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After the misogynistic media treatment of Georgie Purcell, is it any wonder young women are hesitant to pursue politics?

7 February 2024

Just over a year ago, I stood in the wings at Aware Super Theatre in Sydney, managing my nerves and breathing. I was preparing to speak to 8000 people about the importance of involving young women and gender diverse people in Australian politics and policy. From the dark, I watched former Prime Minister Julia Gillard speak with Indira Naidoo, a journalist, author and presenter, reflecting on the 10 year anniversary and legacy of her famous “misogyny” speech. Not now, not ever.

I joined 6 other speakers, each sharing a different reflection on that dateful moment in 2012. When it was my turn to speak, I stared into the dark and took two deep breaths, before sharing why I had spent the past six years working to progress gender equality, why I’d founded Raise Our Voice Australia, a social enterprise aimed at mobilising young women and gender diverse people to transform policy and politics, and the legacy of that now famous speech for young people.

The audience was full of women, many of whom had brought their daughters, eager to share intergenerational reflections on this visceral rallying call as our highest political leader spoke up against treatment women had experienced for decades. In conversations afterwards, I heard both their optimism, and their frustration in how far we still had to go.

As part of my role leading Raise Our Voice Australia, I speak to young women and gender diverse people every week. Overwhelmingly, these young people, aged between 12-32 from across Australia, are smart, driven, and have a clear idea of the future they want to create – a future centred on climate change, equality, positive mental health, and support for education. Their message is clear: we’re passionate, can lead important change, and we don’t want to run for office as we don’t want to be in the firing line. Because, despite measures to get more women into politics, the lack of media accountability is stark.

I founded Raise Our Voice Australia in 2020, after years lamenting the absence of young women and gender diverse people from the seats of Australia’s parliaments. Years before, I co-founded a campaign to help young people ask “why not me?” when looking at their political representatives. After working in domestic policy and foreign policy as a senior policy officer, it was clear to me that those with the most at stake – young people – were missing from this decision making. Raise Our Voice Australia started with a training program, sharing knowledge on and networks in these key areas, before launching campaigns to connect young people with their elected representatives, running research, and building our community.

At Raise Our Voice Australia, we talk about how politics for women is shifting, and yet, this week was a visceral reminder that despite some positive shifts since 2017, some things haven’t changed.

You don’t have to look far to find a negative media story about women in the public eye, especially near the campaign trail. While gender was a key talking point in the 2022 federal election, media reporting of women remains reliant on outdated tropes. Who’s taking care of her family? Variations on “she was too emotional”. And recently, when I saw that Nine edited Georgie Purcell’s photo, enlarging her breasts and editing in a non-existent midriff, I was irate.

When Nine blamed its editing of Georgie Purcell’s photo – the youngest member of Victorian Parliament and a young, passionate woman who’s upset many on the conservative side of politics with her progressive views and her tendency to challenge the status quo – their excuses seemed laughable. It takes no stretch of the imagination to believe that the photo editing was deliberate.

After Adobe denied Nine’s claims of “but it was the AI,” the final insult was The Australian newspaper describing Purcell as a “ former stripper,” seemingly aimed at devaluing her worth and status as an important female politician based on her prior employment. In 2022, research conducted by Raise Our Voice Australia in partnership with the Body Shop Australia New Zealand, found that 13 per cent of young women and gender‑diverse people felt represented in politics, with just 35 per cent saying they would consider politics as a career.

Interrogating the media’s treatment of women in the public eye, 87 per cent of respondents reported that representation of women in politics by the media is mostly negative. Respondents cited the treatment of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, alongside the commentary surrounding Brittany Higgins, and Grace Tame. Other respondents noted the additional vitriol levelled as women of colour, First Nations people, gender diverse people, disabled people and sex workers.

In Australia, many of our media companies lack integrity. Too many rely on manufacturing outrage and printing stories that devalue women. When Georgie is described as a “former stripper” whether we like it or not, people click on the stories, and media companies know this. It’s gross and demeaning, reminiscent of a bunch of boys jeering and letting the woman know that they don’t value her achievements.

Like many media subjects before her, Georgie is an impressive MP, and a role model to so many young people, myself including. In the age of TikTok, too many articles are the product of the attention economy and drive click-bait journalism. What happened to pieces that are fact checked and rigorous? What happened to quality journalism? Some might even argue the public must also be held responsible for the maintenance of these tropes – after all, it’s us in the comment sections driving these debates. But, where are the media organisations leading a nuanced discussion on issues of policy rather than publishing the same tired, misogynistic click bait?

Four years into running Raise Our Voice Australia, I’m often overwhelmed by the scope of the problem we’re trying to fix. I’m frustrated. Frustrated that with every step forward, there’s someone – a journalist, editor or media outlet – who refuses to move. That we continue to ask women to “just put their hands up” or “lean in” while we tear them down in the media and in comment sections. The business case for diversity is strong: when we have more diversity in leadership, better outcomes are reached. And who doesn’t want better outcomes for all Australians?

Last year, I completed Pathways to Politics through Melbourne University. I’m determined that these hateful bullies do not win. In a cohort of 30 women, I received training on how to run for office and hear from incredible women political leaders.

If we truly want a better future, we need change, and we need accountability. It’s time that media outlets took some responsibility, and we the public voted with our clicks. If you’re sexist, I won’t subscribe. Newspapers are a declining medium, so if they want Gen Z, millennial and Gen X subscribers, they need to refocus their stories to meet our modern standards of inclusion and diversity.

As for Georgie? I couldn’t have more admiration for her courage, and for calling out this misogyny. But she shouldn’t have to. It’s time for change. The stakes are too high not to.

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