72 Hours in Canberra: The Feminist Imperative and the Dilemmas of the Contemporary Academic’s Impactful Labour

by Sarah Childs

In our Friday long read, Professor Sarah Childs explains her ground-breaking work on Gender-Sensitive Parliament audits and invites us into the backstage life of a feminist academic out to both study and change the world.

Caption: Prof. Sarah Childs

The text came in around 11am on the Thursday; by Sunday I was heading off to Australia; two days en route; three days in the Australian Capital Legislature; (ACT) and another two travelling home. It really was a flying visiting, albeit made comfortable in business class – my first experience of inflight-pyjamas, Diptyque toiletries, and a flat bed.

The urgent request from the Commonwealth Parliamentarians Association: to undertake a gender sensitive parliament (GSP) audit of the ACT legislature – their first. I had authored the 2020 CPA Gender Sensitizing Parliaments Guidelines upon which the review would be based. The CPA lead had gone down with Covid. Could I, by any chance, make myself available?

My first reaction was to suggest my good friend from the Australian National University, Sonia Palmieri, who had taught me much of what I knew about GSP work (along with Zeina Hilal from the Inter-Parliamentary Union). She was in the same city, but unfortunately unavailable. I really didn’t want to let the CPA down. It seemed to me that there really is little point devising a set of GSP standards, providing a Checklist, and urging Parliaments to undertake an audit, and then turning my back on CPA HQ efforts to support those Commonwealth parliaments that had positively responded.

GSP analysis is what I do, impact wise. It is basis of my ICS in the last two REFs (2014; 2021 BBK, Bristol). With PIR colleagues Fiona Mackay, Meryl Kenny, and since Jan 2023, Jessica Smith, we are moreover working towards a future, collaborative GSP ICS. Embryonic international reach previously cited in my earlier ICS would be realized by this and any later Audits.

Logistically I could make the Australia trip. I do not have any caring responsibilities at this time. I benefit from having a partner, a former academic, who accepts what Rosie Campbell (2013) and I have termed the feminist imperative: that as a feminist political scientist, I want to change as well as study the world. I also have good health and can travel, although on reflection I may have underestimated the effects on my sleep patterns: menopausal insomnia and jetlag.

Teaching needed to be covered. The final seminar of Semester 1 was not substantive but rather the occasion to work with students on their assignment. It was not a class that could be postponed. I asked Meryl if she might stand in for me; this had been her course previously. Here was the benefit of being a new hire, the depth of gender and politics coverage at the U of Edinburgh, and a shared commitment to refashion political institutions (FIIN). Unquestionably, I would repay her for her time, but she would be losing an afternoon’s work. With an 11-hour time difference, I also established that I could hold my office hours if students were willing to be on Teams at 6-8pm. I am grateful that they were understanding, and trust they forgave me my rather dishevelled state early in the morning Canberra time.

My experience of GSP analysis – and most importantly of institutional re-gendering – came from my self-invitation into the UK House of Commons back in 2015-16. The Good Parliament Report had initiated institutional innovation at Westminster – the Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion oversaw the implementation of some 18 of the Report’s 43 recommendations. With Fiona and Meryl, I am also advising the Presiding Officer’s Gender Sensitive Review of the Scottish Parliament; the Report and Recommendations for which, are forthcoming in early 2023. This recent Scottish experience would provide excellent insights for the ACT review process.

GSP analysis is structured across four dimensions: equality of participation; parliamentary infrastructure; parliamentary culture; and gender equality policy. The 2020 CPA Guidelines specifically address how Commonwealth parliaments’ leadership – political and administrative – can establish and embed new GSP procedures and parliamentary organisations, and how they can develop a supportive GSP culture. First, to identify where gender insensitivities exist, how they manifest themselves, and what changes need to be made. Secondly, to determine how GSP reforms can best be implemented, with their effects monitored, reviewed, and revised over time. Successful institutionalisation is key. It involves not only determining necessary reforms relevant to a particular parliament and its circumstances but in identifying the actors and means through which reforms are implemented, and GSP Standards maintained.


CPA The Four Dimensions of GSP

Dimension 1 asks the question of how a diverse group of parliamentarians might be selected for, and elected to, parliament and how, once present, they are enabled to become effective participants across parliament’s core activities: representation and interest articulation, legislative scrutiny, and executive accountability


Dimension 2 takes a critical look at the way in which parliament facilitates the work of Members and whether this benefits a particular type of parliamentarian – explicitly or implicitly. It covers everything from the buildings and furnitureof parliament to the official rules and working practices that underpin the array of Members’ parliamentary activities.


Dimension 3 acknowledges that the official, written-down rules never tell the whole story about how institutions function on the ground – this is what might be thought of as the ‘normal way of doing things’. It is, admittedly, frequently hard to pin down informal institutional norms, practices and culture. That said …parliamentary culture… is not fixed but an evolving phenomenon, subject to change.



Dimension 4 subjects the political work of parliament to gendered analysis. These would include legislation, policy, scrutiny and interest representation. It asks whether parliaments acknowledge the perspectives and address the needs and interests of women. Have women’s experiences been taken into account? Are the gendered differentiated outcomes to women’s disadvantage? Do they aim for gender equality between women and men? In so doing, such analysis will frequently be analysing a parliament’s work in holding a government to account for its gender sensitivity.

During the three days intense work at the ACT, myself and my CPA colleague undertook back-to-back interviews with MLAs and staff; read up on Standing Orders; and interrogated answers to the CPA Checklist. MLAs survey responses are still coming in. We also drafted the Report’s structure, guided very much by the Scottish Parliament experiences. The CPA will be working on recommendations in the new year and will report back in a second blog.

There are many good reasons for doing impact, but it is not cost free. Doing impact is too often the Cinderella part of the contemporary academic’s workload: come the REF – if you are selected as an ICS – you can go to the ball; but often times impact is what you do on top of all your other work; and done, at least for feminists, for the ‘love’ of changing the world, and with additional attendant risks of backlash. For all these reasons, we must talk about the impactful labour and ensure that impact undergoes a feminist make-over.

Author Bio

Sarah Childs joined the University of Edinburgh in May 2022. She has a background in Political Science and Women’s Studies. Her research centres on the theory and practice of women’s political representation, gender and political parties, parliaments and institutional change. Childs latest book Feminist Democratic Representation (co-authored with Karen Celis) was published by OUP in 2020, and jointly won the PSA W.J.M. MacKenzie book prize in 2022. Childs is also author of The Good Parliament Report, 2016, which followed a secondment to the UK House of Commons. She is finalising her new book, Designing and Building Feminist Institutions, which will be published in 2023.