We need more authentic stories about women in power


Geraldine Doogue

Theron, right, laughs as Ms Gillard speaks during the panel discussion at the Apollo Theater.

Theron, right, laughs as Ms Gillard speaks during the panel discussion at the Apollo Theater. Photo: AP

In 2009, during drinks at Sydney's ANZ stadium ahead of one of the first AFL Pink games supporting breast cancer research, I found myself in conversation with Julia Gillard (then deputy prime minister). Her turbulent days lay ahead, including a challenge to her leader, Kevin Rudd, and eventually running a minority government as prime minister.

We were chatting about the challenges of participating in the 'big game'—of politics, not football. And she said something that I have never forgotten: 'At the end of the day, when I go home and pull up the drawbridge, I want to be able to recognise myself.'

I didn't have a chance to ask any follow-up questions. But I assumed she meant the prioritising of a secure identity in the midst of a big career. And that is the glittering prize, in my view. So even before she chose to step up to the top job, she had grasped something important. For a woman, advancing up the chain of command poses a special challenge: the community she comes to lead may be ambivalent about having a woman in charge, yet she needs to command its respect.

The cover of The Climb, by Geraldine Doogue.

The cover of The Climb, by Geraldine Doogue. Photo: Text Publishing

Gillard's comment indicated something else that matters a great deal too: she wanted to like who she was becoming in this exercise of power. For both men and women, considerable shifts in psychology are required to bridge the chasm between being a follower and being a leader.


It helps, obviously, to hear stories of people who've made this transition successfully. The trouble is there've been so few accounts from women.

Until now, the default characteristics of an effective leadership style have mostly been assumed to be masculine. Despite the occasional Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir or Christine Lagarde, far more men have become legends as leaders: Nelson Mandela,

Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Zhou Enlai, Lee Kuan Yew, Mahatma Ghandi, Robert Menzies, 'Nugget' Coombs, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Henry Parkes, John Monash. The list could go on and on.

So much leadership literature seems excessively geared to males and is often very American in focus, whereas most of the contemporary advice is to move away from 'the great man' model and to emphasise far more the notion of developing your team's talents.

Even so, the underlying tone in the copious writing on the issue of leadership somehow does not often welcome me, a woman.

This neglect is under-appreciated in all the hand wringing about lack of female advancement. The leadership stories that are lionised are often full of utopian ideals and stress a solitariness that I don't believe gels with women's experience. Some of the most perceptive writing comes from female researchers. They are adamant that becoming a leader involves a fundamental identity shift, first and foremost, insisting that overt affirmation is needed to give the woman the fortitude to step outside her comfort zone and experiment with unfamiliar behaviours.

This idea applies to both men and women, but is more necessary for women. As researcher Herminia Barry wrote in the Australian Financial Review BOSS in October 2013, "Integrating leadership into one's core identity is particularly challenging for women, who must establish credibility in a culture that is deeply conflicted about whether, when and how they should exercise authority."

Sydney activist Wendy McCarthy offered a piece of logic back in the 1980s that has never left me: "I've always had a strong view, ever since I identified as a feminist, that it must be possible to be a feminist, have a good relationship with a man and be a parent. If you can't be all these things, it means that ninety per cent of women can't be feminists. If only ten per cent of women can be true feminists, there is no future in it. And I believe there is a lot of future in being a feminist. It's a whole new perception of the world."

Maybe there'd be more, far more, women in positions of power if they could identify more with acclaimed leaders' stories. I strongly sense that young women need to approve broadly of the senior women around them before they will strive themselves. They need to believe that they'll like themselves if success comes.

I hope to see far more narratives of women in power, or on the cusp of it. I want to hear a female idiom enter the leadership conversation. I want to revel in stories that sound familiar to me and my young female relatives.

Of course, we did have Julia Gillard as a model for a short time. Whatever one's politics, she was a woman of acknowledged power with whom other women could compare and contrast themselves. We could imagine how she felt, or so we thought; though as the pressure grew on her as prime minister, who among us could contemplate the ordeal of managing minority government? Whether it infuriated, intrigued or bored us, I believe her prime ministership altered the population's most basic grasp of the office, of power itself and of whether a woman could wield it.

Her demise also triggered incredibly visceral responses. Nothing about her time at the helm was straightforward. There are widely differing verdicts on her talents. But, at the same time, many Australian women, and men, feel strongly that Julia Gillard was subject to types of discourse and representation that would never have been dealt to a man. For some anti-Gillard warriors, she moved into a category where anything goes, with no need for remorse about tactics; she was merely fair game, and an awful spectacle played out before us, tantalising some but horrifying most women, I suspect. Among some men, her time in power seems to have activated a form of deep-seated warrior response, with distinct overtones of sexual arousal, like the ultimate form of sexual contest. I found it revolting, hardly an inducement for the average woman to enter public life in Australia.

Gillard's defeat, in June 2013, prompted a lot of deep thinking about whether outsiders, including women, could realistically gain and keep power in modern Australia. Ever since, women have speculated on when it might happen again. How much did Gillard contribute to her own downfall? Were the talents that got her to the top, including her killer instinct, among those that contributed to her decline in some perverse way? Many women don't feel they possess those particular skills and may not want them anyway. But does that rule them out of high office? We profoundly need women to dream of attaining precisely that.

The more we hear authentic stories about female pathways to governing others, the more young women will dare to dream. And I may yet experience another female prime minister while I still have the energy to vote.

The Climb: Conversations with Australian Women in Power, By Geraldine Doogue (Text Publishing, $32.99), is out now.