‘Glass cliff’: only two in 10 female Coalition and Labor candidates in winnable seats, analysis finds

<span>Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP</span>
Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

Precarious positions are being given to women in a ‘poisoned chalice’ that threatens the fight for gender equality in parliament

Female candidates are being overlooked to run in safe seats by both major parties, with new analysis showing just two in 10 female candidates have been put forward for winnable seats at this year’s election, while safe seats are “saved for the boys”.

Research from the Australian National University’s Global Institute for Women’s Leadership shows that just 20% of female candidates running for the Coalition are contesting safe seats, compared with the 46% of men who are set to be elected.

For the Labor party, the numbers are slightly better, with 24% of the party’s female candidates contesting safe seats compared with 33% of male candidates.

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The analysis considers an unwinnable seat to be one that is deemed by the Australian Electoral Commission to have a “safe” or “fairly safe” margin for the opposing party, meaning seats with a margin above 6%.

The analysis has focused only on seats where the key contest is between the major parties, examining candidates in 137 of the 151 seats in the House of Representatives, but also including incumbent MPs.

Prof Michelle Ryan, the director of the global institute for women’s leadership, said the research highlighted the “glass cliff” phenomenon where women were offered positions with more uncertainty, often in circumstances where men were not interested.

The term was first coined for the corporate sector to describe when women were put on boards of directors at times of crises or when a company’s share price had dropped.

“The idea underlying all of these is that women get put forward for leadership positions that are risky and precarious,” she told Guardian Australia.

“So in this case with political candidates, it is because their seats are unwinnable; or if they do win the seats, then they’re in this precarious, marginal sort of state [and] they have got to spend their whole time campaigning right up until the next election.

“It’s a poisoned chalice, it looks good from the outset but is not particularly great” she said.

For Labor, 76% of its female candidates are what Ryan terms “glass cliff candidates”, running in seats they are unlikely to win or that are precarious to hold. The equivalent proportion of men running in these seats is 67%.

For the Coalition, 80% of female candidates are in this category, compared with the equivalent proportion of men running in these seats at 54%.

She said that while it was difficult to judge each party’s internal preselection processes, safe seats appeared to be overwhelmingly reserved for men by both major parties.

“If you’ve got a nice, safe seat, you often see people being parachuted into that seat, and it’s often someone that’s part of the old boys club; so you save the safe seats for the boys,” Ryan said.

“You could say that just happens to leave the other seats for women – and I’m being slightly charitable there – but the flip side is saying look, ‘that’s a dog of a seat, who wants that? No one wants that, and you protect your guys from those sorts of things.”

“And if you want to be really uncharitable you say ‘oh look, they’re making us put some women in and we’ll look bad if we don’t have enough women in there, so let’s put her in that, as a bit of a sacrificial lamb’.”

In the 2022 federal election, 43% of Labor candidates and 29% of Coalition candidates are female.

Labor has preselected a total of 62 female candidates, compared with the 41 preselected by the Liberal and National parties.

In the 46th parliament, females accounted for 41% of the MPs on Labor’s team in the lower house, compared with just 20% of Coalition MPs.

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Across both parties, at least six incumbent female MPs are being challenged by male candidates in marginal seats, while seven sitting male MPs are being challenged by female candidates.

Sitting female Labor MPs in Lilley, Cowan and Gilmore are being challenged by Liberal men, while Labor male candidates are attempting to topple sitting Liberal women in Bass, Robertson and Lindsay.

Ryan said that the research also highlighted the challenge facing women of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, who were even less likely to be preselected for safe seats.


“For those minority of women that are in the safe seats, it tends to be white women, so women from ethnic and linguistically diverse backgrounds seem to be overrepresented in those glass cliff positions,” she said.

Ryan said preselecting more women for safe and winnable seats was the best way to achieve gender equity in politics and to ensure parliament represented the diversity of the community, and said misogyny and sexism appeared to be underlying the failure to shift the dial.

“When we’re trying to achieve gender equality sometimes we just look at really bare-bones basics – we need more women, let’s put more women candidates in.

“But there’s not a deeper, more thought-out analysis of: how are we actually going to get them in those positions?” she said. “I think it’s a lack of a real, genuine engagement about what really needs to be done to effect change.”