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The Women of the Young Liberals

By Sanjana Jose and Faith Limantono

From cyberbullying to female empowerment, Sanjana Jose and Faith Limantono reports on the diverse experiences of women in the Young Liberal Organisation.

When chairing a Western Sydney University Liberal Club’s annual general meeting, Nicole Gangemi said she was “thrown” off stage when other members attempted to gain control. “They harassed me then physically pushed me off the chair,” she said about the incident.

Mrs Gangemi was coming out of her term as President when the incident occurred. “There were two tickets of people who wanted the position,” she said. “There was one who didn’t have the numbers and in order for them to win, they needed to take control of the chair so they could throw our people out and put their people in. When I was controlling the chair, they came up to me and physically harassed me. I said that if they stopped this behaviour I would step down. Then they pushed me off the stage.”

Nicole Gangemi, immediate past president of Western Sydney University Liberal Club and the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation said, “If the behaviour in the Young Liberals were to be put in the workplace, it would undoubtedly be seen as bullying.”

However, not all women feel the same.

Natasha Maria Nehme, a 2-year member and current executive of the Western Sydney University Liberal Club has had a different experience in the organisation. “I’ve never personally felt any type of discrimination as a woman. I actually feel like women are given more of a platform to speak.”

“Being in the Young Liberals, you get to know the people running our country and making the decisions, we get to have our voice”.

The Young Liberal organisation has been viewed as an environment rife with sexism and discrimination. Female representation in the wider Liberal Party is at only 19% compared to the 42% in the Australian Labor Party, female retention rates have been declining in the Young Liberal Organisation and two young Liberal members have recently been suspended for making inappropriate comments about women on Tinder.

“I haven’t had a deep look into the Tinder scandal myself. People are always trying to take things out of context to make the club look bad,” Ms Nehme commented about the Young Liberal Tinder scandal.

Mrs Gangemi’s term as president of Western Sydney University Liberal Club was said to have involved “harassment” and “badgering” in her cyberspace. “There was a concerted effort to blow up my social media, blow up my phone. In 15 minutes, I got 200 texts messages from around 40 people. They were saying things like ‘give us what we want’, ‘stop being a bitch’, ‘you’re a slut’, ‘fuck you’.”

Mrs Gangemi said that women had two general experiences in the Young Liberals. The first was that in the initial few weeks, they were “swamped by men” looking for dates. Secondly, they would experience the “inherently intense nature of politics.”

“A lot of the bullying and discrimination is because of factional motivations,” Mrs Gangemi said. “Each faction will harass the other to get ahead”.

Dee Zegarac, past candidate for the Hawkesbury state pre-selection, former staff member for NSW Treasurer, Dominic Perrottet and past Young Liberal member, supported Mrs Gangemi’s comments. “I’ve seen a lot of women come in and out of the party and that’s because of the first few weeks of joining, you just get hit on by all these men. You just have to push through that”.

Like Ms Nehme, Ms Zegarac has enjoyed her time in the Young Liberal Organisation, finding that it has given her a platform for her voice. “I haven’t faced that issue in terms of being discriminated against because I’m female. I’m lucky to have surrounded myself with very good mentors like Dominic Perrottet and Kevin Conolly,” Miss Zegarac said.

“Last year, I ran for pre-election for a seat,” she said. “I was encouraged to and it wasn’t because I was a female. I thought that was quite good and I had strong female support to make sure I could take that leap”.

Ms Gangemi commented differently, saying that “girl-on-girl” bullying also exists in the Young Liberal organisation. “Women see other women succeeding, so maybe they have a male mentor or dated a guy. People will say the she’s succeeding because she’s sleeping with that senior male. It’s about her sexuality and not her merit,” she said.

“Fortunately, I haven’t seen that,” said Ms Nehme about the potential girl-on-girl fighting in the organisation. “I hope I never see that.”

We reached out to university-based Liberal clubs, including University of New South Wales, Sydney University, Macquarie University and University of Notre Dame for a comment. They have ignored our attempts or declined to respond.

According to all three women, the Young Liberals have implemented policies to improve the low female membership. “Mentoring programs between older, influential female Liberal members and younger women have been put in place to encourage continued involvement,” said Mrs Gangemi.

“Even at O-week, we make sure that there is always a female at the stand.”

Harry Stutchbury, President of the NSW Young Liberals said that female membership in the Young Liberal organisation had increased from 38% to 41% since October 2017.

Laura Glase from Sydney University’s Liberal Club expanded more on these new policies. “Campaign weekends have occurred where the women travel together to support and campaign for female members of Parliament. Most recently, it was Shelley Hancock, member for South Coast. The existence of women’s council delegate positions in the Young Liberal branches ensure that female members are being represented and have a direct say in party matters. We have witnessed a 20% increase of women on branch executives in the past 2 years.”

Women’s Council is the main Liberal Party body which aims to support its female members. Miss Zegarac thinks that its involvement of women needs to be improved. “The struggle is in accommodating young or working women who have commitments to study and travel. Meetings are in the middle of the week at 10am. It accommodates older members but not the professionals, excluding a lot of people from being active,” Miss Zegarac said.

The young women in the Young Liberal organisation have had a range of experiences, from the severe harassment of other male and female members to the assistance it has provided for their ambitions.

Despite her experiences, Mrs Gangemi is still involved in the party as a president branch member. “The organisation has taught me skills which allowed me to progress faster in my career. It made me tougher, more articulate and gave me networks I wouldn’t have.”

The organisation is implementing policies to address the bullying and increase female membership. Its success is still not concretely known, but the women who are a part of the Young Liberals are pushing through the barriers and are here to stay.