Julia Gillard on the demise of 'strongman leadership'

Julia Gillard on the demise of ‘strongman leadership’

Julia Gillard

To women who are aspiring to leadership positions around the world, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has one key pearl of wisdom to offer.

“Go for leadership but be aware that there will always be things that happen to you because you are a woman,” she told Kate Mills in a newly launched Women’s Agenda podcast series supported by Salesforce called ‘The Leadership Lessons’.

It’s a piece of advice she’s penned in her new book ‘Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons’ that she co-wrote with her friend and fellow leader, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

The book brings together anecdotes from some of the most well-known female leaders around the world, including Hillary Clinton and Jacinda Ardern, with research around gender.

Listen to the full episode here:

Personally, Gillard says she missed the moment when she had the greatest amount of political capital to have the discussion around gender and sexism that was needed.

With hindsight, she regrets not calling out the sexism she experienced as Prime Minister when it happened, and now, in her post political life, she feels some guilt around the fact that she isn’t able to mentor as many women as she’d like.

This book is her attempt to do some of that on a broader scale.

In her chat with Kate Mills, Gillard touches on some of the anecdotes around leadership included in the book from world leaders like Theresa May, Hillary Clinton, Jacinda Ardern, Erna Solberg, Michelle Bachalet and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

These women come from all around the world, some well known in the West, and some not. But what is revealed, is that despite some key differences in their situations– for example, Bachelet, who served as the President of Chile, was imprisoned and tortured under the Pinochet regime – there was so much about their lived experiences that was similar.

“There was a great deal of focus on appearance, on family structures, a sense that they were on a tightrope – if they came across as too strong, too tough, people would react adversely to that. But if they came across as too caring, too nurturing, people who go ‘she’s far too weak to lead the country’,” Gillard says.

“Sexism and its manifestations are universal.”

During the pandemic, Gillard says we have seen a lot of the “strongman style of leadership”. Blustering leadership, she called it, where leaders don’t care about the facts and will happily claim that black is white, and pink is purple. Ahem Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro.

“And then when the actual facts were put out, we saw a shrugging of the shoulders and a disregard for the truth,” Gillard tells Mills.

“One of the consequences of the pandemic, is that this style of leadership with its many flaws are being held up to the light and the role of expertise and government is coming back to the fore.

“We’ve been reminded that good governance is central. In a crisis, it can mean the difference between living and dying.”

Gillard also points out that men and womens’ brains are not inherently different. The idea that women are wired to be caring and men to be strong is “neuro-sexism”, but we do need to consider the reality that men and women are socialised differently.

We aren’t there yet, but Gillard thinks we are on the way to living in a gender equal world. And when we get there, she believes we will see men and women leading in all sorts of different ways.

But for the moment, the leadership style that we give the most permission to for women, is leadership that combines strength with empathy.

“The research clearly shows if a woman leader does not get that combination of strength and empathy right, she pays a price,” Gillard said.

While Gillard has some regrets about her approach to calling out sexism as Prime Minister, she’s clear that the world is changing and it’s far more acceptable now, ten years later, to call it out.

Especially if you’re a man.

“If men call out sexism, the research shows, not only will their contribution have more impact than a woman doing it, but the views that people take of that man will be more favourable and that will show in promotion possibilities,” Gillard says.

For men, “there is no downside for becoming a champion and calling out sexism”.

The Leadership Lessons podcast series, hosted by Kate Mills, is a set of interviews with brilliant female leaders across industries, sharing their perspective on the critical decade ahead.

Stay tuned for more episodes with Yasmin Poole, Raji Ambikairajah, Pip Marlow, Kirstin Ferguson, and the list goes on.

The Leadership Lessons is supported by Salesforce.

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