Equals Now—Share the Load, Share the Power, Share the Benefits: A Keynote

This is the full keynote address given by Mary Crooks AO, Executive Director of the Victorian Women’s Trust, to the Equals Now Symposium, Canberra 16 June 2021. (Image by Jane Phuong)

I want to acknowledge and pay my respect to our First Nations peoples, in appreciation of their wise and effective stewardship of this land over 2000 generations of deep time.

Thank you to Kim, Kat, Pia and others at the 50 50 by 2030 Foundation for conceiving this timely Symposium; and thank you for the opportunity to speak early in the piece.


Permit me to start with what I hope might be a useful metaphor:

In medieval times, a fortress was a fortified place, of defence and security. (Latin fortis strong, facere, to make). It was a protected place for elites. 

Watch towers accorded early sightings of raiders, interlopers. The fortification had arrow slits, main gates and a drawbridge. Raiders tried to scale the massive rock hewn walls with ladders, battering rams and flame-throwing weaponry. But the advantaged, fortified ones cleverly devised wet animal skins to extinguish the fires; they dug moats and complex tunnels; and threw hot boiling oil or water over the walls onto those below.

Until the invention of gun powder-based weapons, the balance of power and logistics pretty much favoured the defender, the more powerful. With the invention of gunpowder, though, what had been reliable methods of defence became less and less effective against determined sieges or protracted struggles.


While women at different stages of history have rebelled and tugged at the yoke of gendered oppression, their agitation for the right to vote in our country in the mid-later part of the nineteenth century grew into a significant social movement, a dramatic attempt to start scaling the fortress of male cultural dominance over political life and society.

Women for the most part were struggling under oppressive conditions—marriage for many was unspoken tyranny [1]; men were able to will their property away from their wives, leaving them destitute. Women, however, were not permitted to make a will, enter a contract, or sue. They had no custody rights. Few contraception options existed, the very idea meeting with male opprobrium. The average number of live births per married women was seven. Maternal morbidity was high. Women contended with the added burdens of child deaths, poverty and disease. Barred from higher education and ineligible for public service, they were also deemed neither competent nor reliable for jury service. Our society’s dark history of violence towards women and children was widespread, though with less legal recourse or material support as of now.

Tellingly, the social movement to enfranchise women was forcefully resisted by the ruling male order.

The second Premier of colonial Victoria, John O’Shannassy, echoed the voices of many men in power as to why women should be denied the vote: 

“A woman had her household duties to attend to, and when she discharged her duties faithfully as a wife and a mother, she did that which became her best; and the best they (the parliament) could do for her was to leave her to the performance of these duties. He did not want to go back into history to prove that women’s interference in political matters was injurious.” [2]

Here was revealed a profoundly patriarchal world transplanted from Europe to the colonies. Men were privileged and guaranteed the superior roles in economy and society, economic production and exchange. They were the ‘natural order’. Women were subordinate, ‘the other’, expected to be the wives, mothers, economically dependent and with no political rights.

But women were neither disinterested observers nor unquestioningly compliant.

What followed was no peaceful, rational, or civil transfer of power. It was a bitter, protracted fight. Powerful men saw it as a direct challenge to their authority. When Dr Maloney tried to introduce the first suffrage bill into the Victorian parliament in 1889, he was greeted with sneers, jeers and cat calls. [3] Sympathetic allies like him were seen as weak-kneed. Women were pilloried relentlessly by male parliamentarians, media and in public meetings. They were depicted as strident, shrewish, as ‘he-men’– outward manifestations of the same sort of misogyny we have witnessed in our own lives since. 

Just as homogeneity among women should not be assumed now, there was none back then. In Victoria, Freda Derham and Carrie Reed, both daughters of Upper House conservatives, campaigned strongly against women’s suffrage; and amassed considerable popular support.

In fighting for suffrage, suffragist women had entered a political system not of their making. They did not get to choose the terms of engagement. They sought freedom in a man’s world and, thankfully for us, despite the vitriolic attacks and powerful resistance, they were not to be denied. 

Over the next decade or so, each colony introduced legislation to enfranchise women. With the power and sacredness of the ballot in their hands, these determined women believed a better world for all beckoned.


