Strathfield is one of Sydney’s youngest municipalities, home to more families with children where parents are under 35 than almost any other, say demographers.
Which may explain why young women are the targets of a determined campaign to get them to contest the next council elections.
It’s not just a politically correct, gender-equality issue – though there are only two women among seven councillors at present. It’s also a matter of plain common sense.
Many of the council’s powers control amenities for families – planning, roads and traffic, parks and the environment. All areas where women should have a powerful voice.
We’ve got a female PM, a governor-general and Sydney lord mayor. Why not a council that correctly represents the make-up of the municipality?
But it is no easy task. Being a councillor is not exactly cool. Sitting on committees late into the evening, attending civic functions, working through long and complex reports and defending your work in the aisles of the local supermarket – all for a stipend of around $300 a week – isn’t for everyone.
If you are running a household, bringing up a young family and paying the mortgage with a full-time job, it is hard to see how you can make room for hours of civil service as well.
Yet women have had an illustrious history on Strathfield Council.
Former Labor MP Virginia Judge served as a councillor from 1995 to 2004 and was mayor over four terms during her stint. And Liberal councillor Eve Dutton was elected for two terms in the early 1990s.
Labor councillor Hope Brett-Bowen, a scooter-riding lawyer, has been a councillor for four years and Liberal councillor Helen McLucas was elected 18 months ago.
Both are working hard to encourage more women to run in September.
McLucas and Brett-Bowen say the difficulties of being a woman – motherhood, career and being a homemaker – might discourage women, especially those with young families, to become councillors. But it shouldn’t.
Both councillors stress that Strathfield needs more young women to represent their community. Brett-Bowen said although she and McLucas were at different stages of their lives, they would be good role models to encourage young women into local government.
In 2008, Brett-Bowen was one of the youngest councillors elected, at the age of 26. She has since been deputy mayor and says women bring empathy to the round table of what would normally be a boys’ club of professionals.
“Having a woman’s touch on council is important,” she said.
“We have a different approach to issues. We might be more empathetic towards a situation, while the men might be more analytical. But we are lucky that we do have male councillors who are very understanding.”
Late in 2010, McLucas raised at a council meeting the need to provide better funding for women to become councillors.
And McLucas says a more gender-balanced council will be a greater benefit to the community.
“We need women who are passionate and community-minded,” she said. “It would be great for us to have a cross-section of community members that represent all the different groups in Strathfield, such as mothers and young women. It means that everyone has a voice.”
Financial support for childcare, babysitters and transport is something McLucas says is important for mothers, especially those with young families. And she says her responsibilities on the council at first affected her home life.
“It was hard initially. It took time to get used to working, going to council meetings and events and also looking after my kids,” she said.
“I’m lucky that my husband is so supportive but for women who don’t have that option, such as single mothers, they need these kind of financial incentives if they want to become councillors.”
Brett-Bowen believes it is important to encourage women to become councillors by launching mentoring programs. Despite working full time, she says her experience with council has increased her confidence – something she says many woman could benefit from.
“I was so shy before I became a councillor, which does not work out well when I’m a lawyer,” she said.
“But now I’m a stronger speaker and it has helped my self-confidence. For women who have been at home and not in a work environment for some time, it would really get them back on their feet.”
Business owner and publisher of Korean newspaper Top News, Linna Lee, might be the ideal candidate for a councillor – she’s smart, switched on and knows the community. But time constraints and running her own business are barriers to her standing for election.
Although Lee hasn’t considered running for the council elections herself, she says it is important for women to take a role in local politics.
“Local women are genuinely concerned for and interested in local issues such as safety, schooling, traffic, rates and properties,” she said.
“The best way to have the local public opinion heard in the policy-making level is to ensure more involvement of women in local politics. Women bring courage, integrity, resilience and affection to that level of government,”said Lee.