Film and Book Reviews

Sweeping away the 'rigged rules of the game'

BookWomen and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons by Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Vintage, 2020)

By Sharne Rolfe

“... the go-to weapon in hard political debates became the kind of insults that only get hurled at a woman … witch ... fat, ugly, child-hating, menopausal …”.

So writes Julia Gillard in her new book co-authored with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the pain still palpable from her bruising time in Australian political leadership. Few could forget Gillard’s 2012 “misogyny speech”. In this book, with Okonjo-Iweala, she goes deeper and broader, exploring the gender biases experienced by women leaders at the highest levels of national and international politics: think Jacinda Ardern, Theresa May and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Driven by their passionate belief in gender equality and dismayed at how far it is from being achieved, the authors set out to tell it how it is, spurring on both women and men to become advocates for change. Other interviewees include Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman to be elected a head of state in Africa; Michelle Bachelet, past president of Chile and first head of UN Women; and Erna Solberg, current Norwegian Prime Minister, the authors’ aim of a culturally and contextually varied sample clearly achieved.

One of the book’s most compelling aspects, and its greatest strength, is the extensive use of direct quotes. Joyce Banda, president of Malawi from 2012 to 2014, kicks things off with these memorable and sobering words: “In Malawi, there is a saying that a bull goes to the farm to pull a cart, a cow is kept at home for milk. So, people in the opposition said, ‘How unlucky are we to end up with a cow pulling our cart?’ It was vicious and cruel and could only be used because the person at the end of the insult is a woman.”

Gillard and Okonjo-Iweala use a qualitative research approach. Their data are the interviewees’ own words: richly nuanced, diverse and often complex lived experiences, feelings and insights. You won’t find any neat, averaged statistics here. Qualitative approaches offer greater validity, the real world authenticity – real lives and real lessons – the authors wanted. But their sample, though impressive, is relatively small and selective. And by their own admission neither author is academically trained in social research. Results are presented not as definitive conclusions but as a series of working hypotheses. Some of these are hardly new. We know that families relatively free from gender limitations (what Gillard and Okonjo-Iweala call the “You go girl” family) empower future women leaders. Similarly, challenges faced by women who combine leadership with childbearing, and barriers created by societal expectations around who should bear the major responsibility for child-rearing and home-making (i.e. mothers), are already well-documented. So too is the importance of role modelling and mutual support among women – their “You can’t be it if you can’t see it” hypothesis.

Other of their hypotheses break newer, murkier ground, inviting controversy. For example, in exploring the “It’s all about the hair” hypothesis, they conclude that even for women leaders in the highest echelons of world politics, there is still an inordinate amount of attention and importance given – by the electorate, media, male colleagues and sometimes even the woman leader herself – to personal appearance over and above what they do. They also explore the hypothesis that a New World culture of barbarism still exists today in which strong women leaders risk categorisation as “witches” to be then cut down cruelly. And a whole chapter is devoted to how women leaders self-limit their leadership behaviours to avoid being seen in gendered terms as “hysterical” or “shrill”. One memorable quote from Hillary Clinton records: “You’re a human being. You’re trying to be yourself, which is often not appreciated if you are not fitting into the category of an ‘acceptable woman’. You are not only being confronted by the double standard, but you’re also second-guessing all the time. You’re constantly trying to calibrate yourself to be as effective as you want to be perceived.”

Neither Gillard nor Okonjo-Iweala believe there are inherent, biologically-based differences in how men and women lead. Rather, at every stage of life, men and women are socialised and stereotyped differently. Their interest is not only in conscious and unconscious gender biases but also the structural barriers – glass labyrinth, glass ceiling and glass cliff (and the jagged, dangerous shards when women break through) – that impact women so negatively, holding them back. Interviewees talked frankly about these barriers in a very human way. Not only do historically male-formulated structures and rules of political systems exclude women, but women’s own self-doubts do as well. Jacinda Ardern’s comments on sharing child care and feeling guilty, postpartum body image, and combining parenting and leading government are surprising and reassuring in equal measure. She’s not super-human, after all. It was a costly time: “I needed to be on top of my game. I just needed to be quick in every sense: to feel agile, to get my quick thinking back, to feel physically well. For a long time, I didn’t feel like that. I needed to hide that because I did not ever want to leave the impression that I dropped the ball on something because I was a new mum.”

Gillard and Okonjo-Iweala want their work to offer “a new understanding of the tightrope on which women leaders must balance if they are to be viewed as ‘man’ enough to do the job but feminine enough to not be viewed as unlikeable, or even held in contempt.” Many readers will find this statement shocking, feeling uneasy about it on many different levels. Why would/should a woman even try to appear like a man? Why should any leader – male or female – try to be anything other than who they actually are? Who cares if a person appears feminine or masculine or otherwise gendered? And why should this make any difference at all in how their leadership is assessed? Gillard and Okonjo-Iweala share their readers’ disquiet. But like it or not, the painfully honest words of these generous, courageous, powerful women leaders cannot be ignored. We can’t remain deluded, they say, about the real challenges that currently exist. Let’s all see sexism for what it is, and call it out.

Women, knowing the facts of gender bias, may choose not to play by the rules. Stick to being uniquely yourself and GO FOR IT! Gillard and Okonjo-Iweala shout, but understand, also, what it might mean given the current state of play. The implications for all organisations, including the church, are equally clear. Why should anyone’s potential be thwarted, they ask, just because we hold our prejudices too dear or find the process of letting go too confronting? Profound change, seismic shifts – “sweeping away the rigged rules of the game” – are needed if any of us are ever to achieve our full leadership potential.

The Revd Dr Sharne Rolfe is an Anglican priest, serving in parish ministry in the Diocese of Melbourne for the past seven years, most recently as priest-in-charge of
St Nicholas’ Mordialloc from 2017 to 2020. Before ordination she was a research psychologist and senior academic at the University of Melbourne for more than 30 years.

“Even for women leaders in the highest echelons of world politics, there is still an inordinate amount of attention and importance given ... to personal appearance over and above what they do.”