Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard says most female leaders “self-limit” their behaviour to appease critics.
In a groundbreaking book Australia’s first female prime minister set out to better understand female leadership by interviewing some of the most famous and interesting women in the world.
Speaking to Georgie Gardner, the host of Drive, a new podcast by Future Women, Ms Gillard explained women find it hard to be themselves when in the top jobs.
“I think it is hard for women leaders to steer a path, which looks like they’re strong enough to lead but that they’re caring enough to be likeable and acceptable. And because you’re sort of intuitively aware that you’re picking your way on this quite narrow path, you end up self-limiting your behaviours and each of the women leaders we spoke to talked about this.”
The book Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons, was co-authored with economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. It shares lessons from eight women and discusses the influence gender has had on female leadership around the world. Ms Gillard said one of the biggest lessons she learned while researching for the book was that, despite their geographical differences, every woman had experienced similar gender-bias.
Leadership lessons from a former (female) prime minister
Ignoring sexism won’t make it stop
“I went into politics to make a difference and whilst this noise was around me, my mission was to just cut through it and to keep getting the big things that mattered done. So I did see it, and I did hear it at the time, but I didn’t pile my energies into thinking about it. Obviously, there was a sense of frustration, even anger about it and I think that is what propelled the misogyny speech so when the moment came to address all of that – I didn’t miss it.”
Learn from history; shape a better future
“The past is the past, you can’t rewrite any of that and so the energy now for me, in looking at all of this area of women and leadership … all of that’s about changing the future. We can learn from my past, but that’s not the most important thing, the most important thing is what’s going to be different.”
Forget what we 'think' we know about gender
“I think when we have this conversation about leadership, we often bake the gender stereotyping in. So we will accept a man who is commanding and controlling. But from a female leader, we’ve got an expectation that she will be empathetic, nurturing, team-oriented. I think we’ve got to work our way through those gender stereotypes and say, it’s well and truly possible for a woman to be a command-and-control-style leader; it’s well and truly possible for a man to be an empathetic leader. We should work out who we want to lead at various moments in history, based on their personal capacities, not on the stereotypes that we ascribe to the gender that they are.”
One female leader is not enough
“What I’ve tried to do is write thoughtfully and speak on the question of gender and what it meant to be the first, but more importantly, to look forward and to try and answer the question, what makes it more likely that we will have a second, third, fourth female prime minister and that their leadership will be received – not through the prism of gender – but just for its own value?”
Stereotypes can cause self-limiting behaviour
“We explore this in the book because those stereotypes that I’ve spoken about based on gender still whisper in the back of all of our brains. I think it is hard for women leaders to steer a path, which looks like they’re strong enough to lead but that they’re caring enough to be likeable and acceptable. And because you’re sort of intuitively aware that you’re picking your way on this quite narrow path, you end up self-limiting your behaviours and each of the women leaders … we spoke to talked about this.”
You can ‘decide’ to have thick skin
“I had watched the experiences of some women who had gone before me and who had served at quite senior levels of politics and I had seen that for a number of them they really took all of the public commentary to heart … I thought to myself way back then when I was much more junior in politics, that’s a very crazy roller coaster to get yourself on. And so I thought … about how I would distance myself from the hurt of some of the things that would get said, so … when most of those barbs came in, I was already in a zone of being able to deal with them pretty dispassionately, rather than let them really get inside me. We all build-up some form of shield and for me that had to be pretty thick and pretty tough.”
Sexism is complex, but equality is possible
“(Sexism is) complicated. It’s a mix of everything from structural changes that are needed in politics to enable more women to come through; better balances for work and family life, but also, each of us addressing the whispered stereotypes that are in the back of our brain, which means that we tend to see and judge female leaders differently. And it’s only when we’ve worked our way through all of that, which I’m confident that we can, but it’s only when we’ve worked our way through all of that, that we’ll truly equalise treatment for men and women who want to lead whether that’s in politics or any other walk of life.”
The more women that lead; the more everyone will learn
“Part of addressing all of this sexism will simply be having more and more and more women go into politics and to other areas of leadership and at the same time, as we encourage more women to go through, each of us accepts some responsibility, for helping dismantle those sexist barriers. When we look at these women leaders, it was quite clear that being the second or the third woman to lead was a different experience from being the first and that should give us a high degree of optimism that if we can get more women in and more women through, then we will change things.”
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