This weekend marks six months since Julia Gillard stepped down from the highest office in the land. With International Women’s Day on the horizon, it is timely to reflect on Gillard’s rise and fall.
What aspects of Gillard’s trajectory are emblematic of the challenges faced by female political leaders? What can be done to tackle the problems faced by women seeking high political office to smooth the way for Australia’s next female prime minister?
Research shows male and female leaders are equally good at their jobs. A combined analysis of more than 88 studies showed male and female leaders and managers were equally effective. Another study showed gender to be a poor predictor of the leadership styles managers adopt.
Despite this, male and female leaders are judged differently. Leadership was once the exclusive province of men and the qualities that define the ideal man – achievement-oriented, able to take charge, autonomous and rational – are the same used to describe a good leader. In contrast, the ideal woman fits the mould of a follower, not a leader. Obedient and deferential, she is unconcerned with achievement but instead focused on understanding and nurturing others.
We like to think such cliches are past their use-by date, but a 2012 paper reveals they are alive and well in the way men and women describe themselves and their opposites. Worse, data shows the consistency of gender stereotypes across cultures. In one survey, respondents from 25 countries largely agreed on the adjectives associated with men and women, with males assigned more agency-oriented words while more communal-oriented words were used to describe women.
Such biases don’t mean we’re consciously sexist. Some are what psychologists call ‘'mind bugs’‘, implicit biases traced to the evolutionary past when we needed to make snap judgments about others – judgments that often proved wrong – to stay alive.
The persistence of such gender dichotomies puts women leaders such as Gillard in a ‘'double-bind’‘ that renders them damned – or doomed. If they strive to fit the male ’‘good leader’‘ template they may be judged effective, but will be marked down as unfeminine and even unlikeable. If they attend to the psychic and nurturing of others, they’ll get a tick for femininity but fail in the competent leader stakes.
Gillard’s misfit with expectations of women as ethical leaders may also have laid her low. Australia’s tradition of what historian Marilyn Lake calls maternal feminism casts women in the role of what Anne Summers called ‘'God’s Police’‘.
Gillard’s reputation as a negotiator, and what she describes as her focus while in office on ‘'how you get it done, the pragmatic things, even the compromises, the things that are necessary to achieve change’‘, made it hard to for the electorate to understand the matters on which she would stand and fight. While a male leader might have been praised for passing more than 570 pieces of legislation and his pragmatic capacity to get things done, Gillard may have been punished for violating the stereotype of female politicians as a moral cut above the rest because of the perception she lacked moral bottom lines.
Such character concerns resurfaced in the wake of the misogyny speech, when Gillard was lambasted for playing the gender card. According to academic Diann Rodgers-Healey, the key message is that female politicians who wish to call out sexism as it affects them need to ensure that the elimination of gender discrimination as it affects all women is central to their platform from the day dot. Calling in others to name and shame – rather than doing it themselves – may also help avoid the whinger, excuse-maker and other-blamer tags.
How can we ease the way, for Australia’s next female PM? Gillard’s ascendancy to the top job has partly achieved this. Having a female prime minister is the most powerful way to normalise women in leadership roles. Her tenure will have kick-started the aspirations of a whole new generation of girls who, having witnessed that the top political job is open to them, will strive to attain it.
But we must do more. Gillard’s story shows that a male mentor – in her case Bill Shorten – can be a key ingredient in a female politician’s rise to the top. This is true in the business world, too, a fact recognised by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick’s ‘'male champions for change’‘ initiative. We must also strive for society-wide understanding that sexism is as abhorrent and unjust as racism, and must be abolished.
Most critical is that well-heeled feminists and men fund an organisation dedicated to finding and nurturing the expertise to innovate, advocate and educate around sexism.
Such a think tank would fast-track Australia through what researchers have identified as a four-stage program to equalise women’s access to the political reins of power. Australia’s tradition of transient, volunteer and issue-based advocacy, based on middle-class married women and students having the financial resources to donate limited bursts of their time, is past its use-by date.
Staging an effective fight against conscious and unconscious sexism requires the permanent installation of a well-funded, bipartisan, professional women’s think tank. But no one is going to hand women the means to create and institutionalise this powerful mechanism for change. We, and our male allies, must fund it ourselves.
Leslie Cannold is a contributing author to the virtual think tank the Australian Centre for Leadership for Women’s publication titled Considerations For Australia’s Next Woman Prime Minister.
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