While securing the vote was a significant concession by the ruling male order, women’s subsequent efforts to gain more and more ground were fraught. Resiliently, they kept on with valiant efforts to scale the fortification. Against the odds, and despite being met often with disdain, disinterest and blanket resistance, they wrung notable concessions along the way. But my goodness it has taken glacial time!

From the turn of the century, not for want of trying, it took 4 further decades to win custody rights in law; and to see the first woman enter the House of Representatives (Enid Lyons) and the Senate (Dorothy Tangney).

Not for want of trying, it took 6-7 decades for women to win the right to serve as jurors; to lift the marriage bar; to recognise Indigenous women and men as citizens; to see the first national legislation on childcare (1972); to enshrine the principle of equal pay (1972); to see the first woman to become a Federal Minister (Margaret Guilfoyle); and the first woman to become Speaker of the House (Joan Childs).

Not for want of trying, it took 8 decades to see the first Sexual Discrimination Act (1983); and the criminalisation of marital rape; and 9 decades for women to make up 1/3 of the Senate.

Not for want of trying, it took more than a century to see a woman become Prime Minister only to see discomfiting deep seams of sexism and misogyny brought into broad daylight.

And certainly not for want of trying, it took 120 years for the Senate to reach gender parity; and the reach the giddy percentage of 30% in the House of Representatives (46/138)

Why so slow, so piecemeal; and still falling far short of achieving gender equality? After all, it’s not as though women were waiting for things to fall into their laps. 

Rather, like our medieval fortress idea, our ensconced male, hegemonic culture has largely been in protective mode, with little appetite for relinquishing control, except for pivotal and transformative moments in time such as the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972.


To understand our entrenched, masculinised political culture, and help inform strategic feminist reform agendas, it pays to understand more deeply its institutional context. As such, we need to reflect on the nature of institutions in our society, their underpinning structures and processes. Making sense of what can be dense theory about institutional culture and institutional power is not easy work; but is absolutely necessary.

Here are some essential propositions:

Institutions are socially constructed – embodying sets of shared beliefs, backgrounds, actions, conceived norms. They are integral to social organisation and social life. You will know several yourselves – hospitals, welfare delivery, school and university systems, law firms, religions, sports bodies and army/defence forces.

They emerge, reproduce, and change, depending on disputes and resolutions among the various social agents.

They come to represent vast, accumulated, empirical evidence, culture, ways of doing, systems of thought, rules (formal/informal/overt or unwritten) and norms. Shared beliefs, expectations and subconscious bias go hand in hand – disguised as the norm, the standard.

There are formal and informal dimensions – the formal are the more overt, codified parts, the formal rules, the regulations and so on. The informal are the hidden, embedded, cultural attributes including beliefs, expectations, customs, unconscious biases and pre-dispositions. Crucially, both inform one another and provide strength and internal coherence. Unpacking and understanding the interaction here is crucial.

They become horizontally and vertically integrated as interlocking power builds through close networking between social agents across related spheres.

Institutions take on the appearance of the status quo, representing stability. They become self-perpetuating and reinforcing.

They are the controlling force. They set the terms, the rules of engagement. New players conform/absorbing osmotically the main practices and observance of written (and unwritten) rules. 

Institutions are dynamic, not immutable though it can look like it at times! But change tends to be incremental, rather than from major or disruptive actions/forces at work. It becomes more a question of the stimulus for change, whether there is sufficient potency from social agents within the institution and outside it.


I have titled this part of my speech after reading what I see as important work by researchers such as Louise Chappell (Department of Politics, University of New South Wales), Georgia Waylen (Department of Politics, University of Manchester), Claire Annesley and Francesca Gains (University of Manchester). They caution against maintaining a focus on women’s representation which by-passes an understanding of political power; the maleness of our political institutions; and its underpinning structures and processes. [4]

Their research highlights the fact that institutions are not objective realities; and that our political institutions are not gender neutral. Indeed, the gendered nature of our political culture has been built over weeks, years, decades and centuries of male dominance, with the deliberate (and subconscious) exclusion of women. [5] 

Masculine power is normalised – it is just how things are. This does not occur, as Chappell and Waylen argue, through a conscious strategy on behalf of all men to dominate all women. [6] Nor is it a case of biology and anatomy at work (despite recent reference in our national parliament to a group unabashedly calling themselves the Swinging Dicks). Rather it is a cultural manifestation of masculinity on a grand scale, continually affirmed by subtle, repeated processes which exclude women.

