Governments and businesses around the world are trumpeting their desire to get women into top positions. But does parity at the top translate into progress more broadly? And how does sexism aimed at prominent women relate to the workplace challenges faced by others?
Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female prime minister in 2010, and is now the first chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London. She spoke to Apolitical about sexism in politics and the media and why women’s leadership is important.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Campaigns that focus on issues like board parity and CEO pay gaps, rather than the concerns of women in “ordinary” workplaces, sometimes get criticised. Why are you interested in women’s leadership in particular?
Obviously my background has given me a keen sense of what the barriers can be, not only in whether or not women get there, but how their leadership is evaluated and whether it’s evaluated fairly or through the prism of gender.
But our analysis about women’s leadership is not that you get almost to the top and then smash your head on a glass ceiling and can’t get any further. It is more a glass labyrinth. When you look at organisational charts you tend to see equal intakes at base levels or new starter levels, and then the number of women thin out, and then particularly thin out at the top.
So to truly solve the issue of equality in leadership, you need to solve the set of barriers that affect almost every working woman’s life. It is broader and more inclusive than just whether, of the contending deputy CEOs, the woman is going to come through as CEO.
What gender disadvantage looks like varies from culture to culture. When we talk about “women’s leadership”, does women’s leadership in the UK or Australia look different to women’s leadership in Ghana?
I’ve had the privilege of talking to a number of African women leaders — Joyce Banda, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a very good friend of mine, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who’s a former Nigerian finance minister and the chair of the Global Vaccine Alliance, and the women I’ve got to know through the Campaign for Female Education.
“More is the same around the world than you would think. The same stereotyping about women is in people’s heads.”
Those conversations tell me that more is the same than you would think. There’s a focus on the stereotyping about women that’s in people’s heads, about whether they’ll be strong enough, whether they’ll be able to cope. If they do show strength then the flipside is, “well, they can’t be very nurturing, they can’t be empathetic,” so they’re not very likeable, they’re very cold and hard.
There is a focus on appearance. Joyce Banda, who chose to wear her very colourful African dress, was criticised: “why aren’t you wearing more Western-style female garb? You can’t go on the world stage representing Malawi dressed like that.”
And there is a focus on family structures: how can women put this together when they’ve got responsibilities at home?
Looking at your own experience, is there a difference between the kind of sexism you face as a young woman at a commercial law firm and the type that you face as a very high-profile political figure?
Yes. When I was a university student, I could intellectually understand the equality barriers for women in my own society and around the world. But on my own personal journey, I actually didn’t feel many of them for many years.
When I was at the law firm, it was a fairly knockabout culture, a larrikin kind of culture. I actually didn’t feel that as a discriminatory gender impact, and felt quite at home in many ways with that culture.
Even when I was first elected to the House of Representatives, and was a backbencher and then a shadow minister, I wouldn’t have said gender was a huge issue for me. It became most manifest to me right at the top.
I think that’s a series of things. You’re more publicly exposed the further you go, and obviously I was most publicly exposed as prime minister. You become the focus of more direct criticism than you would when you were further down. And it became more and more apparent that much of that criticism had a gendered theme to it.
There were moments when it got not only very visible but kind of quite crazy. The things that happened during the campaign around carbon pricing, for example: the rallies with sexist signs.
Before becoming an MP, you worked on establishing affirmative action in the Australian Labor Party for female parliamentary candidates. But as a politician with a more public profile, you didn’t raise those issues for a long time. Why was that?
Yes, I was involved in the affirmative action campaign back in the early 1990s. And I would say, if you look at Australian politics now, it’s kind of undeniable that the approach that Labor took has made a difference.
I think we pursued a lot of policies that had a focus on equality and on women’s lives. There was a question for me about: you become the first female prime minister, it’s going to be very noteworthy. Do you then also want to say: “well, that means I’m going to put even more of a spotlight on gender than it inherently has, because I’m the first”?
Or do you want to present to the electorate as, “Yes, I’m the first and that means something to me and I hope it means something to the nation, but I am also the prime minister doing the following range of things”?
And I decided to do that, in part because I thought that the gender stuff would normalise a bit over time. I thought people would get used to me being the first female prime minister, and then it wouldn’t look quite so self-connected to be talking about gender policy. It would be received in the same vein: “Oh, she’s talking about gender policy today, she’s talking about defence policy tomorrow, she talked about economic policy yesterday.”
But we never got there. Against my expectations.
Does looking at someone like New Zealand’s new prime minister Jacinda Ardern being a lot more open about these issues give you any kind of optimism?
I’m optimistic about the medium to longer term. I don’t think it’s an easy road in the short term. I’m very happy that Jacinda’s there, that she’s taking maternity leave and has had the baby, and about the way in which that’s being received, I hope that kind of positivity around it continues.
