When Julia Gillard made her farewell speech on the night of 26 June this year and declared she was “absolutely confident it would be easier for the next woman (Prime Minister) and the woman after that and the woman after that”, I simply wasn’t convinced.
After three years of horrible sexist abuse and double standards applied to the first woman in the role it seemed to me the prospect of even attracting a cohort of younger women into politics at all – much less aspirants to the top job – was remote.
But sitting with the 2700 women, men, teenagers and kids in the Opera House last night to hear Anne Summers interview Julia Gillard changed my mind.
Role models matter and have an impact that even those of us who have been preaching this message for years can under-estimate.
What was on show last night was a leader of calibre and resilience who had shown what is possible. And her message? Even when the chips were down – and there were plenty of those times- the job was worth it and more.
If she had to give another woman advice, Gillard told the audience last night “I would still say to her: do it. Because the benefits of what you get to do are far superior to the burden.”
There’s an old saying that you can’t be what you can’t see. Every organisation I have worked with that has continuing and seemingly trenchant problems in working towards better gender balance has a common feature – virtually no women in senior jobs.
The pathway is not just obscure for the women in these workplaces, it doesn’t appear to exist. Throwing them into mentoring programs and remedial workshop isn’t the answer and often does more harm than good.
On the other hand increasing the number of women at the top is the ”one action that will have the greatest impact and improve women’s representation at all levels” according to research released earlier this year by Bain/Chief Executive Women.
Promoting more women acts like a circuit breaker for the system. It makes sure the many qualified and experienced women spread throughout our business organisations get the same recognition and rewards as their male peers. It shows other women that career progress is possible and worthwhile.
And Gillard is right – the first woman cops a hard time but the way is cleared and the inspiration is there for the next wave. It was obvious that the many primary school age children in the audience last night, who were also asking questions of the former PM, were thinking about their options in the future.
For many of them, the Gillard years represent what’s possible, not a sorry litany of sexist abuse and anger directed at a woman in leadership.
Not that we can or should forget this sad aspect, but use it as a chance for a new debate, as Gillard herself remarked.
“At the end of the day, yes, it happened to me, but it’s not, you know, about me. It’s about all of us, about women and about the kind of society we want to be for all of us.”
That’s a message I want my three daughters to hear loud and clear. It’s not about being victims or playing the gender card. It’s about speaking up and making sure your voice is heard, and aspiring to the top because you know the path is there and that it’s worth it.
That’s what Julia Gillard showed us last night and that’s a role model we are lucky to have.