Women in leadership: overcoming the barriers

Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard talks about getting more women into leadership positions.

Women in leadership: overcoming the barriers


Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has launched a podcast series on the barriers to progress for women as part of her work as head of King’s College’s Global Institute of Women’s Leadership. She spoke to Workingmums.co.uk.

Workingmums.co.uk: What is your latest podcast and what are the main issues that Kathy Lette raises about the boredom of motherhood and the importance of men doing more around the house?

Julia Gillard: I launched a new podcast series in June called A Podcast of One’s Own. It puts a spotlight on women leaders, to celebrate their achievements and highlight what needs to be done to get more women into leadership positions. In each episode I talk to well-known leaders from a range of different fields, including business, entertainment, media and activism. Guests share stories from their lives, including successes and challenges they’ve had in their career and personal lives and provide valuable insights about what needs to be done to further gender equality.

The first two episodes have featured comedian Sandi Toksvig and writer Kathy Lette. Both have talked about the difficulties for women juggling their families with their careers. Sandi Toksvig, who is the co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party, discussed how she wanted to see greater equality in the home: “The one thing that I think could change everything (for women) is if we could make society realise that childcare is not a female responsibility.”

Kathy Lette talked about how she wrote about motherhood in her book Mad Cows to dispel the myth of the perfect mother: “I think any mother who says she copes all the time is either lying or taking a lot of drugs… I wanted to take the idea that motherhood was the ultimate fulfilment for females, that great big sacred cow, and whack it on the barbie, because it’s really hard yakka…Some days I was so bored doing creative things with Playdoh, I could see my plants engaging in photosynthesis.”

She also talked about the misogyny new mothers face when they have their first child: “You get seated downtable at dinner parties, people take 100 IQ points off you. I think the only way mums…can get more respect is to change their role to ‘domestic engineer’.”

For her, what would make a big difference would be if men helped more around the house: “It’s in their interest to help more around the house…they’d get more sex…They’ve (working mums) come home from a full day at work, cooked the dinner, found the lost sports kit, done the washing, ironing, done the teeth cleaning nagging, read all the bedtime stories, defrosted the chops, put the cat out, the one thing they’re fantasising about is sleep.”

You can subscribe to the podcast via your preferred podcast provider here.

WMs: Why was the Global Institute of Women’s Leadership set up?

JG: I came forward with the idea for setting up the institute when I was a Visiting Professor at King’s College, London. I wanted to help establish a body which would tackle the issues of women’s underrepresentation in leadership positions head on. The Institute bring together research, practice and advocacy to better understand and address the causes of women’s underrepresentation in leadership positions across sectors and countries and the way gender negatively impacts the evaluation of women leaders.

We hope that our output will help to create a world in which being a woman is not a barrier to becoming a leader in any field, nor a factor contributing to negative perceptions of an individual’s leadership.

WMs: How will you bring together academics, policymakers and activists?

JG: We have already started to create a network of experts and stakeholders from different disciplines, sectors and countries, to share knowledge and insight. We’ve held a vibrant programme of public events, to which we invited high profile speakers such as Jess Philips MP and business leader Helena Morrissey. We also hold conferences, policy briefings and private research seminars where we engage with stakeholders and share research and knowledge on a range of key issues, including microaggressions in the workplace and the gender data bias.

By helping to connect engagement and feedback loops between research, policy and practice, we can identify gaps in knowledge, ask questions, build collaborations to address these gaps, disseminate our findings and ultimately translate those findings to those who have the power to make the changes.

WMs: Why global? Can different countries, like different sectors, learn from each other, while adapting for specific circumstances?

JG: Being global is central to our work. Leadership inequalities are a global phenomenon, as are the social and cultural inequalities they reflect. Current inequalities are both context specific and general, so our work focuses on the specifics of particular institutions, processes and sectors, as well as how they play out in different parts of the world. I think we can definitely share understanding between what’s happening in different countries and tailor and adapt approaches to specific countries and sectors.

In order to tackle these problems, we also need comprehensive, global data on women’s leadership. So we’re creating the first ever Global Women’s Leadership index. We will evaluate and synthesise existing data on women’s leadership, identifying where there are gaps and seeking to fill them. With the information, we’ll produce a systematic annual summary of women’s representation in leadership positions across the globe.

The aim would be to raise the public debate and international competition about the representation of women in leadership, across sectors and share learning and knowledge.

