‘Glass cliff’: Only two in 10 women Coalition and Labor candidates hold winnable seats, analysis finds | women in politics

Female candidates are being overlooked to run in safe seats by both major parties, with new analysis showing that only two in 10 female candidates have been put forward for winnable seats in this year’s election, while safe seats are ‘reserved for boys”.

Research from the Australian National University’s Global Institute for Women’s Leadership shows that only 20% of female candidates running for the Coalition are vying for safe seats, compared to 46% of men who are expected to be elected.

For Labor the figures are slightly better, with 24% of female party candidates vying for safe seats compared to 33% of male candidates.

The analysis considers that an unwinnable seat is one that is considered by the Australian Electoral Commission to have a “safe” or “fairly safe” margin for the opposing party, i.e. seats with a margin greater than 6%.

The analysis focused only on seats where the main competition is between the main parties, examining candidates for 137 of the 151 seats in the House of Representatives, but also including incumbents.

Professor Michelle Ryan, director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, said the research highlights the “cliff of glass” phenomenon where women are offered positions with more uncertainty, often in circumstances where men were not interested.

The term was first coined for the corporate sector to describe when women were put on corporate boards in times of crisis or when a company’s stock price had fallen.

“The idea behind all of this is that women are offered risky and precarious leadership positions,” she told Guardian Australia.

“So in this case with political candidates, it’s because their seats are unwinnable; or if they win the seats, then they’re in this sort of precarious, marginal state [and] they must spend all their time campaigning until the next election.

“It’s a poison gift, it looks good from the start but it’s not particularly great,” she said.

For Labor, 76% of its women candidates are what Ryan calls “glass cliff candidates”, running for seats they are unlikely to win or are precarious to hold. The equivalent proportion of men occupying these seats is 67%.

For the Coalition, 80% of women candidates are in this category, against an equivalent proportion of men who run for these seats at 54%.

She said while it was difficult to judge each party’s internal shortlisting processes, safe seats appeared to be overwhelmingly reserved for men by the two major parties.

“If you have a good safe seat, you often see people being parachuted into that seat, and it’s often someone who’s in the alumni club; so you keep the seats safe for the boys,” Ryan said.

“You could say it just happens to leave the other seats for women – and I’m being slightly charitable there – but the flip side is saying, ‘he’s a dog of a seat, who wants that? Nobody wants that, and you protect your guys from that stuff.

“And if you want to be really uncharitable, you say ‘oh look, they’re forcing us to put women in and we’ll look bad if we don’t have enough women in there, so let’s put her in there, in as a bit of a sacrificial lamb”.

In the 2022 federal election, 43% of Labor candidates and 29% of coalition candidates are women.

Labor shortlisted a total of 62 women candidates, compared to 41 shortlisted by the Liberal and National parties.

During the 46th legislature, women made up 41% of Labor MPs in the lower house, compared to just 20% of coalition MPs.

In both parties, at least six female incumbents are contested by male candidates for marginal seats, while seven male incumbents are contested by female candidates.

Female Labor MPs seated in Lilley, Cowan and Gilmore are challenged by Liberal men, while male Labor candidates try to unseat Liberal women seated in Bass, Robertson and Lindsay.

Ryan said the research also highlighted the challenge faced by women from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, who were even less likely to be shortlisted for safe seats.

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