Julia Gillard on Breaking Barriers for Women in Politics

In a series exploring women in international affairs, Julia Gillard speaks to Gitika Bhardwaj about serving in the highest political office in Australia and why she believes things are now changing for women around the world.

Interview Updated 24 July 2023 Published 6 November 2019 6 minute READ

The Hon Julia Gillard AC

Prime Minister of Australia (2010-13)

Gitika Bhardwaj

Former Editor, Communications and Publishing

Julia Gillard, you were the first woman to become prime minister in Australian history, in 2010. What have been the challenges and opportunities for you as a woman working in politics? Have the obstacles women face in positions of power changed over the years, and if so, how?

I’m a huge advocate for people going into politics particularly women. I believe there’s no better way of putting your values into action than going into politics but I’m not going to pretend that there’s no gender bit. There still is a gender bit and I experienced that personally. A disproportionate focus on appearance, a disproportionate focus on family structures – for example the fact that I didn’t have kids – and the gendered insults becoming the go-to weapon when politics got turbulent which inevitably happens as governments make decisions that not everybody agrees with.

In terms of politics past and present, a lot has changed for the positive, there are more women in politics now which means more role models for other women.

There’s been more of an attempt to have the system offer flexibilities for work and family life over the years. In Australian politics, famously, the non-members bar was replaced by a childcare centre, so that’s giving you a sense that there has been progress. We’ve also just hit the stage where our Senate is now 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women.

But I do think that there’s a new toxicity for women that’s been introduced through social media. Through the fact that it’s anonymous and people can say anything and the kinds of revolting material many women politicians receive. I think that there’s a new coarseness in our traditional media too which means things will be said about people in politics today, especially women, which would not have been put in the pages of respectable newspapers 10 or 20 years ago. So, it’s a mixed picture, where there has been major steps forward but there are still some huge issues to resolve.

Following this year’s elections, there are now a record number of female members of parliament in Australia, yet some argue that women are still underrepresented across the major political parties, and over the past 20 years, the country has fallen from 15th in the world to 50th for gender diversity in its parliament. Given some of the recent experiences of women in Australian politics, do you think the major political parties are doing enough to address gender diversity in their ranks?

I certainly think on the Labor side of politics important changes have happened in our political party and the benefit of those changes has showed. I’m of that generation of Labor women that fought for an affirmative action target and we had that adopted as a Labor Party rule in the early 1990s. It started at 30 per cent, and it’s gone up over time, and the benefit of that now is that the Labor Party is almost at 50 per cent women, coming off a very low base in the early 1990s where we were at 14 per cent.

The Conservative side of politics hasn’t embraced a target or quota as of yet. They have done some things, through mentoring and networking and training, but that hasn’t seen as significant a shift in the gender diversity in their ranks. They’ve moved slowly from when they were 13 per cent women to now where they’re in the mid-20 per cent.

Of course that doesn’t mean the work within Labor is done: we’ve got to keep delivering to the affirmative action target, having women come through for all of the ministries and the Cabinet and to make sure that we’re embracing the full diversity of women too. Australia is a very multicultural society and there is more to do to make sure that women – and men – in parliament represents that diversity.

During your premiership, you delivered a famous speech on misogyny and described there being ‘gender wars’ in Australian politics. How far has Australia addressed its problems regarding everything from unconscious bias to gender stereotypes? Do you think social attitudes in Australia to women in leadership are changing?

I don’t think these issues are particularly an Australian problem. When I left politics, people kept asking me about my experiences and it became convenient for them to say: ‘That’s Australia and its macho culture and Crocodile Dundee and all of that.’ I was always quick to point out, actually, a number of the insults hurled at me were first hurled at Hillary Clinton when she originally put her name forward to be considered as a candidate for US president. So, this is not an Australian problem, it’s a global problem.

I can see progress in Australia though. When I was prime minister, the sort of fashionable analysis by the press was that nothing, in my experience, had anything to do with gender. I was just being treated like every prime minister had always been treated.

Today, there is a very lively debate about sexism in Australian politics and about how women can feel excluded from these structures with various Conservative women making complaints about bullying within their political party. So the preparedness to report issues due to the understanding of gender is now much higher and I’m a big believer that you never solve a problem unless you start talking about it so I’m glad we’re talking about it now.

