Adelaide born and bred, Natasha Stott Despoja graduated with a BA from the University of Adelaide In 1991. She was involved in student representation at school (founding the State’s first State-wide student representative council) and at University. She was President of the University of Adelaide Students' Association in 1991. She has worked as an adviser for Democrat Senators including for Leaders, Senators John Coulter and Cheryl Kernot. In 1995, at the age of 26, Senator Stott Despoja was the youngest woman ever to enter Federal Parliament. In 1997, she was elected as Deputy Leader of the Democrats and, in April 2001, Leader of the Australian Democrats - the youngest person of any party to hold such a position. In 2001, Senator Stott Despoja was selected by the World Economic Forum as a Global Leader for Tomorrow. In August 2002, Senator Stott Despoja resigned as Leader of the Australian Democrats.
In November 1995, after being chosen by her Party and the Parliament of South Australia to represent that State in the Senate following the resignation of Senator Coulter, Senator Stott Despoja entered the Parliament. In March 1996, she was elected to the Senate by the people of South Australia with a quota (14.3%). She is one of only two Democrats to have secured a quota in a half Senate election. She won overwhelmingly her preselection for the number one position on the Democrats' Senate ticket in October 2000, and was subsequently reelected, with a significant personal vote (more than 20,000 people voted for Senator Stott Despoja below the line), at the 2001 election. 68 Senators have been elected or appointed since Senator Stott Despoja entered Parliament. Senator Stott Despoja’s term expires in June 2008.
Intervew with Natasha Stott Despoja
Do you think that there is an invisible barrier preventing women from reaching the highest level in your profession regardless of their accomplishments and merits?
If yes, why do you think this exists in your profession?
There are barriers to women’s success ‘at the highest’ level in the political sphere. These barriers exist at all levels up to the highest office, in my view, though their effects may vary.
I think of the barriers as more a complex web, than a ‘glass ceiling’. This web is made up of many threads. They include the reality of straight-forward sexism towards women in public life – which still exists. There are still those who denigrate women, and believe that they are not as capable as men, in the public sphere.
More subtle are the pressures on women that keep them away from public life and under-represented in our parliaments. These include social conditioning that means some women under-estimate their capabilities. Alongside this, the great majority of women carry – or will carry - the double load of paid working life, along with the domestic work and care of families and communities. The great imbalance that persists between most men and women at home, shapes and constrains the possibilities for women in practical ways.
Fortunately, many women manage these pressures and, frequently with the support of other women, make their public mark. But until sexist beliefs and behaviours, women’s underestimation of themselves, and the overload of caring and domestic work on women, all change, we are unlikely to see women equally represented in parliaments.
Other changes would also help. The old Australian political parties have systems of pre-selection and political practice that are archaic, time-serving, and factionalised. They are hostile to women. The absence of this crippling culture in the Australian Democrats has meant that women have been able to meaningfully participate in party processes, voting, and selection of candidates – in many cases from their kitchen tables. As a result we have, more often than not, been led by women, and the voice of women is loud and effective in our party. It is a feature of our party that I cherish.
Fortunately, over the decades many brave women have made efforts to increase their presence in places like parliament. We are the beneficiaries of their great successes – to win the vote, the right to stand for public office, and for the rights and recognition of women more generally. We can never take it for granted, and there is plenty left to do, to ensure that women can be truly equal and liberated from a complex set of constraints that exist, still, today.
Is this barrier in your profession penetrable? How can the barrier be dismantled in your profession?
I believe that we have seen considerable change. The growing proportion of women in parliaments around the world is evidence of this.
A change in political cultures is, in my view, very important, with more emphasis on considered argument and evidence, and less on bullying behaviours, division and personal attacks. Some elements in the media and in political life like to focus on particular issues in relation to women in politics: their appearance, emotions, and personal capacities. On the whole, I think women in this sphere suffer greater scrutiny on these issues than do men – as they do in many spheres of public life. Witness the recent focus on the family of the new Chief Executive Officer of St Georges Building Society, Gail Kelly, whose children were was so often referred to in the context of her recent appointment.
A more even-handed treatment might mean more women are attracted to parliamentary representation. But other things must also change: the methods and cultures in political parties and in parliament, and more fundamentally the distribution of other kinds of work in the private sphere – childcare, housework and so on.
I meet many young women who are interested in politics and optimistic about their participation. They are an inspiration. I hope that we continue to see social changes that support their choices to take on the task of representing their fellow citizens, because there can be no doubt that the increasing presence of women in public life changes the nature and preoccupations of whatever sphere they enter.
Do you consider yourself to have broken through the Glass ceiling in your profession? If yes, how have you done this?
Fortunately, the Australian Democrats have had several women leaders who have been the ‘firsts’ and made way for others. The power of role models is significant. The friendship and encouragement of other women has also been a great source of strength and motivation for me. I still encounter ridiculous stereotypes and double standards in media portrayal so I believe I am picking out some of the glass splinters that come with smashing the ceiling.
In general, what do you see as the underlying cause that must be addressed to shatter the glass ceiling in corporate and public Australia?
I see several areas where we need to see continuing change. We will know we are getting close to a fair go for women in politics when their chances of winning positions are genuinely equal with men’s, when women with ability are readily accepted into parliament, when male politicians and elements in the media stop making negative personal comments to women and denigrating them in public or private, and when we see real equality of effort in both the Houses of parliament and more domestically at home, in terms of caring for children, doing the housework, supporting sick or aged relatives and supporting our communities. For many women, education remains an important key to public success, and I hope that we do not see further erosion of a public education system that restricts both women and men from the chance to realise their potential, regardless of their financial resources or their sex.