When Julia talks, does her gender speak louder?

Julia Gillard’s gender matters, but it also depends on which gender is listening. AAP

How does gender affect the way people perceive Julia Gillard’s communication style?

Australians’ responses to Julia Gillard seem complex and ambiguous, embodying the contradictions involved in how women are expected to communicate compared with what is expected of leaders.

Reaction to Gillard’s communication style also appears to be divided along gender lines, with males being concerned about her accent, and females commenting on her relative “detachment”.

Attitudes like this to Gillard may expose some lingering cultural insecurities on the part of Australians.

Different types of Australian accent have been shown to encode different values to listeners. When Australians were asked to evaluate Australian voices with a range of accents - termed cultivated, general and broad - it was found males with broad Australian accents were rated as reliable, strong and trustworthy, while women with broad Australian accents were rated as uneducated and unlikely to be in professional positions.

The different values associated with male and female Australian accents may explain why Bob Hawke might have been seen as a larrikin, but still a good bloke, while Julia Gillard’s accent causes some embarrassed responses.

When I asked people informally what they thought of Julia Gillard’s communication style, some young males commented that Julia’s accent reduced her credibility as a leader on the world stage.

The complexity of reactions is apparent: while some young men were uncomfortable with Gillard representing Australia to the world, others said that is good to have a Prime Minister who speaks “like us”; and that “rural and regional Australians can relate to her, she talks like them”.

It seems gender is highly relevant to people’s perception of Gillard’s accent, with negative attributes attached to her broader Australian speech, at least by males.

An arguably more significant factor is that women’s talk typically encodes meanings of care, nurturing and support for the other, while meanings associated with competition, directness and individualism are typical of men’s talk.

Since males have traditionally occupied positions of institutionalised leadership and power, successful communication in these positions has become associated with directness and confrontation.

The paradox for women in leadership positions is the implied need to communicate both care and competition.

Julia Gillard faces the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dilemma: if she is forceful and direct she is too aggressive, if she’s indirect, she’s weak and indecisive.

These gendered expectations of talk were highlighted at the time of the Queensland floods, when Anna Bligh and Julia Gillard appeared in televised interviews.

Anna Bligh successfully conveyed high level of competence as a leader as well as being empathetic, caring, showing emotion and sharing personal experiences.

Some women that I have talked to say that by contrast Julia Gillard appeared detached and cool.

Perhaps, in the same way as an assertive woman may be referred to as aggressive, calm professionalism in a woman can be interpreted as a lack of engagement or involvement.

In unscripted, informal moments Julia exhibits markers that are expected of female communication: shared laughter and nurturing.

She smiles, laughs, and touches Wayne Swan and Mark Latham with a caring, calming hand. The complexities are revealed again, however, by the fact that some media interpretations were that the touches were displays of her power.

It appears that the gender of the audience is a relevant factor. Women seem more concerned with the lack of expressions of care and nurturing in Gillard’s communication style, while men seem more concerned with accent.

And while some people approved of a leader who “sounds like us”, one 20-year-old male said “Bogan chicks don’t sound intelligent”.

Perhaps it is a case of residual cultural cringe: we like the idea that our Prime Minister is a ‘ranga’ who speaks like an ordinary Australian, but at the same time we’re a little embarrassed.