Changing Characteristics of Women on Local Government Councils in Australia: 1982 - 1993

Article excerpt

Between 1982 and 1993 the number of women serving on local government councils, the political arena in which women have been most successful, more than doubled. Data from two Australia wide surveys, one in 1982, the other in 1993, indicate that in the period between the two studies there were also some significant changes in the characteristics of women entering local government, with the 1993 respondents better educated and more likely to be in the paid workforce than their earlier counterparts. Some aspects of the commonly held stereotype of female councillors as middle aged, middle class housewives with adult children are challenged by these data, particularly with respect to workforce participation. While this indicates that female councillors are in some ways more heterogeneous than the stereotype suggests, their characteristics remain unrepresentative of those of many women in the community.

This paper attempts to provide a picture of women who serve on local government councils, drawing on survey data collected Australia wide in 1982 and 1993. It examines the extent to which the characteristics of female councillors have changed over the period between the two surveys and the extent to which these women conform to the commonly held stereotype of women in local government, and considers the relevance of this to the issue of representation.

The last decade has seen a significant increase in the number of women in local government in Australia but our knowledge of women councillors remains limited. Local government is an area which, as Neylan and Tucker note, receives little attention from "mainstream political scientists and analysts" (1996, p. 131), and the burgeoning interest in women in politics in this country has largely passed it by. What research there has been in this area is patchy at best. Consequently we know little about women in local government, Australia wide, beyond the fact that their numbers are increasing(1).

There are several reasons why the proportion of local government membership which is made up of women, while still far from equal to that of men, is higher than is the case in either state or federal parliament. Not the least of these is local government's low status in the political pecking order and its perceived suitability for women, in terms of both its proximity to their place of residence and the focus of its concerns. In 1973 Encel et al. (1973, p.259), writing on the position of women in Australian society, noted that local government was particularly suited to women because:

   Many of the difficulties attaching to State and Federal politics do not
   apply at this level. Competition for entry into local politics is not
   great, and the general standard of membership is poor. It is relatively
   cheap and easy to run for office; the duties can be fitted into ordinary
   family life; the concerns of local government are predominantly of a
   `domestic' character; there are few paid aldermen and few perquisites; and
   party affiliation is much less important than at other levels.

Although in Encel and Campbell's updated version of this book the second sentence in the above quotation has been deleted (1991, p.277), the essential argument remains. Similar explanations are put forward by Neylan and Tucker (1996).

Despite this somewhat unflattering view, female participation in local government is important because, as Hollis has noted, local government `touches the lives of women in at least three ways. It employs women; it provides services for women; and it is a place of political power and public advancement for women' (1987, pp.470-1). Hollis is commenting on the United Kingdom but this is also the case in Australia. Local government is also the political arena in which women have been and continue to be most equitably represented, and for a number of women it has provided a launching pad to state parliaments and, to a lesser extent, federal parliament(2). …