JULIA GILLARD ON HER NEW BOOK; WOMEN & LEADERSHIP: REAL LIVES, REAL LESSONS​

Last month, Julia Gillard, along with her co-author, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, released their new book; Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons. We were delighted to sit down with Julia on launch day and have a chat to her about the book, women in leadership and why gender really does make a difference to how women are allowed to lead.

Dr Janet Smith: Perhaps we could begin, Julia, with you telling us a little about why you've chosen this particular genre which I so admire.

Julia Gillard: What we wanted to do with this book was really drill down into the psychological research which is increasingly available about how women leaders are seen. That psychological research is strong but it's inevitably done under laboratory-style conditions. Those great universities, they come up with experiments, they might get groups of students or other people and test their reaction to women leaders in contrived situations, ones that have been modelled for the experiment.

We wanted to take what came out of that and see whether or not it lived in the real world and in the lives of women leaders, hence really the marrying, in the book, the academic scholars and research and the storytelling that you point to. And wanting to achieve all of that we had to think really carefully about how are we going to structure it? Where are we going to tell each woman's story chapter-by-chapter but if we did that then I don't think we would have been able to waive the research in.

So we went instead for a kind of style where each time we came up with a hypothesis based on our own lived experience or the researcher, a combination of both, and then tested it in the lives of the women's leaders through their words. And so that's the structure of the book. And then we wanted to make sure that people left it feeling energized, ready to go, wanting to make a difference in the world and that's why the last chapter is our standout lessons. And we've been very careful to make them not just for women because we think the work of achieving gender equality has to be for everyone.

Dr Janet Smith: Thank you. You suggest in the book that conversations with women leaders should typically begin with why it's wonderful to be a leader. And I enjoyed reading about your mentor, Joan Kirner, who always reinforced the why. And we also reinforce the why about leadership in all of our WLA courses. What's your current answer to that question, Julia, why do you find it wonderful to be a leader?

Julia Gillard: Thank you for starting with the positive side because one of the traps I think we can easily fall into and we point this out in the book is we do want people to understand what's still different for women. And we do want to correct that difference, and we do want to strive for gender equality, but in doing all of that it means that we're pointing to the negative not the positive. And for me, the why, the positive is really if you got a sense of purpose if you're motivated by a change of gender, if you've got a passion to create a better world, then really there's no better way of making that come true than being a leader.

Leadership has got it stresses and strains but the impact you can have whether it's in politics, business, law, civil society, news media, technology, is heightened by that leadership platform. You too can make a real difference for the lives of others around you. Leadership means role modelling, it means you get the ability to bring a team together and get the best out of them, to coach, to mentor, to create the next generation. For me at this stage of my life, there's a particular delight in that. One of the things that I most like to do is spend time in the company of young women, and I walk away from the exchange much more enriched than anything that I've given out when we've talked. That keeps you thinking, keeps you learning, and that gives you more energy for the next bit.

Dr Janet Smith: I really enjoy listening to your podcast One's Own. I typically listen to it when I'm out walking, and each time I listen I'm struck afresh by your introductory words; 'I'm offended by the lack of women in positions of leadership and the way that those that do make it are treated.' Each time I listen to your introduction, Julia, I'm really struck by the strength of your word 'offended' and also just how personal it is. My question is, what is it that most offends you about the situations that women leaders face?

Julia Gillard: To just give the snapshot statistic, we put a lot of statistics in the book but the big summary statistic is if we look around our world, 70% of nations have not been led by a woman. Only 13 nations have been led by more than one woman and only two have been led by three women, Iceland and of course, New Zealand with Jacinda Ardern. I think we should find that offensive because if you believe as I do, that merit is equally distributed between the sexes, then that must mean that time after time after time, there are women of great merit who aren't getting to come through and provide leadership.

In this complex, contested, fragmented world in which we live, why wouldn't we want to have the best leaders out on the field doing the job for us? And then it really disheartens me when a woman gets there and she's doing, as all leaders do, a mix of good things and some things wrong and instead of actually dealing with all of that on its merits, you'll pick up media and it'll be about appearance or kids. Something that would only happen to a woman leader. A male leader would never have any of the oxygen, the time, the precious minutes of his leadership taken up with that sort of carrying on and so that offends me, too.

I think we can't just let ourselves accept it as routine, or the way of the world, or answer it with a frustrated grunt, it has to be a more active emotion than that. Not striding around the world grim-faced, but feeling that sense that this is deeply wrong is what helps me to stay on course with that true north about a gender-equal world.

Dr Janet Smith: One thing that I really noticed in reading the book was that you refer to many tight ropes that women must balance in their lives and their leadership. For example, I noticed you said that women leaders need to be seen to be man enough to do the job, in other words, take on those socially-constructed characteristics of male leaders, but they still need to be female enough to be likable. And they mustn't make things sound too easy because it turns other women off, yet they don't want to put too much emphasis on the difficulties because that will turn people off too. So both the superwoman and the super honest woman are both alienating role models as is the pseudo male or the super female woman leader.

Reading all of this just reminded me how difficult it is for women to find that sweet spot. And I know that that's referred to as the Goldilocks principle which is sort of like trying to find baby bear's porridge, not too hot, not too cold, just right. I just had this sense of women trying to find this really hard place and I could see that it was really hard for you and Ngozi and the other women in the book to find it too. Apart from how difficult it is, it just takes so much energy, time and vigilance to be second-guessing yourself all the time. My question is, how do we find that sweet spot, Julia? And is there a way even that we can now expand that zone?

Julia Gillard: I ultimately believe we need to enlarge the zone and in fact enlarge it so wide that women can be leaders in any mode. The psychological research at the moment certainly does tell us that people can have quite extreme reactions against women who are seen to be offending against gender stereotypes.

I was quite startled when we looked at a piece of research from Yale University. They got two groups of voters, put them in two different rooms, got a man to address one room and a woman to address another room. They were pretending to be candidates for the Senate, in fact, they were both actors but pretending to be candidates for the Senate.

But they used exactly the same script. And it had lines in it like, "I'm the kind of person who gets things done. I might step on other people's toes to do that but I do get things done." A line like that from a man, fine. A line like that from a woman, a reaction that the researchers use words like 'contempt' and 'disgust' to describe, that's how deep-seated it was. It's telling us that women can come forward as leaders, they need to not look too soft or people won't think they can do the job, but if they come on as too ambitious, too power-hungry, then revulsion will be the response.

Women leaders have to have this dose of strong and caring the whole time. Each of the women leaders we spoke to, and they come from countries and cross-sections around the world, Liberia in Africa a poor country, faced the Ebola epidemic, Norway in the icy North, one of the richest countries in the world. The two women who led those nations who spoke to us said both of them were aware of this and self-limited behaviours because of it.

For women who want to step forward for leadership right now, all I can say is, "Be aware that there is this conundrum and you need to think about how you're going to present as a leader." But I am optimistic that the more we have women lead, the wider space and terrain becomes. For example, Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand is very conscious that she's got a greater terrain than if she'd been the first woman. Theresa May says that about the United Kingdom as well.

Whereas I think when Hillary went to be the first president of the United States it was still an incredibly narrow path for her to try and walk. Things to think about as an individual, but ultimately the solution is a collective one. We've got to change this all so we have more women leaders come through.

Did you enjoy this interview? You can read the rest, and watch a live recording of the conversation, on WLA Connect. Join today.