Stereotyping and being 'unlikeable': Julia Gillard on the barriers for women in leadership.

At Mamamia, every day is International Women’s Day. But this year, we’re celebrating March 8 by sharing stories from some of Australia’s most influential women, as well as columns from voices spanning 5 generations, on the decade-defining conversations women are having. You can find all our International Women’s Day stories on our hub page.

In the lead up to this International Women’s Day, I have spent time in self-imposed writing solitude, drawing strength from cups of coffee and creative inspiration.

Over the Australian summer, I was completing the manuscript for my upcoming book, which I am co-authoring with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a friend of mine and acclaimed development economist.

We have written what we hope is an inspirational and practical book, sharing the stories, advice and words of some of our most extraordinary women leaders from around the world.

Why do I think we need to be talking about women and leadership in 2020?

The answer may at first seem obvious; I was the first woman Deputy Prime Minister and then Prime Minister of Australia, and of course, my personal experiences inform my interest. But these days, I have moved on to taking a far broader view of women and leadership.

Each year on International Women’s Day I reflect on the progress we are making as a society. I am encouraged by the rapid gains we have made for equality, but I am also motivated by how far we still have to go.


The World Economic Forum measures the world’s progress on gender equality across a series of political, economic, social, health, and cultural domains.

The 2020 Report tells us Australia has slipped yet again in rankings to number 44.

And if we take a birds-eye view of the situation globally, if we keep going as we are, the overall global gender gap – so across politics, economics, education and health – will only close in about 100 years. That well and truly means no one reading this story will see it. My great-niece Isla probably won’t even live to see it. She’s turning five this year.

What explains these sad statistics?

Across the world, there are still legal and social barriers that prevent women fully participating in economic, political and community life.

Huge education barriers continue to exist in many nations. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women.

Then there are other more subtle barriers.

Research demonstrates that we unconsciously associate leadership qualities with men. Not only do we quickly see in our mind’s eye a man when we think of leadership, the research shows that we are likely to punish women who are leaders. Specifically, we are prone to conclude they are unlikeable.

Cultural stereotypes live deep in our brain telling us that men think, women feel; that men are to be judged on their actions, women on their appearance; that men lead while women nurture.

Of course, stereotyping is just one problem women who would be leaders encounter.

Many others arise from the fact that workplaces still do not enable those who have caring and domestic responsibilities to balance work and family life.

Far too many career paths are laid out so they work best for someone supported by a non-working or part-time working partner. In our society, that person is most likely to be a man. Even in dual-career families where both parents work full time, domestic work is unevenly distributed.

All this is bad enough, but in some ways, it is at the more benign end compared to much of what women, particularly in public life, come up against.

The level of abuse and threatening language levelled at high profile women in the public domain and on social media is alarming and unacceptable.

julia gillard
Hilary Clinton and Julia Gillard. Image: Getty.

So, the question becomes; how are we going to change this landscape to remove the barriers that prevent women coming through for leadership, and having their leadership fairly evaluated rather than through the prism of gender?

We need a radical shift, backed by empirical research about structural changes that work.

Since 2018 I have served as Chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership based at King’s College, London, which works on understanding and addressing the causes of women’s underrepresentation in leadership positions across sectors and countries.

You might be thinking that the gender field is already awash with research, that every day there is a new study or finding. In some senses that’s true, but when you dig a little deeper you find that most of that so-called research is small scale, even anecdotal, with the tendency to assume correlation is causation.

At the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership we are determined to create a richer evidence base and to get that material into the hands of people who can use it to implement change.

We will contribute to the research not only through our work in London but in partnership with an Australian-based sister institute at the Australian National University.

So what I am hoping this International Women’s Day is that we combine the lessons learned from the lives of the most extraordinary women leaders around the world with smart research and really make a huge difference.

I am sick of crawling towards a world of gender equality. It’s time to run.

Mamamia is funding 100 girls in school, every day with our charity partner Room To Read, and our goal is to get to 1,000 girls every day. To help empower women this International Women's Day, you can donate to Room to Read and make a difference in girls' futures.

Feature image: Getty.