Failing to lead by example: How Australian politics is facilitating a culture of violence against women

The Liberal Party of Australia’s gender problem, Ella Kuskoff argues, is more related to questions about violence against women than we might like to think.

Search “women in politics” online and you will be confronted with a long list of news articles highlighting the gender inequalities that are rife in Australian politics. Although the lack of women in politics has long been an issue, these concerns have recently resurfaced with vigour. A recent succession of women making reports about bullying and sexism in the Liberal Party of Australia has led to renewed criticism of the nation’s politicians being embroiled in a self-perpetuating sexist workplace culture.

Recent comments from former foreign minister Julie Bishop sparked disapproval and debate around the level of behaviour acceptable in Australian Parliament and the inequalities experienced by women. At the Australian Women’s Weekly‘s Women of the Future Awards, Bishop drew attention to the hostile environment, saying:

It is evident that there is an acceptance of a level of behaviour in Canberra that would not be tolerated in any other workplace across Australia.

Bishop also criticised the Liberal Party for failing to attract and retain women, as well as for its unequal treatment of women in general. Amid calls to improve the representation of women in the Liberal Party, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has rejected gender quotas as a viable strategy, arguing that women are already strongly represented in the party executive. This is despite women making up less than one quarter of Liberal MPs.

Julie Bishop being sworn in as Foreign Minister by Governor-General of Australia Quentin Bryce, 18 September 2013. Image via Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The Liberal Party is not alone in its treatment of women. Between 2010 and 2013, Prime Minister Julia Gillard experienced considerable sexist attacks and misogynistic representation in the media. Feminist scholars suggest that women politicians are discriminated against in this manner as politics is traditionally viewed as a field for men. Women who enter this field are thus considered to be transgressing the boundaries of “acceptable” gendered behaviour, and are prevented from participating equally.

Against the backdrop of the unprecedented public discussion of gender and politics that we are witnessing today, it is timely to reflect on how the unequal treatment of women in parliament creates a context in which sexist cultural attitudes are condoned and perpetuated.

Cultural attitudes and violence against women

These recent political developments overshadowed the latest tragic domestic mass killing in Western Australia. The Australian Government defines domestic mass killings as incidents involving a person killing multiple family members or intimate partners. Women make up the vast majority of the victims of this crime, and men the majority of perpetrators. This marks the state’s third domestic mass killing this year.

The Western Australian man accused of killing his wife, three young daughters, and mother-in-law has been charged with five counts of murder. This story, and the many others like it, reminds us of the all-too prominent role violence against women still plays in Australian society.

But what does this have to do with workplace culture and sexist attitudes? To answer this question, we must first understand what constitutes culture. Scholars define culture as a socially shared system of norms and values that motivates widely held attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours.

Search results from Google Australia, 2018. Screenshot by Ella Kuskoff. Graphic by Ana Stevenson.

Cultural attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours have long been argued to perpetuate ideas of men’s superiority over women. Traditional gender roles emphasise the strength, power, and ability of men; this forms a foundation for attitudes toward women based on male control and disrespect. These attitudes are deeply embedded in our society, in such a way that they contribute to the formation of sexist cultures in personal relationships as well as in workplaces and across the wider community.

Within such an environment, women are often demonstrated to be at a considerable disadvantage. Where traditional masculine gender roles emphasise ability and power, traditional feminine gender roles expect women to be tolerant, sensitive, and nurturing. Women have thus historically been relegated to household and child-rearing duties due to an assumed aptitude for this under-valued form of unpaid work, while men have taken the role of primary breadwinner.

This has a dramatic impact on the lives and status of women. To this day, men are afforded considerably greater status and earning potential, often leaving women reliant on men to help fulfill their material needs. This leads to an imbalance of power in individual relationships, as well as society at large. Now add to this the many structural barriers women face to social and economic participation – think discrimination, harassment, access to resources, and disproportionate family responsibilities, to name just a few. When all of these factors are considered, it is no surprise that women are at a significant disadvantage, both in the workplace and in the home.

Given the extent of these issues, prevention efforts now view such gender inequality as a key determinant of violence against women. Critical to primary prevention agendas across Australia is the intention to disrupt cultural norms that facilitate and justify the unequal treatment of women. Government policies thus aim to change cultural attitudes and behaviours to create a more inclusive, cohesive, and equal society.

Australian violence against women policy

The idea that gender inequality contributes to a culture accepting of violence against women is by no means new. Indeed, for several years, policy reforms across Australia have placed increasing emphasis on identifying and addressing the cultural foundations of this phenomenon. In 2011, the Council of Australian Governments released the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. This plan explicitly recognises the role that cultural attitudes and behaviours play in facilitating violence against women:

By working together and challenging the attitudes and behaviours that allow violence to occur, all Australian governments are saying a very loud “no” to violence.

The National Plan positions domestic violence as a preventable social issue, provided that prevention and early intervention tactics are used to target those who display problematic cultural attitudes and behaviours. It thus views culture as both the problem, and the solution.

To address the problem of violence against women, the National Plan emphasises the need to improve gender equality across all sectors of society. In particular, it seeks to improve women’s access to senior positions in governance and decision-making.

Some of its imperatives include:

The level of equality across our society as well as within individual relationships can have a significant impact on reducing violence against women.

Promote the leadership of senior women in governance and decision‐making for communities and organisations.

The Liberal Party has maintained a focus on addressing violence against women in more recent years. Recently, former Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull has emphasised society’s responsibility to treat women with respect as a means of preventing gendered violence.

Additionally, state-based policies dedicated to targeting violence against women contain constant messages around the need to respect women both in the home and in the workplace, as well as the imperative of fostering a culture of gender equality.

Why, then, with such a clear recognition of the issue, does the Liberal Party continue to condone a culture that discriminates against women? If the Australian Government itself cannot uphold the basic standards of respect and equality as outlined in the National Plan, is it realistic for policies to expect sustained cultural change within the greater Australian public?

The good news

Australia is currently witnessing a shift in public attitudes towards gender inequality, with left-leaning voters being particularly likely to recognise the gendered barriers to success. At the same time, Australians are increasingly prepared to take action when they see sexism, inequality, or gender-based violence in action.

The situation in Australian politics, too, is improving. Indeed, in the wake of the allegations of sexism and bullying in the Liberal Party, Julia Gillard reflected on the progress that has been made since her time as prime minister. She said:

Now conversations about gender and leadership, including political leadership, are mainstream. … The fact such matters are being raised at all and taken seriously when they are is progress.

As the public continues to develop a greater understanding and recognition of this issue, this has led to increased levels of public discussion and debate. These conversations are crucial to drawing attention to the issues and inequalities that are rife in Australian politics, and to encourage politicians to lead by example and pave the way for a more respectful and equitable Australia.


For more information, see: Queensland’s Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Strategy; Ending Family Violence: Victoria’s Plan for Change; and the NSW Domestic and Family Violence Prevention and Early Intervention Strategy.


Ella Kuskoff is a Ph.D. student at The University of Queensland and research assistant at the Institute of Social Science Research (ISSR) and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course (Life Course Centre). Her Ph.D. research is titled “Achieving cultural change through policy: An analysis of state interventions in cultural aspects of domestic violence.” She is interested in all issues surrounding gender, disadvantage, and social policy. Ella’s research is supported through an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.

Follow Ella on Twitter @EllaKuskoff.

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