As an advocate for gender equality in Australia, the Australian Institute of Management stages a number of high-profile events each year such as the International Women’s Day Debate in Brisbane and the Great Debate in Canberra in order to promote the advancement of women in leadership roles. Another of these events is the Outstanding Women’s Series which will feature former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard in Melbourne on Friday 14 November.
The following is an excerpt from Ms Gillard’s recently released book, My Story. In this chapter entitled ‘The curious question of gender’, Ms Gillard discusses some of her ideas on the challenges facing women in leadership roles.
The fact that today’s Australia is a vastly different and better place to women than yesterday shows us that change is achievable. This means that it is possible for the generations to come to take a better, more balanced approach to gender questions than we have reached to date.
But learning for tomorrow requires us to work patiently and carefully through these complex shades of grey. With regard to that work I have a special perspective, having been at the centre of the gendered reactions to my prime ministership. I am conscious too of my own subjectivity: having had much heat directed at me, having myself become heated on the topic, my perspective may well be too close to be as dispassionately analytical as one should be when dealing with these complex problems. What I can do is try to describe how I lived it and felt it.
Sometimes it felt lonely, I was so visibly the oddity. As prime minister, day after day, time after time, I would find myself in a room, often a business boardroom, where I was the only woman, apart perhaps from a woman serving coffee or food.
The face of corporate Australia is still overwhelmingly a male one. That does not necessarily mean the face is unfriendly. Some of our most senior male corporate leaders are personally committed to seeing change and making sure that in the years to come their boardroom events are filled with as many women as men. But some just did not know how to treat me.
The lack of women in these rooms is telling us that merit is being denied. If you believe, as I do, that merit is equally distributed between the sexes, then women of merit are missing out and the few who make it into these rooms will look – and may feel – like interlopers.
Corporate boardrooms were not the only predominantly male place I encountered. Many institutions in Australian society are disproportionately male, including federal parliament itself. I am glad that Labor has made such a difference to the number of women in parliament, that I had good female colleagues in the ministry, that we drove appointments to government boards so that they now contain 40 percent women.
Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s book My Story is available for purchase through AIM’s Bookshop, Management Books.