Julia Gillard on Breaking Barriers for Women in Politics and Why She’s an Optimist

 Julia Gillard speaking at the House of Representatives on 5 February 2013 in Canberra, Australia. Photo: Getty Images.
Julia Gillard speaking at the House of Representatives on 5 February 2013 in Canberra, Australia. Photo: Getty Images.

Julia Gillard, you became the first female prime minister in Australian history in 2010. What have been the challenges and opportunities for you as a woman working in politics? Have the obstacles women face in positions of power changed over the years, and if so, how? 

I want to start positive and say I’m a huge advocate for people going into politics – particularly women. I believe there’s no better way of putting your values into action than going into politics but I’m not going to pretend that there’s no gender bit.

There still is a gender bit and I experienced that personally. A disproportionate focus on appearance, a disproportionate focus on family structures – for example the fact that I didn’t have kids – and the gendered insults becoming the go-to weapon when politics got turbulent, which inevitably happens, as governments make decisions that not everybody agrees with.

In terms of politics past and politics present, I think a lot has changed for the positive. There are more women in politics now which means more role models for other women. There’s been more of an attempt to have the system offer flexibilities for work and family life too. In Australian politics, famously, the non-members bar was replaced by a childcare centre, so that’s giving you a sense that there has been progress. We’ve also just hit the stage where our Senate is now 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women.

But I do think that there’s a new toxicity for women that’s been introduced through social media – through the fact that it’s anonymous and people can say anything and the kinds of revolting material many women politicians receive.

I think that there’s a new coarseness in our traditional media too which means things will be said about people in politics today, especially women, which would not have been put in the pages of respectable newspapers 10 or 20 years ago.

So, it’s a mixed picture, where there has been major steps forward but there are still some huge issues to resolve.

During your premiership, you delivered a famous speech on misogyny and sexism and described there being ‘gender wars’ in Australian politics. How far has Australia addressed its problems regarding everything from unconscious bias to gender stereotypes? Do you think social attitudes in Australia to women in leadership are changing?

I don’t think these issues are particularly an Australian problem. When I left politics, people kept asking me about my experiences and it became convenient for them to say ‘That’s Australia and its macho culture and Crocodile Dundee and all of that.’ I was always quick to point out, actually, a number of the insults hurled at me were first hurled at Hillary Clinton when she originally put her name forward to be considered as a candidate for US president. So this is not an Australian problem – it’s a global problem.

I can see progress in Australia though. When I was prime minister, the sort of fashionable analysis by the press was that nothing, in my experience, had anything to do with gender – I was just being treated like every prime minister had always been treated.

Today, there is a very lively debate about sexism in Australian politics and about how women can feel excluded from these structures with various conservative women making complaints about bullying within their political party.

So the preparedness to report issues due to the understanding of gender is now much higher and I’m a big believer that you never solve a problem unless you start talking about it so I’m glad we’re talking about it now.

From the implementation of ‘womenomics (opens in new window)’ in Japan, to gender-responsive budgeting in Indonesia, countries around the world are making progress towards addressing gender issues. However, structural and cultural barriers that prevent women’s economic, political and social participation remain.

What are the biggest barriers that women face around the world? Do you think countries, and the international community, are doing enough to address these barriers?

I think so much is context-specific that it’s hard to say, but I would say, in some parts of the world, unequal access to education is the fundamental barrier.

Now that’s not true in the UK or in Australia, where the statistics tell you that disproportionately graduates today are women and not men, but if we look at many of the poorer parts of the world, like in sub-Saharan Africa and other places, there are 260 million children out of school – and the face of a child most likely to miss out is a female face.

So there still needs to be a lot more progress on things such as equal access to education, access to reproductive rights and much more around the world.

In many parts of the developed world, there is actually an assault now on long-held rights around women’s reproduction so I think that is another foundation stone – and then really it comes to a set of issues and barriers around the world of work and full access to every level of work.

Much of this is what we research at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership because we continue to see workplaces and organizations that have a very traditional view of what merit looks like. It’s a sort of male-defined view of the world and it is one that is not inclusive of women.

We are still seeing the unequal sharing of domestic labour which has ramifications for women’s engagement in the world of work and their ability to achieve leadership within it too.

With a broad brush, I would point to all of this, but the most pressing problems that women continue to face varies from place to place.

Globally, increasing numbers of women are being elected to political office, from the first female president of Slovakia to the first female mayor of Tunis. This comes at a time of record numbers of female ministers in Egypt and Jordan as well as gender-balanced cabinets in 10 countries worldwide – six of which were achieved in 2018 alone.

Do you think women’s rights and gender equality are benefitting from more female representation in politics and how are female voters responding, if at all, to this increase in the number of women holding political office?

I think, even if women didn’t bring new policy perspectives to the world of politics, I would still be an advocate of gender equality in politics because I believe merit is equally distributed between the sexes.

If you see women being represented at less than 50 per cent then that’s got to mean that there are women of merit who didn’t get there – who should’ve gotten there. I think it’s important to make that point otherwise we’re saying ‘Women should only be there if, when they are there, they do this, this and this’. We don’t tend to put that ‘if’ in sentences about men.

But I do think the evidence shows that more women, being involved in politics, does diversify the public policy agenda. That doesn’t mean that a male politician couldn’t focus his career and advocacy on childcare or domestic violence or combating sexual assault or furthering women’s reproductive rights. But I think the evidence shows that there is a lived experience that women bring to politics that enables them to mobilize around a set of issues that are of particular concern to women.

On the role model effect, I think the evidence shows that, if women and girls do see role models, they are more likely to think that that is a pathway open to them.

One of the things that does slightly concern me is whether that evidence is now retrospective evidence and whether the prospective evidence is going to be – because of the toxicity of social media – more women thinking about the real-world threats that being in politics presents for them. And so the role modelling effect will work in reverse because it will show how women are treated in politics is more of a negative than a positive.

I certainly hope this doesn’t happen and young women are encouraged to go into politics. That’s where we still have to shine a light on the positive aspects of what working in politics has to offer.

Women are of course not a homogenous group. How much is an intersectional approach to gender equality, which takes into consideration race, ethnicity and class, also needed?

Gender is one way to look at the world but there are a myriad of other ways to look at the world. A colleague of mine once told me a story where, as a black woman, she was once told how much a company had done to diversify its board. She was shown an old photo of the board, which included all white men, then a new photo of the board, which had all white men and white women. She then said, ‘I don’t see myself represented here.’ To which she was told ‘We’re tackling gender first and then race second.’

Clearly that is not the approach to take. We need to consider all of the factors that compound preventing women from progressing in life – making it far more difficult for them to come through and make it to the top.

Despite all of the progress we are seeing, women are still faced with gender-based discrimination and gender-based violence, virtually and physically, with 40 per cent of women and girls living in countries which fail to guarantee basic standards of gender equality.

What do you think needs to happen to ultimately realize women’s rights and gender equality globally? Are you hopeful this will be achieved in the future?

Yes I’m an optimist overall. People like to quote the great Martin Luther King quote ‘The moral arc of the universe bends towards justice.’ I believe that but I think sometimes the imagery of the arc as if it’s always in a forward movement hides the nitty-gritty struggle that is there beneath.

Inevitably, at some points, it feels like there’s more of a backlash against women than a forward movement. But, over time, I’m an optimist that the forward movement wins through.

I do believe we can reach a stage where societies are generating societies where women can live their lives free from the threat of sexual violence or discriminatory treatment based on gender.

Gitika Bhardwaj, Digital Editor, Chatham House and The Hon Julia Gillard AC Prime Minister of Australia and Leader of the Australian Labor Party (2010-13).

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