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Is this the end of the gender wars?

Accounts in the media over the past week explain, or rather rationalise, the downfall of our first female Prime Minister. One-time feminist warrior Eva Cox found that Julia Gillard failed to communicate…

In most of our workplaces and institutions there are subtle, cumulative, insidious judgements and responses that serve to reinforce the powerful status quo of leadership. Image sourced from www.shutterstock.com

Accounts in the media over the past week explain, or rather rationalise, the downfall of our first female Prime Minister. One-time feminist warrior Eva Cox found that Julia Gillard failed to communicate and bring people along. More critical assertions suggest that Gillard’s ambition exceeded her political talent. Defenders speak of a warm individual in interpersonal contexts and a well-run parliamentary office.

Such extreme leadership events and commentary beg the question: What are our expectations of our nation’s leader, our Prime Minister? And, as Gillard proposed, is gender “everything” or “nothing”?

Prime characteristics

In formal terms, one would expect that the Prime Minister, regardless of gender, would have a nuanced understanding of their role in terms of constitutional responsibilities, the formal mechanisms of the parliamentary system and its interface with the bureaucracy of the public service.

We expect our Prime Minister not to be pre-occupied by short-term wins, but to pursue agendas that position the nation for the future. In this context, the Prime Minister has to have the capacity to lead the governing party effectively but also temper this with a constant eye to the long-term good of the nation, even when this demands political compromise and politically unpopular decisions.

In Australia (I hope) there is an enduring expectation that our Prime Minister will pursue policies that reflect fundamental national values of equality and inclusiveness.

Ticks for Gillard against the above.

But these are just some of the formal expectations. In practice, there are an equal number of nuanced traits - often unspoken, taken for granted - and even sub-conscious expectations upheld by the party, the media and the public.

Rising to the top

First, we cling to the notion that a national leader achieves their position through a legitimate process. Gillard is not the first to have achieved the position of Prime Minister in compromised circumstances. But she is the first woman to have done so, and this act was contrary to that of loyal deputy. Legitimacy of process underpins authority. Rudd has been quick to reclaim that legitimacy, to negate the easy comparison of “palace coups”.

Second, a national leader has to meet the ill-defined but powerfully felt image of “statesman”. I use the term statesman quite intentionally rather than the gender-neutral term “statesperson”. In Australia, we have never previously had a stateswoman national leader, so our expectations are shaped by those who have historically occupied this role.

It appeared that international leaders saw Gillard as a statesman, but is being a successful statesman more than the ability to tread the international stage effectively? Does being young, female, unmarried and, in relative terms, ungrounded in the political terrain, preclude fitting the expectations of the statesman? In searching for the statesman, did we then find fault in our Prime Minister’s dress, choice of partner, domestic lifestyle, and penchant for that particularly feminine art, knitting? In a woman did we find the unseemly parliamentary banter and adversarial politics unbecoming?

Third, a national leader cannot be seen to be driven by personal ambition – their motivation has to be in the nation’s best interests. Yet it was ambition that was seen to have propelled Gillard into the role of national leader and ambition that drove her determined and successful bid to form a minority government. It has been suggested that ambition is a fine trait in a man but not in a woman. Women need to develop the skills to ensure that we are perceived to have succeeded despite ourselves. Being sponsored by senior male colleagues, preferably statesmen of repute rather than “faceless men”, helps. Such statesmen reinforce the legitimacy of our political lineage.

Strengths and weaknesses

Women have many strengths, but also profound weaknesses. At the risk of generalising, one of our failings is to focus on achievement, expecting that this will be recognised and rewarded. The desire to change the world and make it a better place is an admirable ambition but fraught with risk, especially if we do not stop to look around to see who is coming on our journey. Gillard embarked on an ambitious and ultimately successful reform agenda. Yet she was deemed “wooden”, “cold” and lacking “media presence”. Despite her ambitious achievements, she failed to cultivate our trust, and her resilience, which she evidenced in spades, proved no substitute for trust.

Gender is not everything or nothing, but it is the powerful and pervasive lens through which our leadership narratives are read, and against which we are judged. The research tells us that gender discrimination is now subtle and nuanced, played out in informal spaces and subtle interactions. Women in leadership are judged differently to male counterparts, even when exhibiting comparable behaviour.

The public and media scrutiny of Gillard was not always subtle. The unseating of Gillard does not flag the end of the “gender wars”. In most of our workplaces and institutions there are generally not wars, not even skirmishes - there are subtle, cumulative, insidious judgements and responses that serve to reinforce the powerful status quo of leadership. This discrimination is less visible than the misogyny that Gillard had the courage to name, but unless we eliminate it the optimism Gillard expressed for coming generations of women leaders will remain ungrounded.