Julia Gillard on tackling sexism against female leaders

The former Australian prime minister on making the internet safe for women and helping universities prepare for change

December 1, 2016
Julia Gillard, former prime minister of Australia
Source: Rex

“I think you do have to have a sense of self that’s protected from letting all of that sort of poison in.”

Julia Gillard, the former Australian prime minister and new visiting professor at King’s College London, is talking about the abuse that female leaders are often subjected to on social media. In the wake of a bruising US presidential campaign in which Donald Trump’s attitude towards women in general and rival candidate Hillary Clinton in particular was a major theme, this is a very live issue.

Trump’s frequent questioning of Clinton’s health and stamina, combined with his claims that she didn’t have a presidential “look”, were interpreted by many as sexist. Some of the attacks on Clinton by Trump supporters were misogynistic.

Gillard’s pioneering role as Australia’s first female prime minister certainly exposed her to abuse from political opponents and online trolls. A 2012 question and answer session on Facebook attracted a barrage of abuse, with participants reportedly condemning her for being “unmarried and childless and husbandless’’. She survived just three years as Labor prime minister, between 2010 and 2013, before being ousted as party leader by her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, in a vain attempt to turn around the party’s fortunes before the 2013 general election. By the standards of recent Australian prime ministers, such a tenure is not unusual: both Rudd (in both his terms of office) and his successor, Tony Abbott (himself unseated by fellow Liberal Malcolm Turnbull within two years), served even shorter terms. But the experience of Gillard, a former president of the Australian Union of Students, has come to be seen around the world as emblematic of the sexist abuse that women in public life routinely suffer. This is because of her famous speech to the Australian Parliament in 2012 in which she challenged Abbott, who was then opposition leader, on the “sexism and misogyny” that she believed he had directed at women in general and at her personally.

The speech, which has clocked up nearly 3 million hits on YouTube and was described by the UK’s Daily Telegraph in 2014 as being “among the most famous political oratories of all time”, came after Abbott tabled a motion of no confidence in the speaker of the House of Representatives, who had been Labor’s choice, after he was revealed to have sent a series of sexist text messages to an aide. With Abbott sitting a short distance away from her, across the floor of the chamber, Gillard responded: “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not.” The anger in her voice made clear straight away that this was going to be no ordinary political speech.

She went on to list previous cases of Abbott’s “offensive” comments and behaviour. There was the interview in which, according to Gillard, he asked, “If it’s true…that men have more power generally speaking than women, is that a bad thing?” and, “What if men are by physiology or temperament more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command?” There was his comment about abortion being “the easy way out”. There was his reference to “what the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing”. There was the time in Parliament when he called out to Gillard, who is not married: “If the prime minister wants to, politically speaking, make an honest woman of herself…” And there was the occasion when he spoke at a protest outside Parliament next to placards that read “ditch the witch”, in reference to Gillard, and that “described me as a man’s bitch”.

By the end of her 17-minute speech, the thin smile that Abbott started with had been well and truly erased.

Three years later, BuzzFeed reported that “teens are memorising Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech and shouting it in the streets”. One member of a group of Australian high school students who had posted a film of themselves reciting the speech said: “It’s something that’s really inspirational to me because she is not just sticking up for herself, but she’s sticking up for all women of Australia.”

Gillard’s policies had a lot of impact on Australian teens of both genders – particularly poorer ones. As Rudd’s education secretary between 2007 and 2010, she oversaw the introduction of the demand-driven system into Australian higher education, abolishing the numbers cap with the aim that 40 per cent of young people would hold a degree by 2025, and 20 per cent of those from poorer backgrounds would have one by 2020. Sure enough, the move led to a sharp rise in university enrolment, before growth began to level off more recently.

Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, House of Representatives, Canberra, Australia

Speaking to Times Higher Education at the King’s Policy Institute during a recent two‑week visit to the UK, Gillard says that the policy, which has since been emulated in England, was the obvious response in Australia to the growing worldwide demand for higher-level skills. “You’ve got to answer the question: What education structure enables you to get enough students into a system that gets them those higher level skills? In Australia, that did mean growth,” she says.

