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According to Merit? Trial by gender

Every Issue

Cite as: September 2013 87 (9) LIJ, p.85

Is there an unconscious resistance to embrace a female leader?

After 110 years of women having the right to vote and stand for government office, Australians experienced their first female prime minister with the appointment of Julia Gillard. Someone had finally broken the ultimate glass ceiling. And not just any woman, but an atheist who was childless and unmarried. What does the rise and fall of Australia’s first female prime minister say about women “firsts”?

Julia Gillard said in her departing speech that as a result of serving as Australia’s first female prime minister “it will be easier for the next woman and the woman after that and the woman after that” who takes the country’s top job.

But will it?

Or, is there an unconscious resistance in Australia to embrace a female leader?

There is much rhetoric about women in leadership – how important it is to encourage women into positions of leadership; how, in the words of Facebook boss Sheryl Sandberg, we need women to “lean in”. But when a woman dares to fly high what we routinely see emerge is a litany of scrutiny until her downfall. Julia Gillard was not the only female in a position of power to be pursued relentlessly. There was Cheryl Kernot, Natasha Stott Despoja, Carmen Lawrence and Joan Kirner, to name a few.

Concerns are now being raised as to whether the Labor party will honour its commitment made in 1994 to a quota of 40 per cent female MPs. It currently stands at about 33 per cent. While this is better than the opposition it still falls short of the target set nearly 20 years ago. Why is it so hard to meet these targets? Why aren’t women asked to stand or is it that they don’t want to put their hand up?

It has been suggested that there is the “glass cliff” phenomenon in which women who do crack the glass ceiling find themselves in a constant struggle to maintain their success. The name “glass cliff” was coined some years ago after research by British psychologists found that female professionals who reach senior posts are much more likely than men to be given “poisoned chalice” jobs in which they struggle to succeed. They finally break through the glass ceiling only to find themselves in a truly precarious position. According to the UK Sunday Times, in 2004, companies were more likely to appoint women to their boards when their share price was slipping, female barristers were more likely to be given unwinnable cases, and female parliamentary candidates tended to be selected to fight opponents with large majorities in safe seats.

Without a representative democracy is it possible to represent the diversity of all Australians and their interests? It also means a smaller pool from which to draw future female political leaders. There is a lot of research to suggest that corporate boards are more successful when they include a greater number of women who bring different experiences, views and ideas to the table. Arguably, the same applies to law firm partnerships. However, to access women as leaders we need to retain and develop them within the corporate and legal worlds.

Attitudes on female leadership are slow to change and for no good reason. Women, just like men, have much to offer in senior positions across all professions, including the legal profession. Women and men already in positions of power have a duty to encourage and mentor aspiring women leaders. We need open and frank discussion about people’s experiences in leadership.

Regardless of her downfall, Julia Gillard has left an important legacy to all young girls and future women leaders. A woman can lead the country and should legitimately have the opportunity to do so.



MICHELLE WHYTE, CHRISTINE MELIS and GEORGINA FROST are members of the Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL) Work Practices Committee. The views expressed are their own and may not be shared by the VWL.

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