Women in power and the battle facing Julia Gillard

The Guardian
13 August 2010
By Laura Liswood

Australia's first female PM knows she will be overscrutinised in office and while campaigning, says Laura Liswood.

Gro Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway, once said it took about two years until people saw her as a leader, not a female leader – something Julia Gillard will have encountered during her time in power.

She knows she will be overscrutinised in office and while campaigning. The press will still look at her appearance, clothing, relationships, speaking style, advisers, daily schedule, use of power and her position on issues with a gendered lens.

Tolerance for mistakes will be limited. Pakistan's late prime minister Benazir Bhutto said people would assume her incompetence until she proved her competence. She thought the reverse was true for men.

There are still few women around the world who have become prime minister and Gillard is the first in Australia. Even if she loses the election, she has already joined the 40 or so women around the world who have held such high political office since the 1950s – compared with many hundreds of men.

Despite the disadvantages, because Gillard comes from a historically marginalised group she represents an opportunity for change, which may be exactly what the voters of Australia are seeking.

She also represents a vision of what is possible to girls around the world. Iceland's Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the world's first elected female head of state, said that after she had been in office eight years children thought that only a woman could be president.

Gillard will be invited to join an elite group, the Council of Women World Leaders, a network of those who are or have been heads of state or government. She can speak with a collective voice, should she wish, on issues of importance to women around the world.

The gender gap is not closed in most countries. Women receive fewer resources than men in many parts of the world, in health, education, economic development. Gillard could step on to a unique platform in Australia with an opportunity to help change that.

Laura Liswood is secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders and author of Women World Leaders (HarperCollins)

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