The Group of Eight, which represents Australia’s research-intensive universities, has recently attacked the demand-driven system, arguing that more growth in student numbers could put an unsustainable burden on the higher education budget. The group’s chief executive, Vicki Thomson, asked: “Why are we all so reticent about stating the obvious – that university isn’t for everyone.”

Asked about those criticisms – which some have dismissed as an attempt to claim more funding for the Go8 institutions – Gillard says that the demand-driven system was “developed thoughtfully” after a major government-commissioned review led by Denise Bradley, former vice-chancellor of the University of South Australia.

“I think we’ve got to be a little bit careful on the ‘university isn’t for everyone’ bit,” she says. “It sometimes plays out as ‘university is for my kids but it’s not for other people’s kids’.”

Australia increased investment in its vocational education system at the same time as expanding the university system, adds Gillard, who studied at the universities of Adelaide and Melbourne and worked as a lawyer before entering politics.

“Modern economies don’t require an either/or. We need [both] more university people [and] more technically trained people…which is why you need to have both systems growing to meet need.” She adds: “For the Group of Eight, the demand-driven system means they can enrol as many or as few students as they like. If they think they are enrolling not properly prepared or qualified students, then that ultimately is a question for them.”

The Abbott-led government had plans to deal with universities’ concerns about declining per-student funding by deregulating university tuition fees. However, those plans were dropped after being twice defeated in the Australian Parliament because of fears that fees at leading institutions could skyrocket and thus exclude poorer students.

Gillard, who has been a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington DC since 2013, says that she will leave the fees issues to current Labor leaders, but adds: “We do have a very good income-contingent loans system, but there are still questions of price points and access. I spend a lot of time in the US now. You wouldn’t walk away from the US with the equation strongly in your head that fee inflation equals better quality.”

Indeed, Gillard thinks that the global rise of online education could throw the whole system of higher education into unprecedented flux. “The original conception of a university meant it had a monopoly that came with place: you went to a university you physically could get to.” However, “the better the technology gets at replicating the experience of two human beings being in a room together, the more profound [the] challenge will be” for universities to weather the competition.

“The next question”, she adds, “is what will happen with universities’ monopoly on credentialism. Currently [in Australia and the UK] the only way of getting a bachelor of this or master’s of that is to go to an accredited institution. As the provision of education increasingly globalises and people get access to more and more online, there will be the rise of online credentialism.”

Responding to such big challenges will require some head scratching. But if vice-chancellors think they are short of the quality time necessary for deep reflection, modern politicians are even more starved of it. And one of Gillard’s hopes is that her role at King’s – where she joins in the Policy Institute a roster of former political heavyweights, including the UK Labour Party’s former shadow chancellor Ed Balls and former education secretary Charles Clarke – will allow her to contribute to thinking on how politicians make high-quality decisions. This is a particularly difficult challenge, she says, because even if a politician can “find the time for the quiet strategic thinking”, they often lack access to “the best of research and evidence”. For Gillard, “this question of translation of research from academic institutions into formats that can be available to policymakers and help them in real time is one of the big questions of our age – and it’s one of the ones the Policy Institute is working on”.

She singles out counter-radicalisation as one specific area where she hopes to work with King’s researchers. “We have all been taken aback by the phenomenon of young people, with apparently no warning signs, taking themselves off to Syria or Iraq to join the fight or become jihadi brides,” Gillard says. “When you get something like that, trying to think about what could make a difference and amassing the research that might help – that’s very, very difficult…Politics does call on you to make decisions about questions where only imperfect research is available.”

Gillard has also taken up roles as honorary visiting professor of politics at the University of Adelaide and as chair of the Global Partnership for Education, which aims to promote basic education for all children in the world’s poorest countries. On current progress, it will be 2111 when the world sees the “first generation of sub-Saharan African girls who all get to go to primary and lower secondary school; that is, they get 10 years of schooling”, Gillard says. In the meantime, there are huge numbers of girls missing out on school.