Barnaby Joyce, the former Australian deputy prime minister, had an affair and now a child with one of his staffers, called Vikki Campion. The coverage has seemed quite forgiving compared to what you dealt with. Is that a sign of continuing gender bias in the media?
[Joyce is facing an ongoing inquiry into whether he misused entitlements such as expenses during the affair. A separate probe, into Campion’s employment in another ministerial office after leaving Joyce’s, was dropped when Joyce resigned as deputy prime minister. Joyce denies any wrongdoing in both cases.]
I think, in truth, the only public interest in any of this — and I would generalise from Barnaby Joyce’s personal experience to more generally across politics — is around misuse of entitlements, potentially misuse of appointments power for staff, and I think hypocrisy in campaigning, if people campaign on the basis of strong family values, and then their lives aren’t seen to match that campaigning.
I do think it is legitimate for the media to report on entitlements, appointments and hypocrisy. But the thing that brought all of this to public attention was a tabloid front page with a photograph of a heavily pregnant woman on it, Vikki Campion.
I just ask myself the more fundamental question: to understand this political scandal, did we ever need to see a picture of Vikki Campion? I don’t know why we needed to.
So I do think there was a trespassing on certainly her privacy, which wasn’t called for, for the story to be in the public domain around the things that it should have been in the public domain for.
Was it a relief to give that famous 2012 speech in Parliament about misogyny in the opposition?
No, it wasn’t some very cathartic moment for me.
I meant every word of it and I think that shows. I certainly did have a sense of cool anger that, having tolerated a lot of sexist nonsense, now the opposition was going to try and skewer me on sexism. But it didn’t have a cathartic sense.
“In many ways, the public sector tends to be forward-leaning on societal issues.”
And even though I realised it was a powerful speech in the chamber, I didn’t have any sense that it would endure, or be noted around the world the way it ultimately was.
The public sector does quite well on gender parity in leadership ranks. What do you think public sector organisations do well, that private sector organisations could be learning from?
People are often very critical of the public service in its consumer-facing parts, things like transport services and the like.
But I think that, in many ways, the public sector tends to be forward-leaning on societal issues, whether it’s gender equality, inclusion and diversity, or carbon footprint.
I think because there isn’t that strict profit accountability, there’s possibly some more licence to try and do things and learn from them, and then spread them across the public service.
I think the fact that the public sector has tended to retain higher unionisation rates probably means that people feel more empowered and more protected, to make it clear that they want change in their workplace, they want new policies, new practices, complaints dealt with more fairly and clearly.
And I think the public service, too, it is watched, and even a manager who wasn’t motivated by personal belief might be motivated by the fear of public reporting.
How much do you think governments should be proactive in trying to encourage gender parity in the private sector, for example by imposing quotas for board members?
I think it starts with the example and the social awareness, moves to the pressure to better self-regulate, and if that pressure doesn’t work, then I think government has to make it clear that it will ultimately use regulatory and legislative instruments. I think the dynamic between those things then means that you get to a better sweet spot for change.
I think ultimately, if businesses think a government will act unless they sort it out, then the motivation to sort it out is very high, because almost inevitably legislation and regulation will be fairly blunt instruments. They’re likely to come with high red-tape requirements, there’ll be transaction costs, so to avoid that you actually create the most motivation for change.
I think the women on boards dynamic shows that. There’s been good progress, particularly in places where it seemed credible that the government might legislate or regulate.
The vision of your Institute is to build a base of evidence and knowledge about what works to promote women’s leadership. But is that really the problem, or do we know what we need to do but there’s just a lot of resistance about actually wanting to do it?
I think it’s a mix of those problems. So if you look at the current global evidence base, there are clearly things that we do know that should be being implemented, and aren’t being implemented.
Either organisations are not doing them because they don’t know about them, and one of our key missions is dissemination, or they’re not doing them because they’re resisting, in which case we can be part of the public advocacy push. It’s our intention to be well networked into women’s activist organisations to help with that.
Then there are also gaps and holes in the evidence base, where more needs to be learned, before we can say with authority to people that this works. So we will do original research to try and fix those gaps and holes.
We’ve written about some research that suggests policies like training to remove unconscious bias don’t work very well. What does work?
We’re putting together a list of quick wins. But you are right, the early evidence on a number of things, including unconscious bias training, is that they are best ineffective and at worst counterproductive. And when we’ve got so much to do, that any dollars, time, effort is being wasted on things that aren’t going to have impact, is kind of truly heartbreaking.
In the events and discussions that I’ve had there is a sense of frustration that many people who are in organisations that are trying to do the right thing, then are getting their data back and it’s not moving.
So I think to the extent that we can add to this “what works” knowledge base, it will fall on a receptive audience in many places. — Fergus Peace & Nitika Agarwal
(Picture Credit: Flickr/Kate Lundy)