This is a dissertation which seeks to extend the study of women and politics by considering the inauspiciously taken-for-granted question of whether we actually can speak of women making an impact in parliamentary politics, hi not assuming the potential and capacity for impact, I reconceptualise the very notion of impact, and the way in which it has been operationalised in research since the advent of second-wave feminism.
This is done in three steps, each constituting a particular contribution of the thesis. First, this dissertation provides a coherent theoretical framework previously missing from the women in politics literature, by uncovering the basic underlying assumptions of the concept of impact as it has been applied in two broad research paradigms. A 'difference paradigm' has expected women to make a difference to politics primarily by virtue of their sex and an increase in their numerical presence. In reappraising these expectations, an alternate paradigm has asserted the importance of institutions or institutional context in the analysis. While neither of the two paradigms has escaped pertinent criticisms, I argue that the second research program has more comprehensively understood the interdependent role of gender, power and institutions, constituting a more intuitive understanding of impact. Specifically, I argue that this more integrated and relational approach to the study of parliamentary impact understands gender as constituted by social and institutional interactions, practices and processes. Further, gender is never situated outside of power relations, and these in turn, are institutionally guided. Thus impact for women and men in the Australian federal Parliament is contingent upon the (microscopic) relations they establish and the practices they perpetuate, legitimised by a broader (macroscopic) framework of taken-for-granted norms and rules, institutionalised within the masculine culture of the Parliament.
With this argument, I suggest that rather than speaking of the impact of gender, it is more useful to assess empirically the gender of impact. This involves not only a theoretical revisioning of the concept, but the introduction of a more illuminative and less rigid methodological orientation, capable of exploring constitutive interactions in historically and culturally specific institutional contexts. I find this in a particular combination of network and discourse analysis, presenting a second, methodological contribution of the thesis.
The third contribution of this thesis is empirical. I apply this methodology and research design to the Australian parliamentary committee environment, an arena completely bereft of gendered analysis. Specifically, I examine the interactions of members on two committee inquiries: the Senate Standing References Committee on Community Affairs Inquiry into the GST and A New Tax System, and the Joint Select Committee on the Republic Referendum. These two committees are chosen for a variety of structural reasons. While they both have a strong proportion of women, they differ in terms of the formal parliamentary position women hold in each committee, the level of experience of both the members and the committee itself, and the issue and partisan make-up of the committees. In choosing these two committees, I assert the need to move away from questions of impact gauged by numbers and solely tested in traditionally-defined "women's issue" areas.
At a broad level, I find that even in environments where women constitute strong proportions of the group, it is problematic to speak of "women's impact", or of a "difference" that women make to politics. While women in both these sites of contestation were not instrumental in changing the policy outcome (the indicator most frequently used to test impact) this thesis locates the specific and contextualised practices and relations which mitigate such an outcome. In terms of the committees themselves, I find that gendered institutional practices and relations differ according to institutional context. More specifically, the party discipline of the Australian political system brings with it a set of gendered expectations such that even the position of committee Chair does not always alleviate the legitimacy and credibility problems women face in their daily interactions with witnesses and male counterparts. Conversely, in the absence of rigid party discipline, a different set of gendered interactions and practices, underpinned by constructed, contextually-specific gendered identities, continue to plague those who are not deemed 'normal' in this environment. Finally, I note that the differences in the committee context provide some scope to speak of more or less masculinised parliamentary environments.