in healthcare or education, coached, managed an arts venue? Then you have the transferrable dynamic entrepreneurial skills we need. Councils are also businesses, they develop strategy, manage budgets, infrastructure and services, run community and local business programs and influence policy – your formal business skills and education are also relevant and valuable.

Woman are also the main users of council services and bring that perspective and life experiences to enable councils to respond to changing community needs.

Above all, we need women who, like Mary, have strength character, devotion to principle, and commitment to community to lead councils into the future.

Research shows when women stand for council they are as likely as men to be elected. In fact, at the 2016 council elections 34 per cent of the candidates were women, meaning women were more likely to be elected.

Often women do not stand. A 2017 report from the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation (PDF - 4.2MB) outlines barriers like unconscious bias, workplaces that are not welcoming or friendly, perception of what women’s work is, recruitment processes stacked against them, and women thinking they do not have the ambition or desire to lead. I am not denying it can be difficult.

If diverse and inclusive organisations make better decisions for their business and their people, it follows that diverse and inclusive councils will make better decisions for their communities. Local governments make decisions everyday that affect the lives of all people. OECD stats show ‘an increase of women in public life results in lower levels of inequality’.

This issue is close to my heart. Earlier this year, I completed a Churchill Fellowship to improve gender equality in local government by increasing the number of elected women councillors. I travelled across the world to see how other countries were getting women in local government.

I found some places invest heavily in finding women to stand and equip them with the tools to stand. This is “fixing” women but it works best when it is ongoing. However, these programs will not achieve parity alone. There also needs structural and culture change. We need leadership to affect cultural change so more women feel comfortable to put up their hands. Justin Trudeau’s balanced Cabinet is a great example of this and the Canadian government’s support for women’s programs has led to a huge shift in Canada

But equality is not about taking away from men, it’s about balance, equal representation and richness of thought and action. I know so many hard-working male councillors.

Some women thinking of nominating this year might also say COVID-19 has made it too difficult. To those women, I would say: This is also why we need you. To help lead our communities out of crisis and into a bright future.

Be the change you want to see. Join us.

Coral Ross
MAV President