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Cheryl Kernot on politics, the media and female leadership

As one of the few women to have run a political party in this country Cheryl Kernot is well aware of the role gender plays in the Australian political landscape. In the wake of Bob Brown’s claim this week…

What’s gender got to do with it? We asked Cheryl Kernot. AAP/Julian Smith/Lukas Coch

As one of the few women to have run a political party in this country Cheryl Kernot is well aware of the role gender plays in the Australian political landscape.

In the wake of Bob Brown’s claim this week that Prime Minister Julia Gillard is being subjected to “relentless sexism”, the former Democrats leader (now Director of Social Business at the Centre for Social Impact) discusses her own experiences, contemporary politics and how the media looks at female politicians.


Do you think Bob Brown’s criticism is fair?

[Julia Gillard] has been the subject of relentless negative comment, some of which has very deep culturally conditioned sexist overtones, but I think what’s happening to her is more complex than just shooting it home to gender.

I think she’s wearing a kind of projected anger from a section of people who don’t like the hung parliament and see her presiding over it and having to make so many compromises and deals. When there was just one group, like the Democrats, that seemed to be more accepted but these days it’s all of the independents and the Greens.

And there’s an extra focus on deal-doing. I think with respect to deal-doing there’s an underlying expectation of female politicians which is a bit different from our underlying expectation of male politicians. That’s around the issue that female politicians should be women first and politicians second but male politicians are allowed to be politicians first and behave in particular ways. It’s quite different for Australia to be observing a woman in this position.

The second thing that affects the relentlessness of the negative comment about Julia Gillard is rooted in the anonymity of social media, which is incredibly abusive. It’s led to a wider cultural context of giving people permission to be publicly abusive, and I think that’s spilled over to the disgusting “ditch the witch” and “Juliar” placards we’ve seen all round the place, and the overtones in the commentary which I think the opposition is knowingly exploiting.

The other thing that feeds into it is since day one when she became leader – all through the election campaign and beyond – there’s been the undermining of her credibility by the Rudd camp, from almost the first minute. It’s really hard to get clear and positive air despite all the good economic management stories that are out there.

You say there are underlying culturally conditioned sexist overtones…

I think there’s a cultural expectation that women should behave in a particular way, whether they’re politicians or not. Hence all that nonsense about the empty fruit bowl or that really, really loaded jibe from Bill Heffernan [calling Gillard] “deliberately barren”.

[Former Democrats leader] Janine Haines pointed out to me many, many years ago that when she was first elected everyone asked her, “Who’s minding the children?” She was astonished, and she said, “They don’t need minding, they’re with their father.” And it hasn’t changed much. People still ask female politicians “Who’s looking after your children?”, the assumption being that the men will be at work doing their own “proper job.”

There’s also another element of cultural conditioning which was pointed out with respect to me. When I changed to Labor, women everywhere reported that in the conversations they were involved in with their wider friendship groups, the women were saying, “I can understand this completely, because this is an alternative government she’s going to and there might be an opportunity to enact some of the values she has in policy.” But the men were saying, “I think it’s terrible because I really relied on her to be the calming translator of what was going on”. So men wanted me in that particular mould for their purpose, not for my own.

That was really interesting, it hadn’t occurred to me but it was certainly borne out by conversations I had from that moment on, and it was certainly borne out by some of the male [journalists] in the press gallery.

You’ve said male politicians are allowed by the media to be “politicians first”, but women are not.

I think so.

Did you feel you were allowed to be a politician during your career, or did your gender get in the way?

No. I think the gender got in the way.

I didn’t realise it at first, and I think there was one advantage to the gender in that I was the only woman leader at a time when both the major parties had male leaders. So there was a contrast. There was a gender contrast and a style contrast, that’s true.

But the Democrats, even though we were as popular as the Greens currently are, the point is that the media still wants to keep you as a third party comment. I think the Greens and the independents are in a slightly different position now, but at that time you were tolerated as the last two paragraphs in the story: “Will you block it or support it?”

It was nothing to do with your agenda, really, and that was very frustrating.

You talk about the anonymity of social media playing into sexist overtones…

I think our political discourse is really, really nasty at the moment, really nasty and really negative. And there seem to be very few attempts to moderate it in my view. Shock jocks just encourage it and they’ve become bigger players than ever. They’re rally organisers, gosh, that’s a change.

And what about the mainstream media, do you think that’s influenced by social media in a similar way?

