The Victorian Government has set a goal to achieve gender equity in councils by 2025, but many fear COVID-19 could create a set back in reaching equality.
The upcoming October council elections are set to reveal progress made since the last election in 2016.
A number of programs and campaigns are in place to support and encourage women to stand for local government.
But many working in the sector are concerned too many barriers to entry for women remain and challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic could be preventing women from running for council.
The makeup of many current local governments in Victoria reveals a system that is largely unrepresentative of its constituents, with low numbers of female councillors and a lack of diversity in age, culture and background.
I have been saying these things for all of my working life which spans many decades and it depresses me we still have to talk about it to be honest.Janet Dore, City of Ballarat interim CEO
In the 2016 elections, 38 per cent of all councillors elected in Victoria were women.
This was an increase from 34 per cent in the 2012 election, 31 per cent in 2008, 29 per cent in 2004 and 26 per cent in 2000.
Research has shown women are just as likely as men to be elected when they stand for council, however they often do not stand for election.
Ballarat is bucking the trend of women in politics more broadly with a female federal representative and two female state representatives.
But women remain under-represented on Ballarat council, holding three out of nine positions, a decrease from four women on the previous council.
This under-representation of women is seen throughout the surrounding region, with two women elected to Golden Plains Shire Council in 2016 out of seven councillors, two women elected to Hepburn out of seven, one elected to Moorabool out of seven and one to Pyrenees out of five.
The Municipal Association of Victoria says COVID-19 had caused many women to reconsider their decision to stand for council in October.
The organisation said women must have the support and resources to stand for council this year and in 2024 if Victoria was to achieve equal gender representation.
Seven females have so far announced they are running for Ballarat City council in the October elections.
This includes three current councillors Samantha McIntosh, Amy Johnson and Belinda Coates and four first time candidates: Bridget Aitchison, Tracey Hargreaves, Ellen Burns and Kumuda Simpson.
Mayor of neighbouring Hepburn Shire Cr Licia Kokocinski said the closure of candidate nominations on September 22 would reveal the final gender breakdown, but she had real fears COVID-19 would impact some women's decision to nominate.
"I am really concerned for many women that getting involved in local government politics is all of a sudden something that has been taken off the agenda," she said.
"As the data is showing, women are being disproportionately hit in job losses and loss of income as well as having to do the home school and child rearing at home.
"We fear that is going to impact on the number of women that are going to be standing for local government.
"As far as women in politics, I do fear for the future on that score, I genuinely do."
Ballarat candidates say barriers preventing many women from running for local government do exist.
First-time candidate Bridget Aitchison said although she was interested in politics from a young age, she did not think she could have run for council when she was younger while struggling as a single parent to work, study and support her family.
For her, the timing is right now.
"For local council, it is really hard for people to make the commitment," she said.
"The election itself is expensive. We self-fund. We are not helped by party or government and this is costing a lot more money in the time of COVID.
"So you have the expense and the time issues that are preventing people from running and that is really a shame, because I would love to see ethnic diversity, I would love to see indigenous representation on local council and I would love to see more women putting their hands up.
"Time and cost needs to be removed. Let's resource women to run who can't necessarily resource themselves."
Ballarat snack food entrepreneur Ellen Burns, who is also a first-time council candidate, said COVID-19 had added extra challenges to the election campaign, particularly for new candidates, with no avenues to speak to the community face to face.
"We are really limited in what we are able to do as candidates to social media and traditional media," she said.
"I have found that I probably have a slight advantage being a business owner that I am used to doing social media, but for people who aren't used to that I think it would be really difficult."
It is the first time running for council for politics and climate change researcher and teacher Kumuda Simpson.
She said she had an 'amazing' family and a lot of strong female mentors who were supporting her decision to stand, but she could not imagine doing it without that network behind her.
"A lot of women do the bulk of the domestic work and the caring work and that is a huge burden on women who are also trying to juggle full time work, then committing to taking on that extra role in local politics," she said.
"I don't think you can do it unless you have an incredibly supportive network of people around you, but a lot of women don't and that is really hard."
Current City of Ballarat councillor and former mayor Samantha McIntosh said she believed many women decided not to enter politics because of bad behaviour in and directed at people in the political system.
"I think women have deep empathy and care and emotion and sometimes that can be a barrier," she said.
"They look at what goes on in the world of politics and sometimes behaviour is not good enough and needs to be called out by all of us to make it a nicer and more attractive role for people to be interested to step into.
"It is so easy for people to snipe and be nasty without consequences. That behaviour I believe does detract or stop many people from putting their hand up.
"I encourage people to have confidence and strength. It is very very difficult when you haven't been in the position before to put your hand up.
"I certainly recall that fear of the unknown and the worry about what people say."
Current City of Ballarat councillor Belinda Coates said she had felt a need to work harder to have her voice heard during her eight years as a councillor.
