Leslie's Advice to Australia's Next Female PM

Leslie joins Jane Caro and Natasha Stott-Despoja among others in considering the take-aways from Julia Gillard’s tenure as Australia’s first female PM and suggesting ways forward for the next generation of women leaders.

Leslie’s contribution is here:

Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard said that she was aware of the misogyny around her leadership, which included comments in the media, derogatory doctored images and an infamous sexist menu, but chose not to focus on it.
Should Australia’s future female PM:
a) Focus or ignore sexism around her leadership? b) Take action as soon as it happens? c) Take action at some later stage during her term? d) What type of action shod she take to address the sexism?

I’m a researcher, so my first response to this question is, “what do we know works?” If we want to stop sexism – and that’s my aim – what would be the most effective strategy for someone high profile who is constantly in the media spotlight? How might this differ from the most effective strategy an advocacy group might use? I went to the academic literature to try and answer this question and came up with nothing. Nada. Academics have done a good job documenting the various manifestations of sexism faced by women leaders. There seems to be less systemic exploration of the effectiveness of varied strategies to address it. This relegates my response to this question to the realm of opinion ‐ you’ve been warned.

As I see it, the trap for all those naming oppression, not just sexism but racism or discrimination against those with disabilities, is that they are viewed as whingers, excuse‐makers or other‐blamers. It’s one thing for an advocacy group representing women’s interests to name and shame the sexism faced by other women, including the PM. This work is important and necessary and I absolutely support it. Whether we like it or not, the impact of someone who constantly in the spotlight (like a PM) speaking up about her own oppression reads differently and a minefield for all the reasons we saw play out for Gillard when the misogyny speech went viral. And my interest is what can and should be done to effectively challenge and eliminate sexism.

No form of oppression or discrimination should be ignored. Sexism must be named and condemned. However, the most effective means for a PM to do this may be to have others call it out for her.

Should Australia’s future female PM be concerned:
a) About using the gender card If she complains about sexism and misogyny that she might experience: b) That gender might be a dominant factor in how she is treated as a Prime Minister

Julia Gillard was Australia’s only female Prime Minister. Relying on this (unreliable) sample of one we can conclude that the answer to a) is yes. Staring warily at the word “dominant’, my answer to b) is a more qualified yes. On the question of whether gender will factor into the treatment of a future PM, Gillard’s own assessment of how it impacted her journey summarises my prediction best. She said that it didn’t explain everything but it didn’t explain nothing.

Should Australia’s future female PM:
a) Deflect that she is a woman and neutralise the issue of her gender: b) Confront gendered expectations of how she should be in public and in private c) Be herself d) Govern as a man would.

Everyone wants a world in which we are all free to be ourselves and to be recognised and respected for who we are. We all want to be judged for the content of our character, not the colour of our skin or the tackle we have in our drawers. I want this for myself, my children and the next female PM. We must keep working towards this sort of world at the same time as we acknowledge it doesn’t currently exist. Because it doesn’t currently exist, women will – and must ‐ look for practical means of reducing the insidiousness of sexism on their careers and leadership prospects.

For years, the wisdom was that women earn less than men because, unlike men, they don’t negotiate their starting salaries. New research shows that in fact the situation is more complex. It reveals that where a woman’s negotiating partner is male, any attempt to negotiate her first salary will be marked down by him in a way different to a male candidate and she won’t get the job. The upshot may be that women don’t negotiate their salaries in the same way as men because – unlike men – they will be marked down for it.

Is this fair? Absolutely not. Is this the current and unfortunate reality? Seems so. What should a woman do in response to this reality? Be herself and lose the job if being herself is asking for the higher salary? Or should she not negotiate a better starting salary so as to avoid being (unfairly) disadvantaged? It requires the wisdom of Solomon to determine which choice is “right” but I won’t be throwing stones whatever choice a woman makes. And I don’t think anyone else should be lobbying them either.

Changing the invidious choices women face in a sexist society requires large scale social movements and social change. It won’t changed by praising or blaming individual women, including Australia’s next female PM.*

How has PM Gillard made it easier for the next woman to be Australia’s female PM? Simply by being the first. If still exists in Australia when we have another female PM she will cop some of it, but at least the novelty factor will have worn off. Victoria’s first and only female Premier

Joan Kirner has said that the reason the cartoonist who kept drawing her in a polka dot dress – a dress she did not possess – was that he didn’t know how a woman in power should be drawn. Hopefully, the parallel uncertainties felt by similar such men running the joint will be cleared up by the time another woman takes the helm and that woman can get on with the job of being PM without the distraction such male uncertainties – or is that insecurities – cause.

When do you think it is likely that that Australia will have a female PM?

Not sure when, but it will happen. Certainly not any later than it takes for the young people who came of age during Gillard’s tenure to become the prime movers and shakers in this country. For these young people, Gillard would have normalized the look, feel and sound of a woman in power. This should mean that the next time an appealing candidate for PM comes along who just happens to be a woman, they’ll feel able to vote for her without a backwards glance.

Considerations for Australia’s next Woman Prime Minister
The Australian Centre for Leadership for Women (ACLW) commenced in 2000. This virtual Centre holds a strong position in the landscape of women and leadership in Australia and internationally. Its distinctive identity has emerged from focusing on the mindsets and achievements of female and male globa…