Yesterday I shared the pleasure of hearing former Prime Minister the honourable Julia Gillard speak at the 2015 NAB Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards.
I have admired Julia Gillard for a long time, and I would venture that many of the decisions that brought me to Women’s Agenda were inspired by her leadership and courage. Hearing her speak was a special kind of privilege.
What struck me upon meeting Gillard and hearing her speak was that the integrity and bravery I had observed from afar was palpable up close; it had not been constructed for the media or the public during her time in the spotlight.
Professionally I am motivated by Gillard’s achievements but personally I am inspired by the courage with which she approached them.
Here’s what I learned from our former prime minister yesterday.
1. We are not there yet, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying
Gillard struck a chord with everyone in the room when she compared the feeling of fighting for gender equality as “being stuck in a car with young children in the back screaming, are we there yet?” We aren’t there yet. And as restless and frustrated as we may feel, the important thing is to keep driving the car forward as fast and as determinedly as possible. “We will know we have achieved gender equality when we can look to every power structure in society and see a 50/50 gender split,” Gillard said.
“Don’t we owe it to our nation and the world in which we live to make sure that the most important positions have the best possible people serving in them?”
2. Never underestimate the power of sexist stereotypes
After asking why there such a strong disparity between men and women in Australia exists even in 2015, she said:
“My best explanation is that somewhere, for all of us, women and men, in the back of our brains there are sexist stereotypes still whispering.”
She described those whispers as the ideas, ones we may not be conscious of, that inform our expectations of men and women. More importantly, though, she demonstrated the real impact of these whispers by describing three separate studies conducted worldwide which showed that people will automatically give preference to men over women, in a variety of settings, regardless of any other external factors.
Her reason for these studies’ continued evidence that we direct unconscious bias towards women was this: “Those whispers tell us we are used to images of men being in command, in leadership roles.”
To me, this was incredibly powerful because it brings home the point that so many people fail to grasp: Even the most quiet, understated, seemingly harmless attitudes about women – even the whispers – have an echoing effect that feeds into the inequality we still cannot overcome.
3. Never stop challenging those stereotypes
“I don’t have all the answers. If I did, my book would have been called ‘All The Answers, by Julia Gillard,” she joked.
“But one thing I’m certain of is that part of the answer is what we are doing here today – coming together and celebrating women’s achievements and women’s leadership, and sharing stories of success and change.”
Gillard said one way we can be sure to stem the whispers she referred to is by challenging them, every single day; by constantly asking people to question their beliefs; and by constantly sharing stories of women that will challenge these stereotypes.
4. Never leave others behind
“Never forget there are women in this world facing immense struggles; battles that we in Australia have already fought and won long ago,” she said.
Gillard said that most of the 58 million children around the world whom are still denied access to education are girls and changing that is absolutely critical to creating a more equal world.
“If you want to change a nation, if you want to change the planet, educate a girl. Girls are the ones most likely to be left behind,” Gillard said.