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Australia’s first and only female prime minister reflects on her short-lived legal career and tumultuous time in politics, as she looks to a brighter future for women in leadership. 

As late as May 2010, Julia Gillard was laughing off the suggestion that she might become Australia’s first female leader of government.

“There’s more chance of me becoming the full-forward for the Dogs [Western Bulldogs AFL team] than there is any chance of a change in the Labor party,” she told reporters in Brisbane.

Rumours of a planned leadership challenge against then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had been circling in Canberra at the time. Just one month after Gillard made the comments, Rudd anticipated a leadership spill in the wake of declining popularity polls and resigned his post.

Gillard, who only three years earlier had claimed the title of Australia’s first female deputy prime minister, stepped up to become Rudd’s replacement. She was sworn in as Australia’s first – and, to this day, only – female Prime Minister on 24 June 2010.

(In relation to the Bulldogs comment – while Gillard never took the field for her beloved AFL team, she did become their number one ticket holder during their 2012 season.)

Almost a decade on, Gillard declares she “could never have imagined” she would make it to the top of Australian politics. She shrugs off the grandeur of the achievement in a rare private interview with LSJ at the International Bar Association Conference in Seoul. 

“It wasn’t what I set out to do. I was part of a group of Labor women who wanted to change our political party, we wanted to get more women into politics,” she tells LSJ. 

“I did dream of being a woman in a Labor government, but I never dreamed of anything further than that.”

Gillard’s comments are tinged with a hint of the imposter syndrome that plagues many women thrust into positions of power. But she is also realistic about the timing of her run into politics.

“I think from time to time about the Labor people who served in the Menzies era; they would have had political careers of the same length as mine and served every day in opposition,” she says.

“I think life is always a mixture of some luck, some circumstance, and then what you put into it. One of the variabilities of life is that two people who put in exactly the same amount can come out with very different outcomes.”

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Julia Gillard chats with LSJ's Kate Allman at the 2019 IBA Conference in Seoul.

Gillard’s new gig

It’s this very phenomenon – the variabilities life can offer seemingly identical candidates – that Gillard has been studying in her new role as Chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership. The institute is Gillard’s brainchild; an idea that took shape when she completed a visiting professorship at King’s College London in 2016. The Institute launched in London with Gillard at the helm in April 2018, and in September 2019 the Australian National University came on board in partnership to set up a satellite office in Canberra. 

Celebrity ambassadors like former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and popstar Rihanna have endorsed the Institute’s work. Gillard has toured the world with both; even striking up an unlikely friendship with Rihanna as they visited schools in Africa in 2017 to highlight the importance of education for young girls in developing countries. (While the children might have been able to recite the words to most of Rihanna’s number-one hits, they didn’t instantly recognise Australia’s first female leader.)

The Global Institute for Women’s leadership, Gillard explains, seeks to understand why women and men from the same backgrounds with the same potential often do not receive the same opportunities to become leaders. She says this applies to a huge spectrum of situations – from young girls being denied education in developing countries, to women being overlooked for promotion in corporate Australia.

“We are trying to answer the question – looking around the world – what is it that is preventing women coming through to leadership positions in equal numbers to men?” Gillard says.

“Often, it’s poverty, because girls are disproportionately affected. But on top of that, it’s gender stereotyping, early marriage, issues with violence, discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying.”

In Seoul to speak at the IBA conference’s showcase session on barriers to diversity in the legal profession, Gillard transfixes a formidable audience of high-profile lawyers from around the world, denouncing the prevalence and impact of bullying and sexual harassment in the global legal profession. Gillard wrote the foreword for the IBA report Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession, published in May.

“Our job at the Institute is to analyse those barriers and deepen the research about what most effectively gets them out of the way,” she tells LSJ in an interview after the session. 

“A lot of research has been done already. But many countries and many occupations – including the law – are finding that while they have made some progress, they are nowhere near reaching equal numbers of women and men in leadership.”

The Us Too report published the results of a global survey involving almost 7,000 lawyers in 135 countries. The survey, the first of its kind in the world, found that one in two female lawyers and one in three men had been bullied at work. One in three female respondents said they had been sexually harassed, compared to one in eight male respondents.

And while women are being admitted to the profession at higher rates than men (the Law Society of NSW’s 2018 National Profile of Solicitors shows 4,024 women were admitted to practice in NSW in the 12 months to October 2018, compared to 2,473 men), the proportion of women in partnership or board positions still hovers around 30 per cent, according to the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership.

We are trying to answer the question – looking around the world – what is it that is preventing women coming through to leadership positions in equal numbers to men?

Gillard, who worked as an industrial relations lawyer for eight years in the 1990s before turning to politics full time, has both personal and professional interests in breaking down barriers preventing women climbing to the top of the ladder in law.

Gillard lawyered in an era where men vastly outnumbered women in the workplace. Ever the exception to the rule, she made partner at just 29 years old in Slater + Gordon’s employment relations team (she shrugs this off as another “combination of luck and circumstance”). It was an extraordinary achievement at a time when legal careers followed a strict hierarchy and structure.

Gillard says people worked “all the hours that a human being is capable of working”, and “there would have been no thought that lawyers could go part time”.

“It clearly wasn’t a structure that was capable of offering the flexibilities that [women] needed, and we increasingly need now,” she admits.

Gillard speaks glowingly of her time at Slater + Gordon. However, she reflects that many female peers in the profession were facing an uphill battle against gender-based bullying, harassment and discrimination.

“I think a lot of behaviours – and I’m not speaking specifically at Slater + Gordon but more generally in the law – were tolerated then that would not be tolerated now.”

Navigating glass labyrinths

Today, Gillard speaks of the “glass labyrinths” of structures and attitudes preventing women from obtaining leadership positions. She shuns the term “glass ceiling” because it inaccurately reflects  that women must smash through a single barrier – in what might be a violent act of feminist aggression – to reach the top.

“At the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, we aren’t just talking about a final, hard glass ceiling. We aren’t just talking about the journey from being deputy CEO to CEO, or Secretary of State to President, to use a recent example,” she says, with a wry nod to her former speaking circuit partner Hillary Clinton.

“We want to start back at the earliest parts of a woman’s life, education and career, and analyse where the woman might have had fewer opportunities than a man in the same position. We take that approach because so many organisations in different industries say, ‘We start off with 50/50 men and women at entry level, and we end up with a lot fewer in leadership.’ So, we have to understand every element of that journey as women work their way through.”

Of course, Gillard is no stranger to glass labyrinths. As the daughter of working-class parents from South Australia, she defied the odds to graduate from both school and university in the 1980s. About 35 per cent of law students were women at the time, according to Australian university enrolment data, and very few made full-time careers out of law. But that didn’t stop Gillard graduating from the University of Melbourne in 1986 with a double degree in arts and law and making partner at Slater + Gordon in less than eight years. When she was elected to the Victorian seat of Lalor in 1998, women held just 14 per cent of Labor or Coalition seats in the House of Representatives.

And while the final “ceiling” on her journey to the prime ministership appeared to crack neatly rather than shatter (Rudd stepped aside and Gillard was the unopposed replacement), her journey through three years in leadership was messy. Nine years on, it’s hard not to cringe when Google brings up memories of the abuse she received while in office – plenty of which had a gendered angle.

Twitter, launched in Australia in 2006, had taken off in popularity and the 24-hour news cycle churned out a relentless stream of extreme online trolling. Gillard was ridiculed for her red hair, nasal twang and “huge thighs”. Signs like “Ditch the Witch” and “Bob Brown’s Bitch” appeared at political rallies. 2GB broadcaster Alan Jones even suggested, when Gillard’s father died, that “the old man recently died a few weeks ago of shame”. He also encouraged the idea that the Prime Minister should be dumped “out to sea in a chaff bag”.

Gillard’s reaction culminated in her famous “misogyny speech”, in which she unleashed in Parliament and admonished then-opposition leader Tony Abbott for alleging sexism in the Labor Party. The ABC News clip of this 2012 speech has, at the time of writing, been viewed more than 3.3 million times on YouTube.

“There were a set of things that came with being the first [woman prime minister],” reflects Gillard.

“Now, people look back on those things and recognise that there was a sexist prism through which I was seen from time to time as Prime Minister. People look back on that and know that now – though they didn’t at the time. I think people see the unfairness more now.”

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Gillard spoke to an international audience of lawyers about the importance of combating bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Gillard points out many Australians had justifiable political reasons to dislike her. In knocking off Rudd, she instigated the deeply unpopular trend of ousting sitting prime ministers. She also broke a key Labor election promise by introducing a carbon tax, she voted against a bill for same-sex marriage, and she lowered the Newstart allowance for thousands of welfare-dependant single parents.

But politics alone don’t explain why Gillard copped a disproportionate amount of commentary related to her gender. Research by the Australian National University in 2016 found that 58 per cent of Australian media articles about Julia Gillard discussed her gender, and 44 per cent insinuated that her femininity was not prime ministerial. In contrast, articles about Malcolm Turnbull rarely alluded to the fact he was a man.

A poster child for women’s empowerment

Gillard steps onto the stage in Seoul to rapturous applause. The room is packed to the rafters, people are standing at the back without chairs to watch the 27th Prime Minister of Australia speak. Proceedings are even paused for 10 minutes when an onlooker faints due to the lack of air in the crowded room. 

Like a phoenix (pardon the red analogy) rising from the ashes of a political career cut short, Gillard’s popularity has soared since leaving the Lodge. Her autobiography was the highest-selling political memoir in 2014 and she regularly sells out high-paying speaking gigs around the world. 

The surge in gender discrimination awareness spurred by #MeToo has undoubtedly helped improve perceptions of female trailblazers like Gillard. Touring with Rihanna and Hillary Clinton probably helped. But she has also used her influence to advocate for important  issues like mental health, discrimination, and violence against women – as Chair of Beyond Blue, Chair of the Global Institute for Education and, most recently, Chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership.

Ever the proponent of “luck and circumstance”, Gillard explains her improved public image as a matter of timing.

“I think today there is a more receptive climate about listening to proposals for change,” she says. 

It’s as if the world is finally catching up to the idea of women in leadership; just six years too late for Gillard. The legal profession has long paid lip-service to the idea of 50/50 proportions of women and men in leadership. How can we make that idea a reality sooner rather than later?

“If it was simple and the problems were the same everywhere, we would have solved this by now,” sighs Gillard.

“But I think there is strength in women reaching out to women and talking about these issues. There are many sources of good advice about proposals that make a difference – the research that the Institute is doing, what Chief Executive Women do, material published by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner and so on. It’s also about identifying male champions, because in workplaces where men disproportionately have the power, change won’t happen without them.”