They have all their own websites, you know, in comments. Under a story they have “add your comment” and those comments are just as abusive as everywhere else.

I make the exception for what George Megalogenis does on his Meganomics site. He says, “These are the rules, if you become partisan, if you become abusive, if you don’t follow the thread of this conversation, I will snip you.” I really, really appreciate that kind of moderation.

That’s the audience engaging with politics, but what about the press gallery? Do you detect any sexism in the way they’ve covered Julia Gillard and other female politicians?

Well, there was that appalling attempt at humour by Jacqueline Maley in the Sydney Morning Herald a while ago about Julie Bishop in a “fanta suit”, suggesting she and Bronwyn Bishop, who was in some other citrus colour, should coordinate their wardrobes together.

I thought that was an appalling and completely unsuccessful attempt at being funny, and it just absolutely perpetrated this nonsense that what a woman wears is of relevance.

I used that example at a conference where Germaine Greer was speaking, and she said, “All female politicians and women in public life should wear black and grey all the time.” That was her answer. Most of the few hundred women in the audience groaned and said, “No, we’re not prepared to.” But if you notice, that’s what Germaine Greer does.

I think the focus on Bill Clinton levelled the playing field, or has gone towards levelling the playing field when it comes to cultural conditioning around matters of infidelity. Until that time we suffered in Australia from what Anne Summers identified ages ago – the “Madonna/Whore [dichotomy]”, you have to be one or the other.

When I was in the translating and calming role [in parliament], I was put on this silly pedestal by people, which I did not want to be on. That was the Madonna. And so when I changed parties and the whole conversation around the sexual content became public then that was the whore.

And I do think that people in the press gallery reacted differently and I do know as a female I suffered longer-term consequences than my male partner in infidelity. That is a really interesting reality these days, and it is a sexist reality.

After years of being in a position of political leadership yourself for many years, you’ve moved on to a rather different environment – the academic sector. How do the two spheres differ as workplaces in terms of gender?

I notice very little sexism in academia. It’s amazing. There aren’t enough female vice-chancellors and chancellors, but at the practical level of the workplace there are more women in positions of leadership than I ever saw in politics or is evident in business. I think it’s because universities have strict equality of opportunity and diversity policies which are followed.

So what could be done to make politics more welcoming to women?

I think we should stop and start again. You see, people aren’t unhappy with politics just because it has cultural conditioning. They hate the abusive conflictual contest that goes one, which is called Question Time, which Janine Haines so indelibly described as the “ritual stag fight” every day. That culture turns many people off.

There are two things women who would really like to be in politics single out to me. They say they hate that oppositionist, conflictual competition of Question Time. But secondly, they hate what they see as a higher level of public scrutiny applied to women.

So you can’t change politics until you equally change the media culture, and even the parliamentary Westminster system, which is based on conflict and opposition. But it’s the public scrutiny and the “gotcha” mentality of the media that really dissuades women from following through with their natural desire to be involved in the contest of ideas, which is what politics ought to be.

Julia Gillard has said there’s no “model” for a female prime minister in this country, but there are a number of women in positions of leadership across the globe we can look to. How would you describe the leadership styles of, say, Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton and Helen Clark. Have they governed like a “bloke in suit”, or have they forged a new model for leadership?

The first thing I’d say is none of those other countries has the “gotcha” media syndrome. We seem to have perfected that. American presidential campaigns have it, but the wider political discourse doesn’t have it as much as we do. We are the masters of it.

The second thing I think we need to remark upon is that Angela Merkel, Julia Gillard and Helen Clark all have no children. That has been used against Julia Gillard. There have been occasional insinuations against Helen Clark [implying] her husband is a homosexual. I haven’t heard anything much about Angela Merkel. Hillary Clinton has one child, and both Clintons are power players.

I think it’s interesting that Angela Merkel has emerged as very much the firm leader in the European crisis conversations – the one who’s insisting on the terms. Some of that comes from the fact that she leads such an economically strong country.

I think each of them, though, has a borderline alpha-male approach.

Do you need a borderline alpha-male approach to be a female leader?

You shouldn’t have to but in the current conditions… if you analyse those who’ve succeeded and endured, they aren’t completely “blokes in suits”, or women in suits, and I think they have had an opportunity to introduce a little bit of personal style, and I welcome that because it’s a start. But the cultural dominance is still an expectation of a particular style of leadership even though many people are yearning for something different.