From the implementation of ‘womenomics’ in Japan, to gender-responsive budgeting in Indonesia, countries around the world are making progress towards addressing gendered perspectives yet barriers that prevent women’s economic, political and social participation remain. What are the biggest barriers that women continue to face around the world and do you think enough is being done to address them?

I think so much is context-specific that it’s hard to say, but I would say, in some parts of the world, unequal access to education is the fundamental barrier. Now that’s not true in the UK or in Australia, where the statistics tell you that disproportionately graduates today are women and not men, but if we look at many of the poorer parts of the world, like in sub-Saharan Africa and other places, there are 260 million children out of school and the face of a child most likely to miss out is a female face. So there still needs to be a lot more progress on things such as equal access to education around the world.

In many parts of the developed world, there is actually an assault now on long-held rights around women’s reproduction, so I think that is another foundation stone. 

Then it comes to a set of barriers around the world of work and full access to every level of work. Much of this is what we research at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership because we continue to see workplaces that have a very traditional view of what merit looks like. It’s a sort of male-defined view of the world and it is one that is not inclusive of women. We are still seeing the unequal sharing of domestic labour which has ramifications for women’s engagement in the world of work and their ability to achieve leadership within it too.

With a broad brush, I would point to all of this, but the most pressing problems that women continue to face varies from place to place.

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Former Australian prime Minister, Julia Gillard, speaking at the House of Representatives on 5 February 2013 in Canberra, Australia just days after announcing a federal election date of 14 September 2013. Photo: Getty Images.

Former Australian prime Minister, Julia Gillard, speaking at the House of Representatives on 5 February 2013 in Canberra, Australia just days after announcing a federal election date of 14 September 2013. Photo: Getty Images.

— Former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, speaking at the House of Representatives on 5 February 2013 in Canberra, Australia just days after announcing a federal election date of 14 September 2013. Photo: Getty Images.

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Globally, increasing numbers of women are being elected to political office, from the first female president of Slovakia, to the first female mayor of Tunis. This comes at a time of record numbers of female ministers in Egypt and Jordan, as well as gender-balanced cabinets in 10 countries worldwide, six of which were achieved in 2018 alone. How are female voters responding to this increase in the number of women holding political office?

If you see women being represented at less than 50 per cent then that’s got to mean that there are women of merit who didn’t get there who should’ve gotten there.

I think, even if women didn’t bring new policy perspectives to the world of politics, I would still be an advocate of gender equality in politics because I believe merit is equally distributed between the sexes.

I think it’s important to make that point otherwise we’re saying: ‘Women should only be there if, when they are there, they do this, this and this’. We don’t tend to put that ‘if’ in sentences about men.

But I do think the evidence shows that more women, being involved in politics, does diversify the policy agenda. That doesn’t mean that a male politician couldn’t focus his career and advocacy on childcare or domestic violence or combating sexual assault or furthering women’s reproductive rights. But I think the evidence shows that there is a lived experience that women bring to politics that enables them to mobilize around a set of issues that are of particular concern to women.

On the role model effect, I think the evidence shows that, if women and girls do see role models, they are more likely to think there is a pathway open to them. One of the things that does slightly concern me is whether that evidence is now retrospective evidence and whether the prospective evidence is going to be – because of the toxicity of social media – more women thinking about the real-world threats that being in politics presents for them, and so, the role modelling effect will work in reverse because it will show how women are treated in politics is more of a negative than a positive.

I certainly hope this doesn’t happen and young women are encouraged to go into politics. That’s where we still have to shine a light on the positive aspects of what working in politics has to offer.

Despite all of the progress, women are still faced with gender-based discrimination, with 40 per cent of women and girls living in countries which fail to guarantee basic standards of gender equality. How hopeful are you that gender equality can be attained in the future?

Yes I’m an optimist overall. People like to quote the great Martin Luther King quote: ‘The moral arc of the universe bends towards justice.’ I believe that but I think sometimes the imagery of the arc as if it’s always in a forward movement hides the nitty-gritty struggle that is there beneath.

I believe we can reach a stage where we are generating societies where women can live their lives free from the threat of discrimination based on their gender.

Inevitably, at some points, it feels like there’s more of a backlash against women than a forward movement but, over time, I’m an optimist that the forward movement will win.