Increasing women’s political representation in the Pacific is a slow process, but seeing her research have an impact at a grassroots level is part of what Dr Kerryn Baker enjoys about her “dream job”.
The Pacific Islands region has the lowest level of women’s representation in politics in the world. Three countries - Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Micronesia - have no female politicians.
Kerryn has researched women’s political representation in the Pacific for nearly a decade - first while studying her PhD, and now as a Research Fellow at The Australian National University’s (ANU) College of Asia and the Pacific in the Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA). During this time, her work has highlighted the importance and value of having more women in Pacific parliaments.
“In general I have noticed the difference between having one or two woman members of parliament and having a group,” Kerryn says.
“I think the confidence that MPs have to speak on issues related to women increases just exponentially once they have support in parliament.”
A theme of her research has been increasing the number of women in parliament, which can mean individual female politicians feel less pressure to “represent all women”.
“If you focus on getting more women elected then they can share that burden and also represent the other things that are important to them as well.”
Kerryn joined ANU in 2011 to study her PhD, which examined campaigns for parliamentary gender quotas in the Pacific Islands region, with case studies in Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Bougainville and the French Pacific territories.
“It was just right at the time that all of these things were happening in the space of Temporary Special Measures. There was a big campaign in Papua New Guinea, there was a proposal in Samoa that got passed into law while I was a PhD student, so it just seemed like a really exciting time to do this research.”
Her book, Pacific Women in Politics: Gender Quota Campaigns in the Pacific Islands, was published last year and expanded on her thesis topic, but Kerryn’s more recent research has focused on other stages of the electoral journey, including women’s experiences as candidates and in parliament, and how having more women elected changes how politics is practised.
“Parliaments...everywhere in the world are really male dominated spaces, so that affects how politics is practised. Women often come in wanting to practise a different style of politics but are not always able to do that, and you know that might change when there’s more women in politics and there’s more freedom to change the way politics is done,” she says.
Kerryn’s work often takes her to Pacific countries, where she talks directly with voters, candidates and female politicians, observes elections, and participates in workshops and programs with the aim of influencing change and, ultimately, increasing the number of women in Pacific parliaments.
“The best thing about being at ANU is being able to bridge the gap between academic research and policy,” she says.
“There’s a real emphasis on making sure that your research gives back and has real-world value.”
Kerryn and DPA’s research has led to programs to increase the number of female candidates and politicians, and helped raise awareness of the barriers to electing more women to parliament.
A workshop and subsequent report on increasing the electoral chances of Pacific women was the basis of a program in Papua New Guinea to support aspiring female candidates. Kerryn also consulted on a research project on attitudes to women’s leadership and temporary special measures in Solomon Islands. The report was released recently and has been getting media and government attention.
Seeing the impact of her research is satisfying, particularly in a region with such low numbers of women in politics. While the Inter-Parliamentary Union lists the global average of women’s representation in national parliaments at 25 per cent, across the Pacific Islands the average is just 6.7 per cent.
“One of the frustrating things about looking at women in politics is that when you look at the raw numbers it really doesn’t look like much has changed in the 10 years that I’ve been studying it,” Kerryn says.
“But then there are all these little gains and part of the work that we do here is amplifying those and drawing out the lessons from those. It’s slow progress but things are happening.”
Kerryn says while many urgent issues, such as gender-based violence or the gendered impacts of climate change, could be better addressed by having more women in politics, all issues benefit from a gendered perspective.
“We’ve seen that everywhere in the world when we’re dealing with COVID, that actually political groups that have different, diverse perspectives are able to manage responses better because they have the benefit of that plurality of perspectives,” she says.
While the pandemic has temporarily stopped Kerryn’s research on the ground, she is working on several significant projects, including creating a database of women’s political participation in the Pacific. The database will include country-specific information such as when women became eligible to vote, when the first woman was elected and a record of the women that have been elected.
“We’re just trying to figure out at the moment when women got the vote in Solomon Islands and there’s just a whole lot of different dates and it’s all very confusing so a challenge in the Pacific sometimes is just getting that basic data,” Kerryn says.
“It’s also a real opportunity because when we’re creating this database it will be hugely useful for people.”
Kerryn is also working on a podcast series with Dr Maria Tanyag looking at gender, peace and security in Asia and the Pacific in the post-COVID-19 world, which will be released in early 2021.
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