More recently, the presence of brave voices such as Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins (and the responses and ensuing political management) helps expose the nature and extent of masculine spaces and practices as well as the covert, hidden expectations and beliefs which underpin a dominant male culture.


All our lives, we have been conditioned to associate authority with maleness – men as the army generals, naval commanders, business leaders, bishops and rabbis, football coaches, school principals and prime ministers. Deep and subconscious gendered assumptions as to what constitutes strength, bravery, heroic actions and commanding leadership have been lacing their way through our social imagination for centuries. [7]

We come to associate the same with our political/parliamentary organisations. They have a male personality.

It reaches deep and wide into our collective psyche.

Over 120 years in our institutionalised federal political world, there has been only 1 female Prime Minister. No female leader of the Opposition. Scarcely any holding major portfolios. No Treasurers. Scarcely any heads of government departments up until the 1980s. Scarcely any cultural/ethnic diversity. Scarcely any occupational diversity for that matter – very few farmers, doctors, teachers, nurses or NGO personnel. Scarcely any factional heads.

Blokes rule, OK? Check out the numbers work by Abigail Lewis for Per Capita—Representation in the Australian Parliament [8]—to appreciate that our political culture (parliament and beyond) has been, and remains, dominated by Anglo men, white men, men with university degrees and over-represented by lawyers. 

In addition, most senior political advisory staff are men. Over 90% of administrative staff are women. 

Political life in Australia has been, and remains, a solid fortress of deeply enculturated male power. Since Federation, the ALP has formed government for about 1/3 of the time. So, for 120 years of federal government, we have been at the mercy not only of Anglo white men with university degrees and law in particular, but power has been principally wielded by conservatives ones at that.

Players with skin in the game

These players in this political life have occupied a privileged, stable and scarcely changing world—to date. 

Subconsciously, they become steeped in self-confidence, assuredness, positional power. Their lived experience is the prism influencing all policy, all priorities and who gets what in terms of resource allocation. Their behaviour becomes the norm and is largely unchecked. It defines the way things are, the way politics gets done. 

Like all dominant groups, they have no need for introspection, projecting onto others rather than seeing themselves in the mix. They are hostile (covertly) to outsiders or interlopers. They hold all the policy levers. They make the calls on fiscal and budget priorities – defence, agriculture, health, education, childcare, welfare, water infrastructure – and (in grim irony) violence prevention.

And just to illustrate the scale and enormity of this male control, from an annual budget of hundreds of billions, the federal government currently provides around $5 million shared by 6 national women’s alliances – keeping us women very busy and providing them with feedback on issues and policies which tends to be largely ignored.

This political culture is a ‘monopoly’; one which reproduces itself in its own image. The players (mainly male) know how it works, how to deal. Whether they are aware of this in any conscious way, they are more practiced in this system of doing politics than others. It’s in their DNA. They are ‘insider-traders’ of sorts.

It is sustained through invisible networks of interlocking power and privilege, what I call, augmented power, expressed by close connections and systems of patronage and entitlement. They close ranks at perceived threats to their dominance. It shows in pre-selections, the invisible pipelines by which candidates emerge to occupy the parliamentary stage. 

It is aided and abetted by donation regimes. Apart from the Gina Rhineharts of this world, most wealth in our society is held by men also. They therefore have the capacity to donate huge sums to one or other of the parties (or both) which in turn reinforces male power, interests and priorities. Here’s a very recent example:

A company selected by the Morrison Government for a multi-million-dollar contract to deliver covid vaccine injections to Australia’s most vulnerable has been one of the biggest health sector donors to the Liberal Party over the past decade. Sonic Health Care gave $533,500 to the Liberals; and $55,00 to Labour. They have been awarded $312million in contracts since the Coalition came to office in 2013. [9]

Our top salary earners happen also to be mainly men. As Ross Gittens attests, the Stage 4 tax cuts in 2024, at a cost of about $17 billion a year, will deliver huge savings to high-income earners most of whom are old and male, with the rationale that they will work harder, despite tax economist Professor Patricia Apps showing there’s little evidence to support this claim. [10] This gendered bias of making white men richer, flies in the face of evidence suggesting that the workers who best respond in economic and productivity terms, to tax rates and means-tested benefits, are in fact, women.

