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Why Credlin is seen to have gone too far as PM’s right-hand woman

Prime Minister Tony Abbott confers with his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, during question time. AAP/Lukas Coch

Criticism of Peta Credlin, the prime minister’s chief of staff, has been making headlines. Is she acting as a lightning rod for Prime Minister Tony Abbott, providing a safer way to vent frustrations with him and the Coalition government? Or is it her behaviour that is problematic?

The more interesting question is what the public criticism says about our attitudes to women and political power. Traditionally, leadership roles have been gendered male. This is particularly the case with political leadership roles.

We associate political leaders with the “agentic” qualities of ambition, dominance, assertiveness and confidence, qualities that map onto the traditional gender norm for male behaviour. The traditional gender norms for women are “communal” qualities such as helpfulness, concern for others, warmth or collaboration. These do not readily align with our notion of what a political leader should be.

Women in political leadership roles face a “double bind”: if they behave according to what we expect of a political leader, they transgress the norms or qualities a woman should exhibit. Studies show that when female political leaders are strong, assertive and dominant, we do not see them as “likeable”, but if they are collaborative, helpful or emotional we do not see them as “leaderly”. This is especially true in adversarial Westminster political systems.

Deputy’s fine, but not in charge

As deputy leader, Julia Gillard was widely liked and admired. AAP/Alan Porritt

Australians seem to be more comfortable with women in subsidiary political roles. Julie Bishop has received much praise for being a competent and sensible deputy Liberal leader. This was also the case for Julia Gillard, who was liked and widely admired as Labor’s deputy leader.

It appears that we can accept and respect women who occupy a deputy role as they are subordinate to the ultimate position of power.

It is interesting to remember the respect and approbation Gillard received as deputy leader, which vanished when she assumed the role of prime minister. As prime minister, she was criticised as lacking the competence and qualities necessary for successful political leadership. By moving to the top leadership role, she challenged our notions of gender and power and transgressed our expectations.

Credlin’s position as chief of staff is ancillary to, or assisting, the ultimately powerful leader, a traditionally acceptable position for women in politics. Not only are we comfortable with women as assistants or deputies, but this is a role in which they are seen as being able to wield power effectively.

In The Australian, John Lyons concludes that Credlin “may well be the most powerful woman ever seen in Australian public life”. That Credlin would be seen as more powerful than Gillard had been as prime minister reinforces the idea that women are most effective in subsidiary roles, and are less competent when exercising power in their own right.

The criticism of Credlin appears to be that she has been too controlling of her principal and has acted autonomously, wielding power in her own right rather than as the agent of her prime minister. This suggests she has transgressed the role of assistant and has moved, uncomfortably for us, into a position of political leadership.

Much of this discomfort is also about transgressing the role of political adviser, an unelected position close to leaders but without any legitimate power except as the agent of a minister or prime minister. The conduct and influence of political advisers, largely unseen by the public, causes considerable anxiety within our polity.

However, there is clearly also a gender dimension to the criticism of Credlin. We still have a deep ambivalence about women occupying political leadership positions. It is something that Julie Bishop needs to think carefully about, should she aim for the top job.

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