Julia Gillard became the first female Prime Minister in 2010. We may not see another in our lifetime.

June 24, 2010 should have been an average day. It was an average temperature and an average Thursday by most standards, except that something very unusual happened. Australia elected its very first female Prime Minister.

Whether you supported Julia Gillard's policies during her time in parliament or not, her election represented a major crack in the glass ceiling for women. And we say a crack, and not a smash, because in the 14 years since her election day, no other woman has held our highest office again.

In fact, some experts say that we may not see another female Prime Minister in our lifetime, or, in the most dire view, for another 600 years.

So what is going on in parliament that’s preventing it? Here’s what we know.

How did Julia Gillard rise to be the first female Prime Minister?

Julia Gillard was elected as the Labour member for Lalor in 1998. She rose through the ranks and eventually served as the deputy Labour leader from 2007 to 2010, holding high-ranking portfolios within the party.

Initially, Gillard wasn't voted in by Australians.

A leadership 'spill' in Canberra saw her put her hat forward for leadership of the party, with attitudes turning against then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Gillard was given the backing of the party, and the role to clean up the 'mess' in the polls that Kevin Rudd had left.

Julia Gillard. Image: Getty.


Speaking on Mamamia's podcast The Quicky, host Claire Murphy explained, "Her rise to the top as Australia's first woman prime minister was tarred with the fact that she hadn't been voted into the position, [but] she would almost silence her critics at an election she called just days after coming into the position. And a few months later, Gillard led the Labour Party to win the 2010 election."

However, the election left Australia with a hung parliament, putting Gillard in a difficult position to push through her intended reforms. Just three years later, another spill was called and Kevin Rudd replaced her.

Have there been any other women, in the 14 years since Gillard, that could have been Prime Minister?

Murphy explains, "There's been rumours about politicians who could have been the next woman to step into the top job in this country. But so far, the leadership of all major parties has continued to be men."


One such woman is Labour's Tanya Plibersek.

Image: Getty

Amy Remeikis, political reporter for The Guardian Australia, told The Quicky, "At the moment, she's in, what they like to call in Canberra, the 'freezer', and that's because she's in the same faction as Anthony Albanese.


"Factional leaders don't usually like having, you know, challenges to their leadership."

Remeikis says Plibersek was placed on the environment portfolio, which while important is not one of the 'big three'.

"It also involves, particularly for a Labour minister, a lot of very tricky questions, as Labour is not necessarily handling the environment, as some people would like. And so Tanya Plibersek has probably dropped down the rankings of future Labour leaders," she adds.

Then there was Julie Bishop, who was a deputy for the Liberals throughout Julia Gillard's reign (and even longer), from 2007 to 2018. She had also been elected in 1998, but as a member for Curtain.

Julie Bishop. Image: Getty.


Boasting similar credentials to our first Prime Minister, many hoped to see her take the top spot. However, in a 2018 leadership spill within the Liberal party, that saw her put her hat forward, she was defeated by both Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton.

She received just 11 votes out of a total of 85, and was the first woman to formally stand for the leadership of the party.

Per Remeikis, "Afterwards, they all said the same thing.

"'Jules, we think you're a great leader, you know, we think you’d do a great job, but this is all about strategy and we're trying to block [someone] from getting in. And so we had to sacrifice you.'"

Adding, "That essentially said to Julie Bishop that the Liberal Party was never going to vote for her as a leader despite 10 years of very loyal service to the leadership under a variety of different leaders. So she quit."

What other women in politics could hold the spot?

Canberra Times columnist Jenna Price recently interviewed a senior Liberal woman who said that we may not see another female Prime Minister for 600 years.

Surely that's hyperbole, right?

Except, Remeikis agrees. "Given the way that these debates run, 600 years might be even a little bit too generous," she says. "There is no one on the horizon."


"I truly do not see it happening, I'm going to say in my lifetime, just based on the attitudes, not just of those who are in Parliament now, but the branch members who select the future leaders for the Liberal Party. There is zero appetite for change there."

Despite the bleakness, she does say that female politicians are fighting this forecasting. 

"While there are internal fights, there isn't that shift at the leadership level because it comes down to a man having to move aside," she says. "And I think we all know that that is very unlikely to happen just from our own lives and our own dealings with business."

Penny Wong. Image: Getty.


While many have suggested that Minister for Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong, could take the top job, Remeikis says it's unlikely.

"I don't think Penny Wong wants the job, and I say that because Penny Wong has steadfastly remained in the Senate, which isn't necessarily a barrier to becoming Prime Minister under the constitution, but you don't tend to get leaders from the Senate. That's because they're not directly elected," she says.

Then there were politicians such as Marise Payne and Linda Reynolds, who have since been embroiled in their own various issues.

Further female candidates could include the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party Sussan Ley, though Remeikis says she has a "snowball's chance" of actually becoming leader, and popular MP Zoe McKenzie.

She also mentions Bridget Archer, member for Bass in Tasmania, who is popular with the public and has steadfastly stuck by her more moderate values.

"She's not very popular for the very reason that makes her so popular with the Australian public, so she doesn't have a lot of friends in the party room," says Remeikis. "So the Liberal party has a lot of work to do, more so than even The Nationals, when it comes to raising female representation."


Women are being brought in to clean up men's messes.

Julia Gillard. Image: Getty.

Then there is the phenomenon, which is common in parliaments and C-suite echelons, of the 'glass cliff', where women are promoted to precarious leadership positions where there has been a scandal or major dive in the success of the business, government or enterprise.

Many say that Gillard's appointment was one such 'glass cliff', brought in when Rudd's unpopularity made maintaining the Prime Ministership untenable.


This is happening often in our government. For example, Women's Agenda referred to this glass cliff when Home Affairs Secretary, Stephanie Foster, replaced disgraced minister Mike Pezzullo.

Pezzullo was stood aside for misconduct and then sacked, so Foster, the acting secretary was brought in. 

It's great that women in deputy positions are being promoted to the top jobs, but they're then placed in roles where it's very hard to succeed.

"Incredible, the number of times very good women are asked to come in and clean up a very large mess left by, shall we say, a guy," Senator Bridget McKenzie said of the appointment.

As Murphy says, "Australian women in politics face what is known as the 'glass cliff'. Brought in when there's a problem to be solved, like Gillard was in 2010 with falling support for Kevin Rudd.

"She was paraded before her colleagues, desperate for something to convince them they could win the next election. And the first woman in the job seemed like a winner for sure.

"Hopefully next time, whether that be six years or 600, the next woman to run this country will be voted in by Australians who support her policies and not because she's there to clean up someone's mess."

Listen to Claire Murphy discuss the chances of another female Prime Minister on this episode of The Quicky podcast.

Image: Getty/Mamamia.