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Julia Gillard on the ‘Curious Question of Gender’

Read Sunday, 12 Oct 2014

Last week, we hosted an event with former prime minister Julia Gillard, in which she spoke candidly with Kate Langbroek about a range of issues. The two dominant subjects of reflection were the gender question and how that affected her performance (and experience) as prime minister, and how the leadership from Kevin Rudd unfolded – and affected her prime ministership.

We’ll run edited extracts from Gillard’s side of the conversation on these topics over the next week, in two parts. Below is part one, on what Gillard calls, in a dedicated chapter of her book, the ‘curious question of gender’. In her own words.

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I try to unpack this very curious question of gender. I want it to be a conversation-starter.

One of the things I talk about is how appearance ends up mattering. And it’s not just all about the air time that gets filled with what you’re wearing, what you shouldn’t be wearing, whether it suits you, Germaine Greer’s comments. That’s a daily pain, but … what I try and deal with in the book is that it ends up being more than this time-wasting thing. It ends up being a judgement thing because people think they can diagnose what a woman is like, who she is, what her character is, by what she’s wearing.

Judging a woman’s character by her clothes

I think any leader standing next to Anna Bligh during the Queensland floods would have come off second best, because she was remarkable. I watched her in Canberra one day, she was giving a conference about the floodwaters, she was wearing a suit. I flew up the next day to join her at a press conference, I put on a suit. Anna had decided to wear workwear in case she went out to an evacuation centre – so, boots and jeans and a workshirt. As it turned out, she didn’t have time to go out to evacuation centres to see people and I did. I went out in my suit. And it wasn’t an issue. When I was meeting people in evacuation centres, they were just pleased to see you. But the judgement was, we can tell everything about what this woman is feeling and thinking by what she’s wearing: she’s wearing a suit, she’s obviously cold and not engaged in this natural disaster. Indifferent to people. We’ve got it all pegged now, based on what she’s wearing.

It’s that, where appearance and profound judgements about women all become one and the same, that I’m asking people to think about. I think if we’re honest with ourselves, there’s a voice in all of our heads that calls on us to make those judgements. It’s in all of our heads. But we’ve got to let it not drag us to really weird and adverse places about women leaders.

For all those future women leaders

Inevitably when I talk about the book, there’s a focus on gender and that’s good, because I want to provoke a million discussions. I do also want to say, because I am conscious that there are young women listening, that across a broad sweep of the book, and the broad sweep of my experience as prime minister, that there’s far more upside than downside. There really is, but I would like us, for the next woman and the woman after that, not just in the prime ministership but leading big companies and ultimately leading our defence force and in judicial positions and civil society positions that are immensely important, that for all of those future women leaders, we should try and work through some of this so that it doesn’t roll out in the same way again. I’m an optimist that we can do that, that we can think our way through it. But I wanted to put my experience down to help push that discussion.

The image of prime minister has always been a man in a suit

I thought when I became prime minister there would be a flurry on the positive side and on the negative side about being the first female prime minister. Many women would celebrate, some men – perhaps some women, but overwhelmingly men – would be a bit anxious. There would be a settling-in period about images of a woman being a leader.

All our lives, we’ve looked at images of the prime minister talking and that image has been a man in a suit. I thought there would be a settling-in period as people saw that that was a woman doing it. I thought the maximum wave of the reaction would be immediate, then it would dissipate. And as the months went on, and I just did a job, people would get more and more used to it and there would be less of that gendered stuff. And I called that wrong.

The gendered insult as instrument of criticism

What I found over time was, it got worse — because when you’re making big important and divisive decisions, the convenient instrument of criticism often became the gendered insult. And that’s why it got worse.

As I made political decisions – and people can argue about their merit or lack of merits, that’s national politics and a national policy debate, that’s good – but the frame of the criticism was more ‘ditch the witch’ than ‘carbon pricing: a good thing or bad thing? Please discuss’.

I think that next time round, we can’t say that the burden for dealing with all this is on the woman who is the leader, whether that’s in politics or somewhere else; I think it’s on all of us.

And I think what really would have changed some of the temperature of that debate for me is if credentialed third-party voices from all sorts of perspectives. From men particularly – women and men, but I’m imagining in my head if, at the time of ditch the witch, a leading Australian businessperson (a man) had said … even if the run-up to him saying it was ‘I don’t agree with carbon pricing, I didn’t vote for Julia Gillard in 2010, I’m not going to vote for her in 2013’ … we do not conduct our national conversation like this.

’It’s because Hillary’s a woman’

We’ll potentially have a real-life case to watch if Hillary decides to run for president. I’ve got no special insight, I’m not here to break global news. But if she runs for president … some of the things that have happened to Hillary last time were incredibly gendered. That’s not particularly a criticism of President Obama, but the various campaigns and how they rolled out. I watched all of that and I know a lot of people active in American politics. And there was this sort of stream of commentary that went ‘it’s just because it’s Hillary – Clintons, they’ve been around forever’.

It’s not because of Hillary, it’s because Hillary’s a woman. And if Hillary runs in the forthcoming presidential contest, we’ll get to watch a big democracy, a very important democracy, deal with this. And I really hope that in what appear to be very extensive preparations for a Hillary bid, that part of those extensive preparations is thinking about these people, these voices – not just Democrat voices, but voices of reason – who could come in at the right minute and say, ‘whatever else you might say about the merits of electing Hillary Clinton president, don’t have our democratic conversation like this’.

And if that happened very visibly in America, given its status in the world, I think it would have huge reverberations right around the world. I think it’s possible.

Is there something comedic about a woman prime minister?

I do a comparison with the treatment of John and Jeanette Howard in the book. Clearly, Tim and I weren’t the stereotypical modern couple in a number of ways.

I don’t think we’re unrepresentative of Australia overall. People have different relationships at different stages of their lives and there would be a lot of women and men who find each other at the kind of age Tim and I found each other. Tim’s obviously got a family from a past marriage; there’d be a lot of people in that position. We weren’t the norm, the gender roles were different, and the not being married and all the rest of it. But with all of that, I thought there was a cruelty in a lot of the commentary.

And even things I sort of rolled with at the time, things like the ABC comedy show about me and Tim … I don’t mind having a laugh and I thought the first episode was quite funny, having Katter and the rest of it round to the Lodge. But with the benefit of hindsight, you do look at it and think, unless they are making one now about Margie and Tony Abbott, is there something inherently comedic about being a woman prime minister?

If this is funny, presumably it can be funny no matter who the prime minister is.

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[View the story “Julia Gillard on Gender at Regent Theatre” on Storify]

This is an edited extract of the conversation from last week’s event with Julia Gillard (interviewed by Kate Langbroek) at the Regent Theatre.

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