WMs: How much do you see attitudes to parenting and caring – the so-called double shift many women face – as being part of the barrier to women in leadership and how much is about other issues, such as not valuing women’s contribution, bias and discrimination?

JG: From the research we know that the “baby penalty” is definitely one of the biggest causes contributing to the pay gap. A wage gap exists before childbirth of about 10% between men and, but the gap increases rapidly after the birth of women’s first child. Twenty years after the birth, a woman’s hourly wage will on average a third lower than the hourly wage of a man with a similar level of education.

Also, due to established workplace cultures, women and carers who work part time or flexibly are more likely to be overlooked when it comes to promotion and career development opportunities, which then results in less women at the top.

Clearly there are other factors at play as well such as write ‘biases in hiring and promotion practices’ and a lack of value being credited with the style of leadership women are typically known for. Research shows that, without intervention strategies such as training and/or quotas or other means, recruitment and appointment happen through social cloning where those at the top tend to recruit in their own image. We have to challenge these practices.

WMs: Do you believe unconscious bias training works or does it depend on how it is conducted?

JG: Unconscious bias training is widely used as a tool to address inequality in the workplace. However, it has been shown at best to have limited utility and at worst to reinforce and prime existing biases. Our research will be evaluating and analysing all kinds of interventions, including unconscious bias training, to learn what actually works in reality in different workplaces and sectors and what strategies can feed into efforts to tackle gender gaps. In some cases unconscious bias training might be an intervention we advocate, in others it may not make a lot of difference.

WMs: Several employers in the UK have set high targets for gender equality [in response to pressure over poor statistics] which their HRs say are almost impossible to realise without totally restructuring not only their organisation but society generally. How important are targets for progress?

JG: I think when you introduce specific, measurable targets to business planning, it means there’s a more motivated approach to delivering results. So when you apply this to the gender pay gap, it can have real results, as those with the responsibility are held accountable for meeting targets and therefore take it more seriously.

It can also create a sense of competition between departments and managers. Of course, targets can backfire if they’re not taken seriously or there isn’t accountability or a clear strategy for how the target can be improved on. For example, with the advent of gender
pay gap reporting, we not only need to see that data, we need to see what companies are planning to do to reduce their gaps and they need to be setting targets to help with this.

WMs: Do you feel greater transparency, for example, on gender pay or parental leave policies make enough of a difference to change things without the threat of sanctions, for instance, if employers don’t publish action plans and show progress on gender pay gaps?

JG: I think greater transparency is to be welcomed in this area. Of course, publishing gender pay gap data, for example, doesn’t tell the whole story, but it does get the conversation started and provides a measure by which to mark progress.

Equally, seeing companies publish their parental leave policies allows us to shine a light on best practice and what works, to give other companies strategies to aim for In order to attract and retain the best talent, companies are starting to realise that employees, both men and women, want to have a genuine opportunity to balance work and family life, so
employers are more and more looking into what they can do to enable their staff to flourish in the workplace and fulfil their responsibilities at home. Whilst these measures are limited in their scope without the threat of sanctions, they provide a solid basis on which to build the campaign for greater equality in the workforce.

WMs: How much of the push for equality is down to government and how much down to employers?

JG: I don’t think we should think of it as a split between government and employers, but rather as a partnership of shared responsibility. Greater equality within the workforce is not only beneficial in terms of society and culture, but also for the Exchequer and the bottom line in business. However, employers and government are not only the only ones with a stake in the push for equality; families are the other corner of this triangle. Greater equality in terms of care and unpaid work in the home, still overwhelmingly picked up by women, would reset the dial. However, the opportunity to truly address the imbalance in the home relies on quality flexible and part-time work options being available through employers, backed up with the support from government.

WMs: Should childcare be a public rather than a private issue?

JG: For the majority of the 20th century childcare was largely seen as a private matter, with informal care and private provision the norm. However, from the ‘90s onwards government recognised, primarily due to the influx of women in the labour force, that a policy response was needed, therefore bringing childcare into the public realm once and for all. High quality childcare benefits children developmentally as well as allowing parents the opportunity to combine their work with family life.

Consequently, when we discuss childcare policy, we cannot lose sight of the importance of quality standards, so children are getting the best care and thriving intellectually, physically and emotionally. The debate also needs to tackle affordability and the kind of wrap-around care, which is responsive to changing patterns of work. Just like we look at the provision of school education as a public good, which should see childcare as a public good.

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