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Female federal election candidates still more likely than men to be running in marginal or unwinnable seats, analysis shows

By political reporters Georgia Hitch and Kathleen Calderwood
The report found a smaller gap between the number of male and female Labor candidates running in safe seats. (ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

Described as "glass cliff candidates", women standing for both major parties still face a greater battle to get into parliament, with new analysis showing they are more likely to be running in a marginal or unwinnable seat than male counterparts. 

The report by the Global Institute for Women's Leadership at the Australian National University (ANU) showed while the number of women in parliament has grown, female candidates continue to be under-represented in safe, winnable, seats. 

It describes "glass cliff candidates" as women who are given opportunities at leadership and politics in times of crisis or when things are risky.

"That is, women are allowed to step in when men aren't interested," the report said.

The analysis looked at how many female candidates were standing for either the Coalition or Labor in the election in safe seats and compared it to the number standing in marginal seats or those considered unwinnable in the House of Representatives.

The researchers focused on the 137 seats where the main competition is between Labor and a Coalition — Liberal or National — candidate, and used the Australian Electoral Commission's definition of marginal and safe seat.

The Institute found that 24 per cent of Labor's female candidates were running in safe seats, compared to 33 per cent of its male candidates.

The Coalition had a wider gap between the two, with 20 per cent of its female candidates running in safe seats, next to 46 per cent of its male candidates.

In total, it found that 43 per cent of Labor party candidates and 29 per cent of those running for the Coalition in the House of Representatives were women. 

One of the recommendations of the Jenkins review into parliamentary workplace culture was to improve diversity among parliamentarians by introducing targets and specific actions to achieve gender balance, improve diversity more broadly — including culturally and linguistically diverse parliamentarians.

Parties need to make 'substantive' change

Director of the Institute, Michelle Ryan, said the Labor party's gender quotas and policies around pre-selecting women in safe seats was behind its closer results, while the Coalition's improvement had "almost flatlined".

Professor Michelle Ryan says there are policies parties can put in place to improve gender representation. (Supplied)

Professor Ryan said there were ways to increase representation, but it would involve parties "putting their money where their mouth is".

"I think there are differences between perhaps ticking a box to say 'look, we've got women running', versus really wanting to make substantive change," she said.

"There are policies in place that can be used to improve that, such as some of the policies Labor is trying to enact in terms of matching on that seat winnability.

"It's not just about numbers of candidates, it really is about what happens after the election that is important, and if we have women in unwinnable and marginal seats we won't have as many women succeeding and taking positions in parliament."

In 1994, the ALP introduced a quota, saying 35 per cent of its winnable seats at all elections would be filled by women by 2002.

The target is now 50 per cent by 2025, which it said it was on track to meet.

In 2016, the Liberal Party set the same target, to have half of all seats represented by women candidates at elections by 2025.

Women make up 41 per cent of Labor's ranks in federal parliament, compared to 20 per cent in the Liberals.

While women are over-represented in unsafe seats in both parties, Professor Ryan said the problem was even worse when it comes to culturally and linguistically diverse candidates.

"It feels like there's a bit of a intersectional discrimination happening here," she said.

Former leader of the New South Wales Liberal party, Kerry Chikarovski, said she was surprised that years on from when she left politics in 2002, things had not improved as much as she thought they would.

"There may be some people who are, again, male and female standing in seats they know they can't win but are looking forward to the experience which might hopefully position them, in the way I was positioned, to put their hand up for a safe seat."

Ms Chikarovski said she thought both sides of politics needed to have a closer look at their preselection processes — both to make sure there was a more even split in safe seats but also to increase the diversity of candidates.

"I 100-per-cent believe it's not just a male-female thing, it is about ensuring the parliament reflects the community and we need more people of very different backgrounds," she said.

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Dive Deeper:
‘Glass cliff’: only two in 10 female Coalition and Labor candidates in winnable seats, analysis finds
Precarious positions are being given to women in a ‘poisoned chalice’ that threatens the fight for gender equality in parliament
Women candidates facing uphill battle
Just 20 per cent of LNP female candidates and 24 per cent of their Labor counterparts are running in winnable…
Grattan on Friday: It's Albanese's to lose, as Morrison looks for some momentum
The Liberals have used John Howard extensively during this campaign. These days, they celebrate their party hero as the great…
Federal election: Penny Wong, Marise Payne clash over relationship with Solomon Islands, China — as it happened
Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Labor's Foreign Affairs Shadow Minister Penny Wong clash in a debate at the National Press…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
To Australians sick of the election: this is why voting is not a waste of your time
Early voting has begun and election day is looming. Many of us were disillusioned with politics well before the campaign…
Morning mail: Coalition’s $3bn marginal seat spend, Ukraine grain export crisis, plan to ‘electrify everything’
Friday: Coalition promises $3bn for 10 marginal seats. Plus: the search for the perfect picture book of death
Get all your news in one place