New women leaders institute to be chaired by former Oz PM

By on 20/04/2018 | Updated on 25/09/2020
Julia Gillard at the launch of the Global Institute for Women's Leadership (Image courtesy: David Tett).

After sexism poisoned her three-year stint as Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard became ever more determined to champion gender equality in government and politics. Liz Heron hears her explain her experiences at the launch of King’s College London’s new women leaders research institute

At the time that Julia Gillard won a seat in Australia’s parliament after a 10-year struggle to get selected, she had the view that the gender battle had been won for her generation. That perspective did not survive direct contact with government.

Australia’s first female prime minister – who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1998, and served as PM 2010-13 – says she was guided in her early political career by Labor mentors such as Joan Kirner and Caroline Hogg, respectively former premier and a multi-portfolio minister in Victoria state.

“That generation worked with my generation to create things like the affirmative action rule,” she recalled in London earlier this month, “and so by the time I got into parliament, I thought: ‘We have got this sussed. We are going to have more women in parliament. It’s all going to fix itself. And it didn’t.”

As prime minister, Gillard found herself the butt of repeated opposition taunting and slogans such as “Ditch the Witch”; she famously accused Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott of sexism and misogyny in a speech that went viral worldwide.

GIWL and woman

Gillard’s conclusions since leaving politics on her core experiences as prime minister are the driving force behind her new role as chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, where she has been a visiting professor since 2016.

Speaking at the institute’s launch on 4 April, Gillard said she made a mistake by not raising the gender issue early in her premiership; the fact that she mainly focused on it after she got into difficulties left her open to accusations of using it as a political tactic.

“I thought that the kind of maximum interest in the gender bit would be in the early days that I was prime minister and then it would sort of flatten out to a normal political cycle, which would not be without abuse – because we play our politics pretty hard in Australia – but it would be the normal amplitudes of what passes for discourse in Australian politics,” she said.

“What I actually found was yes, there was a reaction when I was first prime minister, but then as the government continued to govern and things got tougher, actually it got more gendered. The gendered insult became the go-to weapon.

“And because we hadn’t said anything about it for all this time, to then suddenly say, ‘Oh, this is the gendered bit’, people would say: ‘Well you are only saying that because the government’s in trouble’. And so it got harder, to kind of pull it out.”

Too much, too late

Gillard says her misogyny speech, which came from a “place of cool anger”, showed her frustration with this process; but while it was well-received abroad, it went down in Australian politics as a “dreadful error”.

“The press gallery thought it was a huge mistake, the commentators said I had ultimately alienated men, there was now no chance of a political recovery for me,” she says. “So when I did call the gender bit, it didn’t play well for me in politics.”

“Now with the remove of time and the ability to be more analytical, [it] makes me even more anxious to think of the ways that we can disaggregate the gender bit for women in politics and women in leadership more broadly and shine a light on it and change it.”

Julia Gillard is interviewed by BBC Hardtalk presenter Stephen Sackur at the launch of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership (Image courtesy: David Tett).

King’s College challenges the patriarchy

The Global Institute for Women’s Leadership will bring together research, practice and advocacy to understand and address the causes of women’s under-representation in leadership positions across sectors and countries worldwide.

According to the institute, women make up just 23% of parliamentarians, 27% of judges, 15% of corporate board members, 26% of news media leaders and 9% of IT leaders globally, while the proportion of senior management posts held by women around the world has increased by just one per cent over the past decade.

Gillard, who points to statistics indicating that on current trends it will take more than 200 years for women to have the same pay and employment opportunities as men, says the institute is vital to accelerate the rate of change and make efforts to address the issue more effective.

A member of the audience takes part in a Q&A session with Julia Gillard at the launch of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership (Image courtesy: David Tett).

Roles form early

“This is a global problem,” she says. “I think it’s this question of unconscious bias, of the stereotypes in our head being about male leadership, so we are still not receptive to female leaders.

“And it does I think go as far back as the …kind of gender stereotyping that we put on children. So the kids are playing and the girl is telling all the other kids: ‘Let’s do this, let’s do that’, in the game [they] are playing, [and] that behaviour is viewed as bossy.

“Whereas, a young boy who is doing the same thing would be seen as leading and we send a message about that, when girls are three and four and five. And I think it gets compounded by girls not being able to look upwards and outwards and see women’s faces.”

The organisation of childcare and its impact on the careers of people in their ‘30s and ‘40s also plays “a big part” in women’s under-representation in leadership roles, with recent thinking drawing on the concept of a “glass labyrinth” rather than a glass ceiling, she says. But studies also show that “the playing field is starting to tilt” from the moment men and women leave university.

Gillard says her misogyny speech, which came from a “place of cool anger”, showed her frustration with this process; but while it was well-received abroad, it went down in Australian politics as a “dreadful error” (Image courtesy: David Tett).

Focus of research

Gillard says she was attracted to King’s College by its strong tradition of ‘action research’ – research carried out within an activity or occupation – and that it’s “incredibly exciting” to be involved in establishing the evidence base that is needed to persuade political, corporate and judicial leaders to take action on the gender gap.

Major questions such as whether countries should set quotas for women in parliament need to be based on research, while the factors that enable people to “come through as leaders” – including acquiring a sense that leadership can be for them – also need looking at, she says.

Jennifer Rubin, professor of public policy at King’s College, says the institute will initially work in three key areas. It will address the disconnection between research and practice on the under-representation of women in leadership roles; draw lessons from the varied outcomes in different sectors and countries; and bring together researchers, activists and policy makers.

The institute, which is due to appoint a director later this year, will also seek to build a global network of researchers and practitioners and disseminate evidence on effective ways of promoting gender equality through an active on-line presence.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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