Women & Leadership: It’s not a level playing field, but that doesn’t mean we don’t play at all

This week Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister was ousted after the leadership sore that had been festering under the surface finally broke through. It was probably the most significant political event in Australia for almost 40 years.

Leadership is a tough business, and for women it is even tougher. There is not a level playing field, but some of us learn that early, and then try to work with it.

No matter what political persuasion we may be, the resignation speech by Ms Gillard showed strength, composure and even ended on a note of good humour. It was one of the most amazing orations under such pressure I have ever witnessed.

The reaction to being the first female prime minister does not explain everything about my prime ministership, nor does it explain nothing about my prime ministership…it explains some things.

As a child and through to my teenage years I belonged to a denomination that had very clear ‘rules’ concerning the participation of women within the church. In Sunday services it was “to keep silent in church”. Then, add to that, our head was to be covered as an “act of submission”. We were able to teach children, including boys at Sunday School, and remarkably, it was accepted for women to take roles in the missions in darkest Africa, not just middle class Australia. We could go to ladies meetings, make the sandwiches and look after the children.

As a child in the 1960s, the middle class white Anglo-saxon life put pressure on families to conform. Then as a teenager in the 1970s much was challenged. Despite conservative views they may have held in a number of areas, my parents were happy to challenge the things they thought were just unreasonable and unfounded. I was raised in an environment that prepared me to make a stand.

This experience didn’t cause me to turn my back on my faith, not at all. But it did help shape the person I am today, my faith in God can surpass human idiosyncrasies. I am part of a church community that “places value on women”. It needs to be a deliberate strategy.

As I have progressed in career and in life I have always had an internal tension between trusting that good people and positive role models will help more women take leadership roles, and the need for affirmative action – seen in quotas and targets. I naturally lean toward the former, but due to the lack of the level playing field, maybe we also need some of the latter.

So playing with the un-level-playing-field metaphor, here is how I have worked it out.

When the playing field isn’t level:

1. The disadvantaged team needs to run uphill. This takes stamina achieved through training and developing agility. It also takes determination to keep playing despite the conditions.

2. The other team has a smoother run of play. It is easier to run downhill and this definitely gives an advantage. But the obstacle isn’t insurmountable.

3. It takes a little longer to get the ball over the line. With increased stamina, and without the downhill advantage, it is still possible to make gains, but it will just take a little longer to achieve them.

3. Accepted standards of sportsmanship (or …womanship) still apply. We did choose to get in the game, after all. This means not complaining about the un-level playing field, but just getting on with the game to the best of our ability. It also means displaying good grace when we win and when we lose.

4. Our supporters still expect us to do our best. There are other players who would like to get into the game and they are watching us. They need us to coach them. We have the responsibility to share what we know and provide encouragement to keep going.

5. Level the un-level-ness of the playing field. Do what we can to make it easier for those who come after us.

Ms Gillard concluded her speech:

What I am absolutely confident of is that is will be easier for the next women and the woman after that and the woman after that.

And that is the responsibility of all of us


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