The 27th Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon. Julia Gillard AC, was gracious, engaging and genuine presenting at the AIB Showcase Alumni Event in Sydney on Thursday, October 5, 2017. Focusing on the topic of Women in Leadership, she spoke passionately about the challenges she’d faced as the first female Prime Minister of Australia and the path forward for both women and men.
Ms Gillard served as Deputy Prime Minister for three years before being sworn in as Prime Minister in June 2010. She was the first woman in Australia to hold either role. During her three years as Prime Minister, Ms Gillard was central to helping Australia successfully navigate the troubled waters of the Global Financial Crisis and the rise of Asia as an economic force. She has represented Australia at the G20, the East Asia Summit, APEC, NATO-ISAF and chaired CHOGM. Under Ms Gillard’s leadership, Australia was elected to serve on the United Nations Security Council.
During her tenure, Ms Gillard faced a number of gendered reactions. In October 2012, her speech in Parliament on the treatment of women in professional and public life received worldwide attention, and it’s a message that continues to resonate.
In Ms Gillard’s keynote address to AIB students and alumni, she spoke about the challenges faced by women across the globe. She shared a number of her own experiences, from seeing placards emblazoned with ‘ditch the witch’ to having every clothing choice dissected in the media. She also pointed to the loneliness that women face when they’re the only representative of their gender at the boardroom table.
She also panned out to a number of structural issues that hold women back, quoting statistics showing that globally, women make up just one quarter of parliamentarians, judges, news media leaders and senior managers. Only 15% of corporate board leaders are female, and the gender pay gap starts as soon as graduates leave university for their first job.
Unconscious bias and structural barriers
A number of studies around unconscious bias demonstrate that people are more likely to listen to and take seriously a speaker who they perceive as male, compared to one who they identify as female. Ms Gillard pointed to research from the Harvard Business School which demonstrates that men are also seen as more likeable when displaying the same characteristics as women. This holds true whether the person holding the opinion is male or female, and it holds true across corporate life, academia and politics.
All of these problems, Ms Gillard explained, exist even before women confront the structural barriers that occur as a result of being the childbearing sex. Workplaces often lack the flexibility to provide women with a continuous career path, and breaks exacerbate the pay gap. Added to that, power networks are often male-dominated and inaccessible for women.
How do we fix it?
Ms Gillard shared a number of insights on how to tackle each of these problems. First of all, she said, everyone needs to confront their own silent biases and stereotypes.
Secondly, both men and women need to be champions of change who call out sexism and work to eradicate it at home and in the workplace. Reflecting on her own experience as Prime Minister, Ms Gillard shared that she often thought about how powerful it would have been to have a male business person speak out against sexist rhetoric. Unfortunately, that did not happen.
Thirdly, she warned against the temptation to accuse people of ‘playing the gender card’. In fact, she argued, the person imposing sexist stereotypes is the one playing the gender card, and calling it out is the only appropriate response. When we stay silent, sexism is never named, never addressed, and never goes away.
As a fourth point, she addressed the argument that gender quotas and other direct action aimed at achieving gender equality is anti-meritocratic. If you believe that merit is equally distributed between men and women, but men constantly outnumber women in leadership roles, then it follows that women of merit are missing out. To redress that balance with specific quotas is not to pass over men of merit, but to recognise that of women.
As for what it takes to succeed in a fast moving and still gendered age, Ms Gillard had a number of thoughts. She suggested that her audience hone its sense of purpose, so that even in a whirlwind of action, there is a calm centre to ground you. She also urged the audience to maintain a strong sense of self. By doing so, she said, one can withstand even the worst of days and find meaning in your life.
Despite all the challenges about which she spoke, Ms Gillard considers herself a complete optimist. She believes that the coming generation will act as agents of change and create a better future for both men and women.
We sat down with Ms Gillard following her speech to find out more about her political career, leadership journey and passion for education - watch the video below.