Reclaim the Night march protests against violence against women, Sydney, Australia

“What happens to those girls? They get deployed on domestic labour, farm labour, taking goods to market; they get married young…forced into marriages young. All of the evidence tells us that if you can keep a girl in school until the end of secondary school, she is much more likely to have a say about when she marries…She will choose to have fewer children. Her children, in turn, will be more likely to be vaccinated, more likely to go to school, more likely to survive infanthood; she will be less likely to get HIV/Aids. You get on a virtuous circle of development and community change if you can educate that young woman, that girl.”

Gillard will also work with the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at King’s, and gave a lecture on the future of the Commonwealth during her UK visit. She also gave the keynote address at an event in memory of Jo Cox, the UK Labour MP murdered in her Yorkshire constituency in June. In that speech, Gillard spoke extensively about the sexism that confronts women in public life, warning that they “may expect” threats of violence or rape “almost daily”.

“We don’t yet know to what extent online abuse translates into physical violence. But I am certain that the connection is real, that women feel and fear it, and that it is preventing women from standing up and serving in public life,” she said in the speech.

She praises the Reclaim the Internet campaign set up by Labour MP Yvette Cooper after Cox’s death. But, as well as the community aspect “where we can all play a role in creating a better internet”, she feels that there is also a set of policing questions.

“It is obviously the case that if I were walking down the street today and were challenged by someone offering a death threat against me, I would be able to report that to the police,” Gillard says. “That person would get identified [and] get in a lot of trouble. Yet those things can happen online. I get it that it’s harder to do the identification, but I think, over time, police will get better and better at that.”

What is it like to be the target of that kind of abuse?

“You do have to think about what you directly expose yourself to,” Gillard says. “I think Yvette Cooper and others are right to use the Reclaim the Night paradigm, which is that the solution for violence on the streets against women is not to tell women to stay home or to go out only if they are accompanied by a man…The internet should be safer so women can use [it] without getting confronted by that kind of stuff.”

But in the current climate, “as a female leader you do have to make some choices about how much you are going to immerse yourself in looking at Twitter and all the rest of it. Number two, I think you do have to nurture a strong sense of self. At the end of the day, these people don’t know you. They might think they do, but they don’t.”

Gillard spoke to THE before the result of the US presidential election was known. Asked whether the campaign revelations of behaviour and comments by Trump that were widely seen as sexist and misogynist could ultimately bring progress by exposing such behaviour to the light of public criticism, Gillard replies that “we need to see the result” of the election.

But does she feel anything has changed for the better in regard to sexism in Australian public life since her speech in Parliament?

“I wouldn’t claim that you give a speech and the world changes,” she answers. “But I do think that this issue about sexism – and, particularly, sexism as it confronts women leaders – is now one of the issues in global conversations of our time. I don’t over-claim the role of my speech in that – I think it’s a small, little bit.”

Hillary Clinton’s contending for the US presidency has been “a huge bit”, Gillard adds, also citing female leaders Theresa May in the UK, Angela Merkel in Germany, Joyce Banda in Malawi and Michelle Bachelet in Chile.

“This is a conversation that is increasingly being had – and being had with more sophistication,” Gillard says. “Ultimately, problems of discrimination only get fixed and resolved if a spotlight is shone on them and the conduct is very visible. And I do think I played some role in that.”


Print headline: ‘Sexism – particularly sexism as it confronts women leaders – is now an issue in our global conversations’

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (2)

Gillard was one of Australia's most incompetent prime ministers ever. She tried very hard to play the sexism card as an excuse for her incompetence but the Australian public wasn't fooled. I'm very disappointed that THE seems to have been.
My anger at your endorsement of Gillard's nonsense got the better of me. I should also have said that other female national leaders haven't resorted to accusations of sexism by others. Maggie Thatcher, Golda Meir, Indira Ghandi, Coranzon Aquino, and Angela Merkel (and I'm sure there's a few others I've forgotten) didn't resort to such tactics.


Featured jobs