Julia Gillard regrets not confronting sexism as PM earlier

Julia Gillard regrets not confronting sexism earlier but it wouldn’t have helped

Julia Gillard

It has been ten years since Australia boasted its first – and only – female Prime Minister in Julia Gillard. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s been longer: more than a lifetime of politics crammed into the decade running from June 24 2010, when Gillard first took office, until June 24 2020.

Having five prime ministers serve between those dates is proof of a peculiarly eventful chapter in Australia’s political history.   

Gender didn’t ‘explain everything, but nor did it explain nothing’, in Gillard’s three years as PM, but the sexism and misogyny she faced cannot be denied. The blistering riposte she delivered to then-opposition leader Tony Abbott from the despatch box is famous. Globally.    

As in office, since retiring from politics in 2013 after being displaced by Kevin Rudd, Gillard has walked a different path from her fellow former PMs. The primary difference post-parliament is that Gillard has remained resolutely detached from engaging in commentary or analysis of day-to-day politics.

The role of gender in political leadership, however, is something she’s maintained a resolute focus on researching and advancing. Her new book, “Women and leadership: Real Lives and Real Lessons”, co-written with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, provides comprehensive analysis of the impact gender has on leadership.

Interviews with Jacinda Ardern, Hillary Clinton, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Theresa May, Michelle Bachelet, Joyce Banda, Erna Solberg, Christine Lagarde and more were used to determine the influence of gender on women’s access to positions of leadership, the perceptions of them as leaders, the trajectory of their leadership and the circumstances in which it comes to an end.

The release of the book has thrust Gillard, who is the Chair of Beyond Blue and the Global Partnership for Education, and the inaugural Chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at Kings College London, back into the spotlight.

Given the book’s subject matter it’s hardly surprising that gender, and particularly how it related to her time as PM, has been central in the extensive and comprehensive interviews Gillard has given over the past week.

But the fact it’s been a full decade since she took on the Prime Ministership, and the fact the national conversation around gender and sexism has changed markedly, cannot be overlooked.  

On Monday’s Q&A Gillard reflected on how she responded to sexist coverage of her in the mainstream media. She expressed in a few different ways a level of regret for not confronting it head on and sooner.     

“I do muse to myself that, you know, the second day I was prime minister, the news media was entirely about the jacket I wore,” Gillard said. “Entirely. Like, no one reported anything I said the second day I was prime minister. It was all about what I was wearing. And I wonder now if, you know, on the third day I was prime minister, if I’d gone out to the Canberra press pack and said, ‘Is anybody feeling a little bit silly about this? If I’d been a bloke wearing a suit, would you have put that on the news yesterday? Oh, my God, he’s got a charcoal suit on! Would anybody cover that? Are we going to keep doing this for as long as I’m prime minister?’

“I’m not sure what the reaction in the pack would have been – bemusement by some, defensive by others, but maybe it’s a conversation we needed to have.”

There is no doubt, in my mind, that’s a conversation that we needed to have but, equally, there is not a doubt in my mind that we were not able to have that conversation or dialogue constructively at that point. It’s a devastating indictment but on the few occasions Gillard – or anyone for that matter – did raise the issue of sexism, the inexplicable “gender card” was immediately spat back.  

The message that gender was not a valid or legitimate issue was effectively entrenched and propagated. To a large extent, in many ways, it still is.

On the Q&A special Gillard posed a particularly scenario that may have alleviated the toxic sexism.

“I think if the CEOs of Australia’s top 10 leading companies – the day after the rally with the ‘bitch witch’ signs – if they’d done a letter to the newspaper which said, ‘look, people can have a variety of views about putting a price on carbon, they’re all legitimate views, we should be having a debate, but we don’t have a debate calling the prime minister of the country with sexist terms,’ I think that would have been really noted,” she said.

It would have been noted. But, evidently, the PM facing blatant and vile sexism was not an issue corporate leaders were motivated to call out.   

“But things like that didn’t happen,” Gillard said. “And I’m not putting blame on anyone – I didn’t do it, so I’m not saying ‘I now blame those people for not doing it’. I think we all underestimated how it was going to cycle up, and so none of us came in early enough.”

Gillard made these comments just after the ABC had broadcast a 4Corners report by Stan Grant, called I Can’t Breathe, examining what the Black Lives Matters movement means to Indigenous Australians.

It was intensely personal, powerful and affecting. It was also the first time in the flagship program’s history to be presented by an Indigenous Australian.

“This is not a story for me, it is my life,” Grant stared down the barrel of the camera. “I don’t get to turn away from this. To not care is not an option because I live in a world where race and racism can suffocate us.

“People always say to us, ‘Why are you so angry? Why are you so bitter?’ If they knew what our people had been through, they might just ask why we are not more angry. Why we are not more bitter.”

The American author and poet Claudia Rankine made a potent observation in the program about what is necessary to effect change.

“ The person who points out the problem becomes the problem. And in my case, I have decided that I embrace that position.  You know, if, if you need to see me as the problem, then see me as a problem, but I am not going to let it go. And I think, I think white people have to start stepping up and speaking out and, you know, because I don’t think I have superhuman ability to see, I think I see what they see and they are allowing it to happen. And, and I, you know, when I say this, I’m talking about my friends who will be at a thing with me and something will happen and they will look at me like, did you see that? But they will say nothing. And we all have to start being accountable to the moments, the small moments, because it’s the same people who are involved in the small moments that end up in the big moments.”

Her words, like the program, hit me like a lightning bolt.

We all need to start recognising – and making ourselves personally  accountable – for every situation we see that enables or facilitates or dismisses racism and sexism.

If we’re not the person most detrimentally affected in any scenario that’s even more reason to use our voice. We have to be prepared to become the ‘problem’. Because those most detrimentally impacted by discrimination have been between a rock and hard place for too long. No one has wanted to hear their voices: their message.

They’ve been marginalised and if they’ve tried to raise it they’ve been dismissed as the problem. And, for too long, too often, they’ve been alone in trying to be heard.  

If Gillard had called out sexism earlier in her tenure, chances are she would have become the problem. More than she already was. People didn’t want to hear about sexism. No more than people want to hear about sexual harassment. Or racism.

The only way Julia Gillard had a hope of stemming the tide was if others had called out the sexism alongside her. En masse. At that point, Australia wasn’t ready. At this point, we need to make ourselves ready and willing.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox