Only two countries have had three female heads of government: Finland and New Zealand.
Even these are relatively recent achievements. Finnish PM Sanna Marin has held her role since 2019, whereas Jacinda Ardern became the Kiwi PM in 2017.
“As Australians we have a loving and competitive relationship with New Zealand, but we can learn a lot from them on gender equality,” Julia Gillard, Australia’s sole woman prime minister, told a Melbourne School of Government discussion last week about her book, Women and leadership: real lives, real lessons.
“They blitz us on things like the World Economic Forum Gender Equality Index, so they are doing a lot of things right.”
Women hold 48% of parliamentary seats in NZ, compared to 35% in Australia.
And of course the stats don’t tell the full story — the recent rape allegations made by several women in Australian politics show the problem runs deep.
While NZ has definitely not solved sexism, it is less pronounced than in Australia, “and that’s something to certainly strive for”, says Gillard.
“The more women who come through, the easier it gets, the better it is, the more women have the ability to be themselves, to feel these gender prisons less.”
Gillard’s book — co-written with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who was recently named the first woman and first African to head the World Trade Organisation — examines the research on female leadership and the experiences of women leaders. It includes interviews with Ardern, almost-US president Hillary Clinton, former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former UK prime minister Theresa May, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, former Malawian president Joyce Banda, Prime Minister of Norway Erna Solberg, and former managing director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde.
While individual attempts to call out sexism are often met with accusations of playing ‘the gender card’, the interviews for Women and leadership found similar experiences. All have ‘stood in the storm’, in the phrasing of Erna Solberg — who also joked with the interviewers “about wanting to try and out-smile the so-called phenomenon of resting bitchface”.
One story in particular stood out for Gillard.
Michelle Bachelet was twice elected president of Chile, and since 2018 has served as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
But she grew up as the daughter of a military general who, following the coup that brought General Pinochet to power, was tortured to death. She went into exile in Australia and then East Germany, before returning to Chile. A decade after Chile transitioned to democracy, Bachelet was named minister of national defence.
“You imagine that incredible moment of her starting as minister for defence — her father, a general who had died, here’s his daughter in a democratic nation, being sworn in as minister for defence, and we asked her: ‘what did you feel in that moment?'” recalls Gillard.
“And she said, ‘what I was saying to myself is: I can’t speak in too soft a voice, or I will be judged harshly. I will be rejected as a military leader, as a minister for defence.'”
This ‘gender prison’ makes it difficult for women to express their emotions, Gillard argues. The academic research backs this up: you’re either too weak to be a leader, or “a bit of a bitch” if you’re assertive.
It adds pressure for men too — to act a certain way, to not take parental leave.
“Part of the journey to gender equality I think is getting rid of the stereotypes so male and female leaders can just be themselves.”
Quotas and targets can be an effective tool in making change happen, says Gillard.
“I’m a big believer, because I’ve seen with my own eyes the impact of setting quotas and targets,” she explains.
When the Labor Party resolved in 1994 to increase the number of women preselected for winnable seats to 35% by 2002, just 11% of ALP House of Representatives members were women. By the time 2002 rolled around, that had increased to 31%. Today that figure sits at 41%.
The quota-averse Liberals started out with a similar proportion of women to Labor, sitting at 8% in 1994. But their progress has been much slower, jumping at the next election in 1996 to 22%, and actually sitting slightly lower at just 21% today.
We also need a broader rethinking of what we want from leaders, Gillard believes.
“In many places around the world, in the lead-up to the pandemic it was possible for people to say to themselves, ‘does it really matter to me who’s in government? You get one lot then you get the other lot, but it doesn’t really touch my life’,” she says.
“What the pandemic has done is it has reminded us forcefully right around the world that the quality of government — and by that I don’t simply mean politicians but the institutions of government — that the quality of government is literally the difference between people living or dying.”
The “ultra macho swaggering style of leadership” of Donald Trump or Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been “exactly the wrong way to go about it”, she adds. The virus doesn’t care if you can bluster your way through other problems — what matters is protecting people from the disease.
Instead, empathetic leadership presents a powerful alternative to the denialism and blame games of the right-wing populists.
The poster child for empathetic leadership? Jacinda Ardern, of course.
And it’s the work done by New Zealand’s trailblazing women leaders — Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark — that has made it easier for Jacinda Ardern to be an empathetic leader, Gillard thinks.
“It does mean that she’s able to lead in whatever style she chooses, and she chooses to foreground kindness and empathy, because the question, ‘can a woman do this?’ is already asked and answered. It’s done, you know — Jenny, Helen, it’s done. No one in New Zealand is saying ‘can a woman do this?’. They’ve seen women do it.
“So that gives Jacinda more options and choices.”
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