Understanding Society

Leading change: An interview with the Hon Julia Gillard, Chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership

Julia Gillard is the first woman ever to serve as Australia’s Prime Minister or Deputy Prime Minister. She was the 27th Prime Minister of Australia from 2010-2013 and Deputy Prime Minister from 2007-2010. During her time in office, Gillard was central to the successful management of Australia’s economy during the global economic crisis, and she reformed Australia’s education at every level from early childhood to higher education. In 2012, she received worldwide attention for her speech in Parliament on the treatment of women in professional and public life.

Gillard is the chair of the Global Partnership for Education, a leading organisation dedicated to expanding access and quality education worldwide. She serves as Patron of Camfed, the Campaign for Female Education, which tackles poverty and inequality by supporting girls to go to school and succeed, and empowering young women to step up as leaders of change. She is the Chair of Beyond Blue, Australia’s leading mental health awareness body.

In April 2018, Gillard was appointed Inaugural Chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at Kings College, London.

KB: You’ve established the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College. Could you tell me about your vision for the institute and what you hope to achieve?

I truly hope that the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College can make a difference to the evidence base about what works to clear the obstacles out of the way for women who are aspiring to leadership and making sure, when they are leaders, that they are fairly evaluated not through the prism of gender.

I’m very enthusiastic about this role because it frustrates me – when we’ve got so much to do to achieve a gender-equal world – that people are investing in things that aren’t evidence-based and don’t work. Indeed, sometimes investing in things that are counterproductive.

We want to deepen the global evidence base, and we want to make sure that the information about what will best make a difference gets into the hands of people who can use it and will really put it to work.

KB: You are well-renowned for your work on education. Do you see education as the biggest issue in achieving gender equality?

I think there’s a bit of a differential picture around the world. I chair the Global Partnership for Education, and we work with the 67 poorest countries in the world. In those countries, we see more than 260 million children who aren’t in school. When we get behind that number, we disproportionately see that the children who are missing out are girls. If you don’t ever get to go to school, or if you don’t ever finish primary school, then that disadvantage will clearly be with you for the rest of your life. We do know that a girl who gets an education is more likely to marry later in life; she’ll choose to have fewer children; her children will be more likely to survive infanthood, more likely to be vaccinated, more likely to go to school.

In countries like the UK and Australia, we’ve sort of moved past the educational equality issue. When you look at who comes out of universities, it tends to be disproportionately women. Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any issues, because when we’re talking about science, engineering, maths and technology, it can still be quite gendered. But really, it’s not the numbers in schooling or university that is the critical issue now for women’s equality; it’s what happens to them in their work lives and the artificial barriers that get put in their way.

KB: Thinking about your time in politics, when you became Prime Minister in 2010, you were subject to a great deal of sexist and misogynistic comments. In your opinion, what was the hardest thing about being a woman in politics?

I think the hardest thing is the sense of frustration which comes with knowing that air time is being taken not by the important messages that you are trying to convey to the community, but really silly things like what you’re wearing, or what your hair’s doing that day, or commentary about whether or not you’ve got children, what your family structure is.

I also think that for many women too, there’s a real sense of hurt. Social media particularly can be incredibly cruel to women politicians. I experienced a bit of that. I think it’s turbo-charged in the years since.

KB: In 2012, you made a famous speech in Parliament where you commented vigorously on misogyny and sexism.1 How do you think that changed public perceptions of you as a female leader?

There was a real difference between how that speech was seen and reported in Australia compared with around the world. Around the world, it was immediately noted as a “go-girl” moment and was celebrated. In Australia, it came with the penalty that many women experience when they call out sexism; I was accused of playing the gender card, of starting a gender war. So actually, politically, I don’t think it assisted me in any way in Australia. Now with the benefit of a few years removed, I think it’s looked back on as saying something that was important in Australian politics.

KB: In your autobiography, you touch on the importance of female leaders having resilience. Can you tell me a little more about what you mean by resilience2 and why that’s so important to help women achieve gender equality?

I think all leaders need to be resilient. Whether you’re at the top of business or politics or the law or the news media, it can be a tough life. But I think because there’s still this gender bit – women need a special form of resilience.

For me, it comes down to having a sense of self that isn’t hostage to the swings and roundabouts of the media reporting or social media. I’d had the experience as a younger politician watching some of the then more senior female figures, and you could see for some of them that if it was a good news day and there were great headlines about them, there was a spring in their step, and they were happy. If it was a bad news day, they were really physically drawn into themselves. I remember thinking then you can’t get on that rollercoaster; you have got to have a sense of self that is not riding those waves.

KB: There are several latent stereotypes about women who are business leaders that label them as unlikeable, playing hardball or masculine in their approach. How can women overcome the challenges of these stereotypes?

Whether it’s politics or business, if a woman has got to the top, there are unconscious biases that come to the fore – she’s got to be pretty ruthless, pretty tough, pretty hardball. In some ways, I think the best way to overcome those stereotypes isn’t for the female business leader or politician to do something different but for those around to actually call out that sort of stereotyping and get people to think about it. Is there anything that she has actually done that justifies it? Or are we just automatically doing it and we should cease doing it?

KB: Last year on International Women’s Day, you wrote that “In spite of the truly remarkable social, economic and political strides for women around the world over the last generation, we’re far from the goal of full gender equality.”3 In your opinion, what should be the priorities over the next five years to achieve this goal?

I do want to see us make real progress in the next five years. I get very dismayed when you see very learned bodies come out with statistics that tell us that we won’t be in a gender equal world for 150 years or 200 years – we’ve got to do better than that.

In terms of the top interventions, in some ways that relates to the research that we’re doing at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership. But if I could say one thing, I’d say that leaders need to genuinely engage. We won’t change this if in businesses, it’s parked in the human resources department and the CEO, the Chair of the Board and Directors on the Board never really engage. In politics, it won’t get fixed unless leading figures like Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition engage.

It’s looking for that and turning all of the talk into effective action through leadership engagement and making sure that what is changing is truly measured so that we can see the difference. That should be the agenda for the next five years.

In conversation with
Kelly Beaver
Managing Director
Ipsos MORI Public Affairs