Women Leaders in a Man’s World: A Glimpse into Australia’s Foreign Policy Under Gillard - Part I

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“Maybe it will get to the point where it will be natural because people will see women in your position and mine...but the balance of how much emotion to show and how much to hold back is tricky for women in high power jobs" – Hillary Clinton in conversation with Julia Gillard, Sydney 11 May 2018

Women make the world a better place for other women. Or do they? Jacinda Ardern's recent rise to power, New Zealand’s 40th Prime Minister (since 26 October 2017), and Iceland’s 28th Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir (since 30 November 2017), triggered a new round of debate about the space for, and impact of, women leaders. The world’s most recent women leaders also need mention: Romania’s Prime Minister Viorica Dancila (since 29 January 2018), although her actual ability to effect change has been highly disputed (The Economist, 2018), and Mia Mottley, Barbados’ first female Prime Minister (since 25 May 2018), who has placed the state of Barbados’ economy and fiscal transparency high on her agenda (Sandiford, 2018).

Some maintain that the future looks bright for women with more women holding high political positions. Brynhildur Heiðar, Executive Manager of the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, goes so far as to claim, “There is absolutely no doubt that there is an equivalency between more gender-balanced political representation and better policies for women,” from daycare to parental leave to equal pay (Henley, 2017). Yet, even if this claim is true, few women worldwide would benefit. In February 2018, there were only 20 women heads of state or government worldwide, representing only 6.3% of global leadership (Wildak, 2018).

However, we cannot hold the assumption that women leaders are necesarrily good for women. There is no methodologically-sound research proving direct correlations between women leaders and a positive legislative footprint when it comes to women’s rights. Moreover, it is entirely unclear that the world of politics would allow a female leader to advance a feminist agenda even if she wanted to. Politics is an area dominated by men and entrenched with expectations of masculine leadership styles and a derisive discourse that equates “the female” with emotionality, weakness and at its most extreme, hysteria (Wright and Holland, 2014: 456; Jamieson, 1995).

There is no methodologically-sound research proving direct correlations between women leaders and a positive legislative footprint when it comes to women’s rights.

This is well-illustrated in the case of Julia Gillard, Australia’s first and thus far only female Prime Minister (from 2010-2013), whose domestic and foreign policy agenda on the issue of women’s rights is explored in this two-part series. For the national audience, the fact that Gillard was first, unmarried, second, in a de-facto relationship, and third, had no children, quickly became part of the public debate (Stevenson, 2013). The extreme and unsubstantiated focus of the media, as well as fellow politicians, on Gillard’s sex, body, marital and motherhood decisions – the so-called “gender wars” – was profound. Such unrelenting gendered attacks on Gillard arguably eliminated the very ability of Gillard to speak for women or on women’s issues without further fuelling the war.

In a lose-lose situation, Gillard was constrained by the “gender double bind”: an expectation to simultaneously embody traditional “masculine” leadership traits as well as the “feminine” qualities that she – as a woman leader – was supposed to bring to the political sphere (Wright and Holland, 2014: 456; Jamieson, 1995). In a resounding parliamentary speech delivered in 2012, in which Gillard called out the opposition for sexism and misogyny (Gillard, 2012a), her actions were concurrently framed as a calculated (masculine) political manoeuvre and female hysteria. However, the patriarchal context far from answers all our questions, and we cannot presume all woman leaders necessarily want to advance a pro-women’s rights political agenda in the first place.

Given the challenges with discussing women's rights in the domestic context, the obvious question is if the situation is any different for Western leaders with respect to their foreign policy agendas. Looking at the case of Gillard, it appears that the public response to a gendered agenda can be notably different when we shift away from domestic politics to foreign policy; the innate fear of speaking about women’s rights domestically seems to fade away.

... [G]endered attacks on Gillard arguably eliminated the very ability of Gillard to speak for women or on women’s issues without further fuelling the war.

One possible explanation is that when it comes to foreign policy, we convince ourselves that we are doing our part to save the “third world woman” and establish good post-colonial societies (Spivak, 2010: 94). The irony is not lost here, Australia itself being a former colony. Moreover, under a (white) woman leader, does the explanation of the fantasy of “white men…saving brown women from brown men,” as Spivak puts it (Spivak, 2010: 92), still hold as an explanation for a greater willingness to invest in gender equality abroad?

Gillard’s cabinet did not demonstrate a particular commitment to aid for gender equality. Nonetheless, Australia’s Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) under Gillard reached its highest in the last decade, at 0.361 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI) in 2012 (OECD, 2018a). In comparative terms, this was still low, failing to reach her promise of 0.5 per cent of GNI (Government of Australia, 2012c), let alone the long-standing global target of 0.7 per cent that has repeatedly been endorsed at international aid and development conferences (OECD, 2018b).

As an aside, it is worth noting that Gillard came to power with limited foreign policy experience: a fact that attracted much criticism. Yet, as Gillard herself pointed out, most of the male leaders who went before her  – Howard, Keating, Hawke, Fraser, Whitlam, Menzies and others – did not bring foreign policy expertise either; however, in the case of those male leaders, Gillard notes that fact was simply ‘tossed aside’ by the media and fellow politicians (Gillard, 2014: 164).