Come election time, individual men might come and go in this male political culture, but the institutionalised culture remains largely undisturbed. 

The covert, innate hostility to ‘outsiders’ (such as women) is aided by subliminal, practiced resistance – with women commonly being talked over, sidelined, ridiculed, bullied and demeaned.

Rather than leaving their world views and lifetime habits at the doorsteps of parliament house, caucus rooms and in Canberra restaurants over a few drinks, our male politicians, for good or for bad, will bring their gendered expectations, biases, customs and habits in all their doings.

In this regard, one of the Trust’s student volunteers, Jess Dugdale-Walker, has helped me hugely in preparing this paper by reviewing the public record of toxic beliefs and misogyny over the past twenty years. The evidence is extensive and salutary. From (private) school rites of passage, school songs; to elite university and college rates of sexual assault and harassment; and instances of sexist behaviour in our national parliament, there is a significant pipeline that keeps on delivering men into political life imbued with a sense of superiority and overweening entitlement, an entitlement to control, to have power over others.  

Being promoted as the way politics simply is, rather than being associated with forms of masculinity, we are all meant to accept that politics is inherently combative, adversarial, point- scoring, where one can seek, attack and destroy one’s opponents. Intimidate and bully people. Brush off questions, bat away misdemeanors. There is no room for much bipartisanship or collegiality in this behavioural paradigm.

Unwritten rules help protect this political institution. Codes of Conduct are actively resisted. There is little appetite for anti-corruption bodies. There is no need, it is assumed, for professional development. After quitting politics, and with the useful experience of being in the game, players can head off to a lucrative consultancy or join a lobbyist firm.

The simple truth, as Ross Gittens calls it, is that over the centuries, what economists call ‘institutional arrangements’ that make up the economy have been designed by men. 

This might have ‘worked’ when the great majority of the paid work is done by men. Gittens says: The blokiness (his term) is so deeply engrained in the way we have always thought about the economy that so many men can’t see it. Outsiders can, insiders can’t. This is why, he argues, that men in charge of expensive machines have a far more responsible role than those in charge of children, the elderly or the disabled. [11]

We are used to the word ‘incumbency’ in our political culture. It refers to the holding of office in a defined period and seeking re-election. In general, the benefits of incumbency are many and huge—the incumbent has a distinct political advantage over challenges at elections; the incumbent can determine election dates; has greater name recognition; and easier access to campaign finance as well as government resources. Incumbents have clear positional power over their opponents which they are loathe to relinquish. 

To understand the nature of entrenched male power in our Australian context, it is instructive to dwell right now about this very concept of incumbency and significantly extend the time span. Pause a moment and ponder the benefits accruing over a hundred years and more of continually ‘holding office,’ let alone over centuries of patriarchal organisation! 


Where do we go from here?

Australian women have won a raft of social, political and economic rights. 

Many have secured vastly improved working conditions in their paid work and in stronger measures of economic independence; have stronger protections against discrimination. 

Women’s nation-building efforts across decades have undoubtedly made Australia a better place. There have been some significant changes which have improved the lives of men too, including earlier historical ones such as the 8-hour day; and more contemporary ones, such as partners being present at the birth of their children.

But these social improvements mask the unchanged. The changes demanded and fought for by women have been accommodated without too much disturbance to the deep underlying beliefs and behaviours of our patriarchal world.

Winning the vote catalysed women’s formal democratic engagement, and undoubtedly the exercise of democracy throughout the twentieth century has helped women achieve substantial concessions and social reforms. On its own, however, and without changing the distribution of power, democracy will not be sufficient for women to achieve gender equality.

And let’s not be fooled by numbers. Even with gender parity, there is absolutely no guarantee that our long-running, male-dominated political institutions will operate all that differently. Female representatives can all too readily become the culturally co-opted. 

