A University initiative is empowering women to join the political arena
When Stephanie Amir first entered politics as a candidate for Darebin Council in Melbourne’s north, she had a secret weapon.
In 2016, at the same time that she was campaigning, Stephanie was participating in the University of Melbourne’s Pathways to Politics Program for Women, a non-partisan graduate program that aims to redress the under-representation of women in Australian parliaments.
Stephanie says the program was very helpful during a campaign that could sometimes be “a bit cutthroat”.
“To have Pathways to Politics was really valuable in terms of feeling supported during the stress of the campaign,” she says.
Modelled on the Harvard Kennedy School’s program ‘From Harvard Square to the Oval Office’, Pathways to Politics is the first initiative of its kind based in an Australian university.
Initiated by the Women’s Leadership Institute of Australia and made possible by a generous donation from the Trawalla Foundation, the program was launched in 2015 by the Hon Julie Bishop MP, the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, the University of Melbourne and Carol Schwartz AM, the program’s founder and Trawalla chair.
Currently, women occupy fewer than 30 per cent of Australian parliamentary positions. This is a figure that the UN has declared the minimum level necessary in order for women to affect governmental policy and decision-making.
Pathways to Politics has been designed to address this shortcoming by encouraging and supporting female graduate students and alumni with political aspirations.
Stephanie, who worked as a scientist and then a policy advisor, was inspired to enter politics because she felt there was a lack of evidence-based policy making in government, particularly with regard to environmental issues.
Her campaign was ultimately successful, and she’s been a councillor in the City of Darebin for 18 months now. It’s a responsibility she has embraced wholeheartedly.
“Being a councillor, you have lots and lots of different roles,” Stephanie says.
In some ways, it’s like being on the board for a huge organisation that runs over 100 different programs and services, but you also have a role as a community advocate, a representative, and almost a bit like a magistrate making decisions for planning.
A positive of working in local government, Stephanie says, is that she’s looking after spaces that belong to her own community and neighbours, which gives her a sense of pride and connection.
“Darebin is very multicultural, very diverse, and that’s something that I really like,” she says. “And It’s fun being able to put those ideas into practice and seeing things I talked about during the campaign come to fruition.”
Hearing from a variety of women MPs who spoke on Pathways to Politics panels had been invaluable. Their stories helped Stephanie remain encouraged during the tough times, gave her examples of how to stand up to sexism, and were a reminder that, just as earlier female politicians had paved the path for her, she could, in turn, lead the way for future generations.
Then there were the program’s practical lessons, such as understanding how other party structures worked; also, different models of pre-selection and policy processes.
“It was helpful in thinking about politics and democracy more broadly,” Stephanie says.
Pathways to Politics has produced a number of success stories. Alongside Stephanie, Susanne Newton, another 2016 participant, was also elected to Darebin Council. Two other fellows – Olivia Ball and Dr Sarah Mansfield – ran as candidates in the 2016 federal election, achieving significant electorate swings. Olivia then ran as the Greens candidate for Melbourne Lord Mayor, placing second behind Robert Doyle. Meanwhile, Sarah was elected to the Greater Geelong City Council.
Sarah had applied to Pathways to Politics while running as a candidate in the federal election, and was thrilled to be accepted.
“At the start of the program, it was incredible to see how many exceptionally accomplished women admitted to lacking confidence to get involved in politics,” she says.
By the end of the program, and since graduating, many of the participants have gone on to nominate for preselection, get preselected, or succeed in getting elected. I think this demonstrates the powerful impact that having exposure to positive role models can have for women.
As for Stephanie Amir, she’s now the program manager for Pathways to Politics in addition to her role at Darebin. Further down the track, she hopes to add to her political achievements by getting elected to the Victorian parliament.
“Women deserve to have the right to be in public office just as much as men do,” she says.
By getting elected and then helping other women to get elected, we’re contributing to positive change.