What was Gillard’s declared foreign policy agenda? A White Paper produced under her leadership in 2012, Australia in the Asian Century (Government of Australia, 2012a), made reference to the issue of gender inequality – particularly in South Asia – alongside other inequalities suffered on the basis of rural-urban and ethnic lines. Having said that, the word “gender” only appears five times in the White Paper and the word “women” only a few more. Rather her agenda – as reflected as much in the White Paper as in her own memoir – focused on rebuilding relations with our Asian neighbours and advancing Australia’s personality on the international landscape vis-à-vis the G20, the United Nations, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and World Trade Organization (WTO).

... [W]hen we shift away from domestic politics to foreign policy; the innate fear of speaking about women’s rights domestically seems to fade away.

Yet, the evidence suggests that Gillard did significantly more. The 2013 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Peer Review of Australia – in this case, conducted by Canada and the European Union – commended both Australia and Prime Minister Gillard in particular, praising Australia for the “solid integration” (OECD, 2013: 17) of gender, but even more so, offering praise for Australia’s disability-inclusive development strategy. Gender equality and women’s empowerment was said to be promoted “at the very highest political level,” with Australia named as one of the top supporters of UN Women and a leading funder of programs aimed at improving the availability and use of statistics that capture gender gaps in economic activity (OECD, 2013: 45).

In Gillard’s own address to the UN General Assembly in September 2012, she expressed Australia’s intention under her leadership to ensure that women’s empowerment underpins every Australian aid intervention (Gillard, 2012b). And these statements were backed by action. That same year, Australia announced a AUD 320 million initiative to promote gender equality and make a practical difference in the lives of Pacific women, their families, and their communities over the next 10 years (Government of Australia, 2012b). This is in addition to waving the flag for increased investments in quality education for all, both on the domestic as well as international front, throughout her entire leadership (Gillard, 2017).

The question to consider is whether a Gillard free(r) of domestic political constraints would have done more. Her current activities in relation to gender equality might provide the answer. A good hint could be her current activities in relation to gender equality. In April of this year, Gillard launched the first Global Institute for Women’s Leadership with King’s College London. The Institute has the remit of finding out what does or does not remove obstacles to gender equality, with Gillard as the inaugural chair. The research produced by the Institute will be very welcomed. At the same time, we should hope that such a progressive pursuit of an evidenced-based understanding of how we can improve the lives of women can actually be achieved within the realm of politics and not only beyond it.


Dr Ramona Vijeyarasa is a Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Technology Sydney, researching the impact women leaders have on the lives of fellow women.


List of References: 

Clinton, H. (2018) An evening with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Interview with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Sydney, Australia, 11 May 2018 (Notes on file with author).

Gillard, J. (2012a). Parliamentary Debate Motions. House of Representatives, Canberra.

Gillard, J. (2012b). Statement by Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard: Practical progress towards realising those ideals in the world. New York: United Nations General Assembly.

Gillard, J. (2014). My Story. Random House Australia. Accessed on: May 2, 2018.

Gillard, J. (2017). The gap in the G20 agenda (and why world leaders should listen to Rihanna).  Accessed on: May 2, 2018.

Government of Australia. (2012a). Australia in the Asian Century White Paper. Access on: June 1, 2018.

Government of Australia. (2012b). Media Release: Addressing gender inequality in the Pacific. Raratonga: Prime Minister’s Press Office.

Government of Australia. (2012c). 2012-13 International Development Assistance Budget. Accessed on: June 2, 2018.

Henley, J (2017). Iceland seeks return to political stability with new prime minister. Accessed on: March 7, 2018.

Jamieson, K.H. (1995) Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

OECD. (2018a). Official development assistance (ODA) - Net ODA OECD Data. Accessed on: May 3,  2018.

OECD. (2018b). The 0.7% ODA/GNI Target - a History. 2018. Access on: 19 June 2018.

OECD. (2013). OECD Peer Review: Australia. OECD. Accessed on:  May 25, 2018.

Sandiford, R.E. (2018) Barbados elects first female PM in opposition landslide. Reuters. Accessed on: 8 June 2018.

Spivak, G.C. (2010) Can the subaltern speak?: Reflections on the history of an idea on JSTOR. In: Morris RC (ed.) Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea. Columbia University Press, pp. 21–78. Accessed on: May 2, 2018.

Stevenson, A. (2013). Making gender divisive: ‘Post-Feminism’, sexism and media representations of Julia Gillard. Burgmann Journal v. 1(2),pp. 53–63.

The Economist (2018) Alarming attempts to undermine Romanian democracy - Nobbling the nobblers. Accessed on: May 14, 2018.

Wildak, E, (2018), 2018, women and political leadership – female heads of state and heads of government. Women in international politics. Accessed on: March 7, 2018.

Wright, K.A.M. and Holland, J. (2014). Leadership and the media: Gendered framings of Julia Gillard’s ‘sexism and misogyny’ speech. Australian Journal of Political Science v. 49(3). pp. 455–468.