During the “big bang” of internet virality, Australia’s first – and to date, only – female prime minister became an online sensation. In 2012, from the house of representatives, Julia Gillard delivered a withering diatribe against misogyny in politics that had then leader of the opposition Tony Abbott visibly squirming in his seat.
“The leader of the opposition says that people who hold sexist views and who are misogynists are not appropriate for high office,” she said of the motion to remove Peter Slipper as speaker following a series of inappropriate and sexist messages Slipper had sent to an aide.
“I hope the leader of the opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation because if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia he doesn’t need a motion in the house of representatives, he needs a mirror.”
The 15-minute address earned Gillard fist pumps from women worldwide. In office from 2010 to 2013, the 58-year-old former leader of the Australian Labor Party faced the kind of sexist vitriol now familiar from Hillary Clinton’s presidential run. Abbott, who would later serve as prime minister himself, was pictured at a rally where demonstrators furious with Gillard’s proposed carbon tax, carried banners reading “Ditch the Witch” and “Juliar [sic] Bob Brown’s bitch” (Brown was leader of the Australian Greens). There were other, still cruder, indignities.
Gillard has channelled the “cool anger” of her viral moment into the struggle for gender equality and better access to education. As chair of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), patron of the Campaign for Female Education, and inaugural chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London (KCL), which she established in 2018, Gillard is working to close gaps between boys and girls from schools, to skills, to the workplace.
“I tend to be optimistic on most things,” says Gillard in a phone call from Adelaide, the Australian city where she lives, and where her family moved from Wales in the Sixties, “but I do understand that we live in a pretty quarrelsome, contested world, that it can be quite hard for evidence and reason to break through.”
It would require truly rose-tinted glasses for anyone to believe that real equality between the sexes will happen anytime soon. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020, gender parity will take the world another 99.5 years. The WEF’s annual index predicted it would take 257 years to redress the balance between men and women on economic participation. “It would be nice if they were measuring it in five or seven years, but it’s never like that,” Gillard says, “It’s always pointing to a time horizon that you know you are never going to see the end of.”
One of the greatest challenges in closing the economic gap is the under-representation of women in emerging roles in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing. There are no quick fixes, says Gillard. “If it was quick and easy I suspect we wouldn’t see these stubborn gaps. We would have closed them by now.”
Part of the problem is that statistics are too often taken at face value. For example, the fact that more women than men now attain bachelors’ degrees in countries such as the UK, Australia and the US has “spread a bit of complacency that means well, you know, gender gaps in our society in education have closed, we don’t have to worry about that anymore,” says Gillard. But the headline figure, she suggests, masks “gender segregation on topics studied and qualifications gained. And when you then think about where the jobs of the future are coming from, that does give us a key focus on the science, technology, engineering, maths area…and the gender differentials between men and women there.”
For Gillard herself, education was “the initial motivator for getting into anything that looked like public policy or public advocacy”. She campaigned against government cutbacks to tertiary education as a student, served as education minister from 2007 to 2010, and pushed major reforms to the education system. “When I left office here it made sense to pursue what had been a lifetime passion but to do it in a different way. I knew I didn’t want to be a continuing commentator on Australian domestic political affairs. I wanted to leave that to the current generation of politicians.” Gillard has become a major voice in global education policy, counting Rihanna and Hillary Clinton among her friends and allies. In her KCL podcast – a riff on Virginia Woolf’s feminist classic, titled “A Podcast of One’s Own” – she has interviewed a litany of luminaries, from Clinton to the BBC journalist Carrie Gracie and the comedian Sandi Toksvig, about the challenges professional women face. Under her seven-year chairmanship of the GPE, due to end in 2021, the rate of girls finishing primary school in the organisation’s 68 partner countries is 75 per cent, compared to 2002 when it was 57 per cent. In 2016, 41 million more girls enrolled in school across GPE partner countries than did in 2002.
Making sure girls can simply go to school in the world’s poorest countries is a matter of utmost urgency, says Gillard. But at the same time as closing that gap, developing countries can learn from “historic errors” of education systems such as our own. “Rather than mimicking our schools of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, on subjects and expectations between boys and girls,” says Gillard, the GPE encourages them “to actually be designing in now strategies to make sure that every child can engage in and succeed in the science and technology subjects, to be designing in now gender-inclusiveness and responsiveness in the way that schools are planned.” This ranges from basic safety and facilities, such as providing toilets for girls, to curricula “that make it clear that girls can do anything and it’s not a question of these subjects are right for girls but this path of study is right for boys.”
A child of the Sixties, Gillard herself remembers “being presented …. with teaching styles and curriculum materials that would have led you to believe that some things were, you know, really more for boys than they were for girls.”
Equality of access will not guarantee a future society devoid of sexism. “If educational equality was all you needed to do to create gender equality then nations like our own would be further along the track…. than we are,” Gillard says. Alongside ensuring girls are in the classroom in the first place, when young women leave school they need to have “the ability to go into work, to make sure that all aspects of the workforce are open to them, that there isn’t any form of bias in who is recruited, in who is promoted, in who is retained.”
Role models are key to redressing the balance in STEM subjects and skills in emerging fields, she says. “It’s very important for girls to see female role models in advanced computing, AI, quantum physics …. to show that it is possible for women to achieve.”
As one of the few women in modern history to become a national leader, Gillard is herself a role model for girls looking to succeed in any male-dominated arena, and certainly for those considering entering politics. This is something she hears often. Last year, Gillard shared on Facebook a note she received from a stranger on a flight. In the message, Kate, a public service worker, said of her and her colleagues that “when one of us is being unfairly sidelined we use the term ‘WWJD’ — ‘what would Julia do’?! It’s our rallying cry to be the absolute best at our jobs.”
Gillard would “absolutely” recommend politics as a career path. “Whenever I talk to young women I always say if you’ve got the passion to seek change in this society there is no better way to pursue that than being actively involved in politics, involved in politics and seeking political office, so go for it. But, you know, recognise that there will still be some gendered bits and it will pay to think in advance about how you would deal with those gendered moments when they come.” Her advice for dealing with those “gendered moments” is to think through what you would do, what you would be prepared to call out, and who you would be able to rely on for support in the face of sexism. “One of the things we sometimes unfairly do is we put all the weight on the shoulders of women who are in politics to call out the gendered bits… whereas really everybody should be calling them out.”
Does she still feel the same calm, collected rage against misogyny evident in her 2012 speech? “That speech was obviously given in a context, in a moment, so I don’t walk around the world re-giving it… I try to be more analytical and dispassionate than that.” Gillard wants to be “involved in deepening that now to new evidence, new research that can then be deployed for greater outcomes.”
She thinks politics has become a better place for women overall, from the lively debate in Australia about women in politics to the example of New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who has shown the world it is possible to have a baby and lead a country. Though of course, “there are… millions and millions of others around the world [who] would want to see a far, far faster pace.”
And, really, how easy is it to refrain from commenting on Australian affairs? “Some days are harder than others,” Gillard laughs, “but it’s a discipline I’ve exercised for a fair time now, so the longer I do it, the easier it gets.”