Eve Mahlab AO Gender-wise Philanthropy Award 2021

A new path to changing our politics

Earlier this year, in the immediate aftermath of the national outrage about the treatment of women in Parliament and a renewed focus on gender parity in politics, the Director of the Pathways to Politics Program for Women at the University of Melbourne, Dr Meredith Martin, took a telephone call.

It was from an 18-year-old university undergraduate. She had a question for Meredith about the program that is only open to female graduates. As Meredith remembers it, the teenager asked: “I haven’t finished my degree yet – can I still apply for the program? I want to make a difference, to show I’m not cowed by this.’’

The call was indicative of how the Program has built an important place in the on-going discussions about gender equality and increased participation of women at all levels of politics. The program was catalyzed by the Trawalla Foundation in 2016 with the University of Melbourne and the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia. Its goal is non-partisan and seeks to increase gender parity in Australian politics by providing women with the skills to get elected and to thrive in leadership roles. Since it started, 45 program alumni have run for election or stood for pre-selection. Thirteen of them have been elected across local, state, or federal government.

The Program is now available at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and the University of NSW (UNSW). The program was developed in consultation with the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School in the USA and has delivered results in Australia in a remarkably quick time. Critical to that success has been the energy and vision of the Chair of the Trawalla Foundation and the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia (and the 2020 Leading Philanthropist) Carol Schwartz AO.

Meredith refers to it as the “three Cs’’ – ‘’Carol Carol and Carol’’ – when she explains how the idea progressed from concept to reality.

“It was the nadir of women in politics - there was only one woman at the Cabinet table (Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s cabinet) and Carol rang Melbourne University’s then-Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis,’’ Meredith recalls. “Carol said: ‘This is happening at Harvard, would you be interested in partnering to do something here?’, and Glyn said: ‘Absolutely Carol’, and the rest, as they say, is history.’’

But of course, it wasn’t quite. Carol made it clear that universities' traditionally slow pace of getting things done or trialing new initiatives wouldn’t cut it this time around. The program was up and running in six months. “That must be some kind of record,’’ Meredith says.

The partnership with the University of Melbourne has been fundamental to the program’s success, from Glyn Davis’ initial support through to the current Vice Chancellor Duncan Maskell’s continued endorsement.

“It’s a profoundly and genuinely collaborative process, and people talk about that all the time and I think it’s remarkable,’’ Meredith explains. “There was unity on the program and where we wanted to take it…it was a simple goal but a complex process to get there…. It’s an exemplary model of a philanthropic partnership with ‘partnership’ being the operative word.’’

Sarah Buckley, Chief of Staff to Carol and CEO, Trawalla Foundation, says the program had a challenging set of goals. “There was strong reputational risk – to try something that’s non-partisan, that the political leaders would engage with,’’ she says. “We really needed incredibly high calibre speakers coming and openly sharing, so I think Carol very much drew on her network to build the program in its early days.’’

The Program at the University of Melbourne is open to any female graduate from a Victorian university. It provides skills training, an understanding of good governance, leadership, and regular engagement with female politicians from across the political spectrum. The fraternal nature of the program is an important component that is reinforced through strong alumni connections and the re-engagement of women who have been elected to government back into the program as speakers and mentors.

Photo of (from left to right) Professor Margaret Sheil AO, Professor Margaret Gardner AC, Carol Schwartz AO, Dame Quentin Bryce AD, CVO, Professor Glyn Davis AC 

Meredith has observed the program grow organically. She has also observed the unforeseen but welcome consequence of the deep friendships that have blossomed between some of the female parliamentarians who have presented to the program. But every year when she reads through the applications, she remembers why the program matters.

“It’s incredibly moving to read the applications …we’d be in tears - there so much of a confidence gap, so much of that classic stuff - ‘I just don’t think I’m good enough’ - from these remarkable women,’’ Meredith says. “I kept thinking to myself that’s why we’re doing this - it’s just so important.’’

There is a growing body of evidence to support just how important it is to increase female participation in politics and reach gender parity in our political institutions.

Sarah explains: “Well, the way we talk about it is that we need men and women equally sharing power, influence and decision making in Australia and we would see better decisions made for society. There is a growing academic base demonstrating this potential, including research by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy showing that when women are able to exercise political leadership, there are gains not just for women and girls but for the whole of society.’’

Meredith sees that research finding comes to life in the program itself. “As our alum say the business of government is working across political lines a whole lot more than anyone acknowledges and women tend to be better at that than men,’’ she says.

The broader picture, as Sarah outlines it, is how the political piece fits in to the gender parity issue in business and media. While Carol is active across all three areas, there is still work to be done, particularly when it comes to increasing the number of female voices in the media.

But there is no doubt that Australian of The Year Grace Tame, in tandem with Brittany Higgins has sparked an ambition among many Australian women to change the landscape. The Program can only take 30 applicants – this year, it had a record of more than 500 women applying.

“It was incredibly moving and a very difficult selection process. It’s such a highly charged environment at that moment,’’ Meredith says. She also detects a change among female parliamentarians, some of whom felt they could not speak out about the vile treatment women in Parliament have received, exemplified by the vilifying of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. They are not likely to remain silent. That too represents a shift.

Carol’s vision, Sarah explains, has always been to make the program national. Each version of the program in Queensland and NSW is slightly different to Melbourne: Queensland’s size mitigates against weekly program appointments, so it has a series of weekend intensives to enable regional participants to take part. In Sydney, the program has been opened to women from all backgrounds and experiences, without having a degree. As Sarah observes, the program’s diversity and inclusion goal make it more likely that it will move to that more open model.

What distinguishes the program, in one sense, is its energy. And that has driven results perhaps quicker than many other innovations have been able to do.

“Everyone who works in philanthropy knows that social change can be so slow,’’ Sarah says. “There’s great satisfaction and it’s energizing to be part of something that’s creating change remarkably quickly in the scheme of things. Harvard didn’t really start to see women in office until seven years into the program: we were starting to see that convert three or four years in, so there’s something fantastic to create that meaningful change so quickly.’’

 For Meredith, it’s also about how the program has evolved. “It’s becoming so much more than a program but also a platform of activities – I couldn’t be happier at the point we’re at,’’ she says. “I think we’ve improved every year. We’ve got real impact at scale…it was very cottage industry in the first instance, and we’ve just built and built…but it hasn’t lost its sense of specialness.’’

And this year’s award – carrying Eve Mahlab’s name for the first time – means a lot of Carol and Sarah: there is a happy synchronicity after the long-standing friendship between Eve and Carol and their shared commitment to gender equality.

“The Eve Mahlab AO Gender-wise Philanthropy Award seeks to encourage more and better philanthropy for women and girls by celebrating philanthropic investments that advance gender equality and create a better world for all,” says Julie Reilly OAM, CEO, Australians Investing in Women at the 2021 Australian Philanthropy Awards.

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