Hillary Clinton has formally acknowledged the difficulties former prime minister Julia Gillard faced in office, writing in her book that she faced “outrageous sexism”.
Asked about this while in New York this morning, Prime Minister Tony Abbott acknowledged Gillard did experience “all sorts of difficulties … But every prime minister faces all sorts of difficulties in his or her time as prime minister.”
That is certainly true. All leaders, particularly those on the world stage, face significant challenges.
But what separates the female leaders from the male leaders is the added challenges they face on account of their gender alone.
And experiencing such sexism often comes following all the other obstacles women have faced on their path to leadership.
So big are these challenges, that it stirs other women to ask such leaders – usually once their time is up – whether or not what they had been through was “worth it”.
It’s a question Gillard has been asked repeatedly, and one she answered in detail at the Australian & Leadership Australian Symposium last week when she accepted the inaugural award Australian Award for Excellence in Women’s Leadership.
And, thankfully, she said it was worth it. Know your purpose, live your purpose and all the challenges you face along the way will make it worth it. As she said while accepting the award: “To know what you stand for, what you want to achieve, what constitutes the defining objective of your activities. If you know your purpose, you know where you are going and why. That becomes an unstoppable force – even if only a few centimetres are gained on any given day.”
That unstoppable force is resilience. And Gillard, like other female leaders who’ve achieved significant ‘firsts’, has certainly demonstrated her capacity for such resilience. Gillard has frequently noted that she believes it’ll be “easier for the next woman” who becomes prime minister and the next woman behind her.
What’s really disappointing is that such women of ‘firsts’ have to filter their way though sexism in order to make it easier for the rest of us. They have to prove we’re ready to see women in such positions by exposing sexism for what it is. They reveal the underbelly of misogynistic behaviour that still exists, an underbelly we may otherwise think has long disappeared – if it weren’t for the difficulties some men and women have in learning to “cope” with female leaders being exposed.
It takes a great deal of resilience to be able to “smile and keep going” as Clinton writes, when discussing how she manages to get past the persistent double-standard that still exists for women in politics.
That’s something Gillard too did during much of her time in office, and when she did call it out for what it was – during her misogyny speech in Parliament back in 2012, the video went viral around the world.
It’ll be easier for the next female prime minister, the next female secretary of state and the next woman in any leadership position when sexism is simply not par for the course of taking such roles.