Something deep, cultural and substantial has to give. The dominant system of power is quite literally a man-made system. It can be unmade – and in the interest of all, and for justice and fairness for all, re-made.

Audre Lorde wrote a brilliant piece in 1984 which is widely cited because of its provocative title: ‘The Master’s Tools will never dismantle the Masters’ House’.

The necessary deeper cultural change will not happen from inside in a hurry. Women and increasing numbers of men as allies, have to tool up, in and beyond the political sphere – and crank up our efforts from now on.

It will take skilled social agency, insight, confidence, solidarity.  This is about a reform appetite broader than much feminist debate. 

We need boldness and a root and branch mindset—to envisage a major platform of reform which busts up the powerful male ‘cartel,’ refreshes our democracy for the next generations, and makes equality a much more attainable right and practice.

I don’t pretend here today to have the answers. But I have a sense of some directions.

Parliament as a workplace

Surely it goes without saying that people must be safe at work, free of sexual assault, discrimination, harassment. Parliament is no different from any other workplace. The inquiries now underway must create real change and not end up as cynical exercises in political management. Sanctions that bite.

Parliamentary composition

Opponents against gender and diversity quotas reckon quotas compromise the merit principle. Sounds more like a defence of the status quo to me. I am reminded of a famous quote attributed to Herbert Hoover (?) – why would you support the status quo when there is little to quo about.

We need to envisage, create and support candidate pipelines other than through electorate offices, unions, and other structures and processes which reinforce male power.

The Pathway to Politics at the University of Melbourne is positive case in point. Would be great to see programs operating all over the place and open to allcomers. 

Parliamentary/policy/budget processes

Gender responsive budgeting is critical. The public has the right to know who gets what resources and to do what. Women need to know how much they are continually missing out on when it comes to the allocations from the public purse.

Parliamentary life and practice 

Fancy not yet having an Enforceable Code of Conduct governing our Australian federal political life!

Fancy, in this day and age, that our parliamentary/Cabinet schedules and sitting weeks have yet to be really overhauled in ways which reduce the burden on all representatives, freeing up, for example, men as parents to take up an increased share of parenting. The Andrews Victorian State Government has had the sense to change the times of Cabinet meetings and Briefing sessions to work in the interests of representatives and their families.

A halfway, sophisticated IT Strategy, backed by proper investment to change the scheduling of parliamentary sessions and decrease the need for in-person attendance, would reduce the tyranny of distance and allow representatives more time to work in their electorates, connecting with their diverse constituents.

Changes to Standing Orders (Terms of engagement codified only by men from the very outset and maintained in rigid and uncritical observance, practiced by men, absorbed by interloping women and taken for granted as the only modus operandi).

Question Time needs to be radically overhauled. Eliminate the Dorothy Dixers. Real debate. Real contributions. Less point-scoring and short termism. Instructively, Katherine Murphy writes recently in the Guardian Australia of the Speaker’s determined efforts to impose some order in the House of Representatives – showing, she notes, how one person can make a difference to tone; and conduct provided they have clear priorities and a measure of courage. [12]

We should be demanding full and respectful attendance in all parliamentary sessions. Empty chambers message the Australian people that their representatives have too many other important things to do rather than listen, take in the views of others, and govern on behalf of their electorates who entrusted them with their vote.

The Hansard record does not capture such things as Senator Leyonhjelm’s misogynistic demeaning of fellow Senator Sarah Hanson-Young (‘stop shagging men’). It was not picked up because only the MP who is speaking at the time is recorded – no accountability, no sanction. 

Family-friendly mechanisms which benefit men as well and several of these are flagged in the recent book by Kate Ellis, Sex, Lies and Question Time. [13] These include a more flexible approach to Pairing (when it comes to voting in the House); and Locums in electoral offices which enable maternity/paternity leave. 

It is indicative perhaps of the taken-for-granted nature of our male-dominated political culture (lacking introspection by dint of its ascendancy) that there is no perceived need for substantive induction or ongoing professional development through each stage of a parliamentary career (pre-during, after). How good would it be to know that all elected newcomers were robustly challenged and encouraged to learn and understand ethics and ethical behaviour, the value of trust and respect, conflicts of interests, gender and social roles and expectations across society, and what it takes to nourish democratic values?

