It’s easy to forget the widespread sense of excitement and optimism many felt when Julia Gillard first took over from Kevin Rudd. Having our first female prime minister was a significant milestone for a country where the most frequently propounded versions of national identity – male sport and the Anzac legend – revolve around men, where women represent only a quarter of Australian MPs and 10% of company board directors, and where across the board, women still earn an average of 17% less than men.
Gillard challenges gender stereotypes in more ways than one; she’s not a mother, wife, housewife or sex symbol. Her failure to fit within these categories has perturbed some in the media, parliament, and the general public. There’s no doubt that Gillard’s performance has prime minister has been disappointing in many ways, but the sexism directed at her has compounded the difficulties she faces. Many people will remember the time when, during her days as deputy prime minister, Liberal MP Bill Heffernan deemed her unfit to run the country because she was ‘deliberately barren’. And since becoming prime minister, Gillard has continued to suffer multiple forms of gender-based discrimination.
Obvious examples include Mark Latham’s suggestion that she lacks empathy because she doesn’t have children, slogans at this year’s carbon rallies labeling her a ‘witch’ and ‘Juliar Bob Browns bitch’, and excessive media fascination with aspects of her appearance such as her hairstyle, hair color, earlobes, and fashion sense. Bernard Keane, analysing the carbon rally misogynism, identifies three age-old devices for deriding women: calling attention to their physical attractiveness (too frumpy or too sexy); criticising their failure to behave in an appropriate maternal, nurturing, or empathetic manner; and suggesting that they’re unduly influenced by men. All come into play here.
There are subtler forms of discrimination too: a headline in The Age announcing ‘Gillard mum on speaker’, unable to resist the pun despite the story being unrelated to her parental status; criticism for not being emotional enough during the Queensland floods; an article in The Australian asking her dad’s opinion on her popularity and love life; the 60 Minutes interview which Gillard and her partner are condescendingly grilled about their love for each other and intention to marry; and the media’s tendency to call her ‘Julia’ but not Abbott ‘Tony’, undermining her authority. In each of these instances, the question is whether a male prime minister would be treated this way. It seems unlikely.
As writer Jeff Sparrow has pointed out, the media, with its sound-bite tendencies, is inclined to put people in boxes – it’s easier for politically disengaged readers to digest things that way. This isn’t particularly conducive to the dismantling of any stereotypes, including gender stereotypes. But the sexism directed toward Gillard also reflects the fact that leadership, particularly political leadership, is still viewed as something that’s inherently masculine, and that women who strive to break out of patriarchal roles continue to face abuse and discrimination as a result. For young women aspiring to leadership positions, the advent of a female prime minister is an encouraging sign. But observing the way she’s been treated may serve as an equally potent deterrent.
This is an extended version of an article originally published at gelp.com.au.