"Some of the challenges are often around having good ideas blocked and a sense of occasionally being dismissed as those things being minority views when in fact they actually benefit a broad range of people," she said.
"Unfortunately there are still some barriers in getting taken seriously and being heard in an equal way.
"Some of the successful and rewarding things are the battles that have been most hard fought though."
Current City of Ballarat councillor Amy Johnson was elected to council aged 24 as the youngest ever female councillor in Ballarat in 2012.
She said she believed Victoria had come a long way in female representation and people's attitudes were changing, but she had been subject to what could be considered ageist and sexist comments.
"I remember when I was first elected as a 24-year-old female in 2012 I had lots of funny moments initially, people in meetings thinking I was there to take the minutes," Cr Johnson said.
"In the lead up to the 2016 election I was pregnant and I had people tell me they were concerned about whether I would be able to manage being a councillor and a mum.
"Then when I did get re-elected I had two older male councillors tell me they wouldn't support me as deputy mayor because I had had a baby and they didn't think I could do both.
"I find I get asked a lot in the run up to elections how I am going to manage my role as a mother as well as being a councillor and I have been asked those questions again this time... I often wonder if male candidates get asked the same questions about how they will manage their family life and council."
The Victorian Local Governance Association is partnering with the University of Melbourne and La Trobe University to undertake a new research project understanding the trajectories of women in local politics.
The Australian Research Council has awarded the project $227,010 to generate new knowledge about barriers to female political representation, their political performance and pathways to higher tiers of elected office.
All female candidates and current councillors The Courier spoke to in Ballarat highlighted the importance of mentoring and encouraging other women to stand in achieving greater diversity of representation.
First-time Ballarat council candidate Tracey Hargreaves said she had been encouraged by others to stand for council in recent years but it was not until another comment was made two or three weeks ago that she decided to run.
"I think there is a perception that normal, everyday people can't make much of an impact in local government and I think I also see there is a lot of bigger politics at play," she said.
"I guess I had never considered it before."
Cr Kokocinski said she believed mentoring and helping women feel confident enough to stand would play an important role in the coming years.
"You have got to work with people, to skill people, let them know how power is manipulated and how it is used, how decisions are made, how do you deal with contrarians, how you put up with the abuse and the vitriol and how you balance your family," she said.
"These things are going to be really important."
I think there is a perception that normal, everyday people can't make much of an impact in local government.Tracey Hargreaves, Ballarat council candidate
Cr McIntosh said she first stood for council after others encouraged her to run for the role.
"It is up to us to encourage those people we believe have skills, whether they be male or female, no matter what part of the community they are representing or what their nationality is," she said.
"I think we should be tapping good people on the shoulder who we feel have the skill to be a voice.
"I think it is easy for there to be a pattern of regular contributors and I think we all fall into a holding pattern very easily rather than looking around and encouraging people to stand."
Ms Simpson said she would also like to see more young people stand for council and she would like to facilitate an official mentoring network in Ballarat.
Melbourne University Pathways to Politics for Women program accepted 30 participants into its program this year.
Director Dr Meredith Martin told The Courier a key part of the program was allowing women who have aspirations to talk to women who had succeeded.
"It is women who have those aspirations talking to women who have experienced exactly the same kind of lack of confidence and questions about their capacity to run who have taken it on and given it a crack," she said.
"That is incredibly impactful in terms of the whole kind of you can't be what you can't see kind of thing."
Dr Martin said the combination of teaching skills and providing networks and connections increased women's sense of confidence and feelings they were capable and worthy of standing for a political role.
"That element of support and motivation cannot be underestimated and a sense of solidarity too across political lines is really important."
Twenty seven of the program's alumni have run for election or pre-selection across federal state and local government since it started four years ago, with seven of those elected.
Dr Martin said the program played a key role in increasing women's representation in politics, in conjunction with other campaigns, efforts of political parties, organisations like Women for Election and the state government's It's Our Time campaign.
"We were very firm in our resolve that this wasn't a generic leadership program for women, it was absolutely about preparing them to run and building confidence for them to run," she said.
City of Ballarat interim chief executive Janet Dore said she had been having conversations about gender inequity in leadership her entire career.
She has broken gender barriers in a number of roles, including as the first female chief executive at City of Ballarat and first female general manager at City of Newcastle.
"I think there needs to be encouragement by everyone who has been within the system. We have had fantastic women councillors in Ballarat in the past," she said.
"There is only 30 per cent now and 30 per cent is not enough. It is not representative of the population. But equally I would say there is no cultural diversity, it is pretty much Anglo-Saxon and I don't think that is representative of a community.
"We need a lot more diversity, we need a lot more people to be heard.
"I have been saying these things for all of my working life which spans many decades and it depresses me we still have to talk about it to be honest."
Local government candidate nominations close on September 22 and the elections will be held on Saturday, 24 October.
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