Women and leadership: Lessons from politics

Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s new book on women leaders in politics has lessons for women in many fields.

Women in leadership: overcoming the barriers


Women make up less than 10 per cent of national political leaders. So how can we change that?

A new book tackles this question from an authoritative viewpoint – it is written by two women who have risen to high office and who have interviewed some of the most well-known women leaders of the last decades.

The book, Women and leadership: real lives, real lessons, came about after the authors Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweale, Nigeria’s former Finance Minister, met at a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Australia in 2011. At this and subsequent meetings they started talking about women leaders and moved from anecdotes to more structured conversations to the idea for the book.  They then went around the globe interviewing a range of some of the most important female political leaders of our time: Jacinda Ardern, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Michelle Bachelet, Erna Solbert, Theresa May Joyce Banda, Christine Lagarde and Hillary Clinton.

The book draws on all of their experiences and ideas about women in politics, which have more similarities than might be expected, but the book has a resonance for women leaders in any field.

The women interviewed come from widely differing backgrounds – some have faced domestic abuse, political repression and other challenges. But they share many experiences, including having to face an excessive focus on their appearance, media stereotypes, vicious briefing against them and more. The authors note with interest that none speaks about being personally ambitious. This leads to a discussion about how naked ambition is still less accepted in a woman than a man. In part, the authors say, women are less likely to put themselves forward for roles – and several of the women in the book don’t seek high office – not because of a lack of self confidence so much as a lack of confidence that they will be chosen.


They delve into the women’s backgrounds and find that none was told that they could not be a leader. They grew up in environments which empowered them and were the subject of high expectations.

There are chapters on everything from how women leaders’ hair comes under intense scrutiny meaning hours more time spent on appearance than is necessary for male leaders – the authors note that the judgemental focus on appearance seems to be getting worse rather than better – to whether they are likeable or not [“we should just be able to be who we are, regardless of whether it’s considered likeable or not”, says Jacinda Ardern] and what impact having or not having children has on perceptions of them.

The women leaders who have children talk about the need not to present themselves as super human because it gives the impression that they don’t need support. Ardern, who had a baby in office, says she put herself under a lot of pressure to show that her having a baby would not carry a cost to the public. In Norway, Erna Solberg speaks about how the country’s parliamentary day, which includes a break between 3pm and 6pm, worked to her advantage, meaning she could pick up her kids, get them dinner and then return to work when her husband finished work.

The women also talk about the need to have a supportive partner and honest conversations with them about the rigours of leadership.  The authors say there will be guilt, but that it is important to remember that leadership is not forever and that, in today’s world, women will go on to have more than one career over their lifetime. They say: “In planning your life, whether your aim is politics or leadership in any other field, you can think about it in periods – years when you will step fully forward into the world, and years when you will step back and be more intensively in the family domain.”

Gendered expectations

There is an interesting section on how gendered expectations are grown and whether advocacy for women which focuses on women being more empathetic and collaborative may be playing into this.  The authors ask: “Over the years since 1946, has an increasing burden been laid at women’s feet about being the communal ones, without putting any extra expectation on men?”

The book ends with a series of lessons learnt. These include advice on mentorship, sponsorship and networking, such as being realistic about the time you can devote to mentorship arrangements. The authors advise taking a life-cycle approach. “You may not be able to assist, mentor and sponsor women or attend feminist meetings every day, but there will be periods in your life when you have the time and space to make a real difference.”

They talk about how women are often held to higher standards and say this needs to be foregrounded more so that people are more aware of this bias. They advise calling out sexism, anticipating it and planning for it and being positive, holding on to the reason you entered politics.

There are also messages for the media around stereotyping and for men about calling out sexism, thinking about whose voices are being heard, being positive role models and promoting work life policies at work.

The authors end with a call for equality of opportunity from the moment we are born. “Inhaling a first breath, uttering a first cry, receiving a first cuddle and kiss – a child represents another possibility for all humanity. This child might become a leader who profoundly improves our world. Should that potential promise be thwarted just because we hold our prejudices too dear or we find the process of letting go too confronting?” they ask.

*Women and leadership by Julia Gillar and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is published by Bantam Press, price 14.99.

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