Eroding in lasting ways, institutionalised (male) power

This is about busting up the interlocking and augmented power, grown and shared by men in political power, and their close connection to other powerful influencers across our society, still largely confined to men.

We need anti-corruption mechanisms with bite.

We need a system of real time transparency when donations are involved, as advocated by researchers such as Colleen Lewis in her impressive work on stopping the arms race in political donations. [14]

Maybe we should be banning them completely, and have elections funded from the public purse.

We must have Truth-in-Advertising regulations, enforceable with sanctions applied.

Ministerial/MPs meetings with lobbyists should be published for the world to see.

There should be an enforceable waiting period for exiting MPS before they take up lobbyist/consultancy positions.


There is much at stake here. Remember my metaphor at the beginning? You will recall that the strength of the fortress weakened with the introduction of gun powder-related weaponry. It became impossible to defend the fortress against new and more effective forms of disruption.

Now not for a minute am I suggesting we blow the place up!

I am arguing, however, that if we want to achieve gender equality in the 21 century, then we have to get serious about detecting, tracing and understanding the distribution of gendered power; challenging our existing power relations and altering them for the good. 

There is institutional inertia, a sense that we are trapped right now in an old, blokey political culture which is not by itself necessarily interested or committed to delivering on gender equality. [15]

It also looks way past its use-by date in addressing the big policy challenges before us a nation—ensuring an Indigenous Voice in our Constitution, the urgency of climate change and the positives to be gained in moving to a low carbon economy, asylum seeker policy /mental health, poverty and economic disadvantage, health and aged care, regional adjustment packages for communities, post coal.

Interested as feminists in deep cultural change? Time to turn our sights and best efforts into an even greater understanding of power relations across our society; challenging and eroding our male-dominated political institutional culture – to create decent futures for everyone, and for generations to come.

After an extensive public policy career, Mary became the Executive Director of the Victorian Women’s Trust in 1996. She has designed and led ground-breaking community engagement initiatives. In 2012, Mary was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia, for her distinguished services to public policy and advocacy for the advancement of women. In 2016, Mary won the Public Policy category as part of the AFR/Westpac’s 100 Women of InfluenceOn weekends, she can be found walking her faithful Jack Russells or (hopefully) basking in the glory of a Carlton win.


[1] Lake, Marilyn, Getting Equal: The history of Australian feminism, Allen and Unwin 1999, p.19.

[2] Maddigan, Judith, Out of Their Own Mouths: Women Getting the Vote, the Victorian Experience, Victorian Historical Journal, Vol. 79, No 2, November 2008, p. 169.

[3] Audrey Oldfield, Woman Suffrage in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1992, p.139.

[4] Louise Chappell and Georgina Waylen, Gender and the Hidden Life of Institutions, Public Administration Vol.91, No.3, 2013 (599-615); Claire Annesley and Francesca Gains, The Core Executive: Gender, Power and Change, Political Studies Vol.58 (909-929), 2010.

[5] Claire Annesley and Francesca Gains, op.cit. p.914.

[6] Chappell and Waylen, op.cit. p.602.

[7] Mary Crooks, A Switch in Time: Restoring Respect to Australian Politics, Victorian Women’s Trust, 2012, p.24.

[8] Abigail Lewis, The Way In: Representation in the Australian Parliament, Per Capita, January 2019.

[9] Reported in The Age, 30 April, 2021.

[10] Ross Gittens, The Age, 5 May, 2021.

[11] Ross Gittens, Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October, 2020.

[12] Katherine Murphy, The Guardian Australia, 5 June, 2021.

[13] Kate Ellis, Sex, Lies and Question Time, Hardie Grant, 2021.

[14] Colleen Lewis, Come Clean! Stopping the Arms Race in Political Donations, John Cain Foundation, June, 2016.

[15] Mary Crooks, Destination Equality! In Fragility and Hope in a World of Uncertainty, edited by Grant Blashki and Helen Hayes, www.FutureLeaders.com, 2018.

Read Next