Women in public life – Julia Gillard

Earlier this summer I went to an LSE event at which Julia Gillard, former Australian prime minister, spoke about women in politics. The event was part of the ‘Above the Parapet’ series, a joint venture by LSE and the Institute of Public Affairs that aims to collect the stories of high profile women, exploring how they got to their positions and what they can teach the women who follow them.

I did not know much about Gillard. I knew so little prior to the event, in fact, that someone had to point me to this YouTube video of her speech about sexism in the Australian Parliament. I did not know much about Gillard, but on women – she was fantastic.

Gillard argues that achieving gender equality in public life isn’t just about the numbers. We have to change the ‘little everyday things’ that are either symptoms, or causes (no one is really sure which, and probably they are both) of gender inequality.

We have to end the never-ending fascination with what female politicians wear. We have to end the remarks about women primarily in relation to family structures. We have to end gendered insults (I would personally insert here that we have to educate people about what gendered insults are, because apparently it doesn’t go without saying). We have to end the discourse that links leadership in men to command and control, and leadership in women to empathy and negotiation skills.

The event ended with a Q&A that Gillard handled with ease. There was one awkward question about the rights of indigenous women in Australia, and Dame Tessa Jowell (chairperson for the evening) softened the question when she repeated it. I don’t think such protection was necessary – I got the impression that Gillard was more than capable of handling tough questions.

My stand out moment was a question on quotas. I have never liked the idea of using mandatory quotas to diversify representation. I want women to be chosen purely on their merit. But Gillard speaks about “the distortion of merit”. Gillard’s argument is that if we assume that merit is evenly distributed between men and women, the only explanation for the underrepresentation of women is that their equal merit is currently unrecognised. Quotas, therefore, serve not to distort merit but rather to increase the chances of balancing it out.

This weekend the UK Labour Party elected three men into leading positions, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Gillard clearly enjoys politics. “Governments make differences that impact people’s lives,” she said, “and that is work worth getting involved in.” But the barriers have to come down.

As the first and thus far only woman to lead her country, Gillard ended the evening by telling us that we will know we have gender equality in public life when no one knows the answer to the question: ‘how many female Prime Ministers has Australia had?’ That’s something to aim for, both 10,000 miles away in Australia and right here at home.

Julia Gillard, Dame Tessa Jowell and Purna Sen
My terrible photo of Julia Gillard, Dame Tessa Jowell and Purna Sen

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