International Women's Day: Lessons from Australia's first female PM

Thursday, 8 March 2012  Features

On the 101st anniversary of International Women's Day, a day celebrated around the world to mark the legal, political, social and economic achievements of women, Australians find themselves asking questions about the future of their first female Prime Minister.

After a dramatic few weeks where the personal rancour among Government members was bared for all to see, was the final decision on who should lead Australia based on merit or mateship? Whatever the answer, the process has left many Australians wondering why Julia Gillard can win the support of her work colleagues so convincingly but is unable to connect with voters?

Rosemary Howard, Executive Director of Executive Education at the Australian Graduate School of Management said: "What we see here are the challenges that senior executive women across Australia face every day being played out very publicly in federal politics."

"Here is a leader who has successfully managed a complex minority government to achieve a remarkable amount of legislative change in a short period of time. Yet her public persona revolves around commentary and cartoons on her hair, voice, earlobes, nose and marital status, rather than on achievements as the first female PM of this country," Howard asserts. "Even after thousands of years of history, the reality is that women in leadership roles are judged by different and often more superficial standards than their male peers."

Gillard has taught all executive women an important lesson: take a close look at your career-defining moments.

"Two decisions - the night she brutally rose to leadership and the promises she made about not introducing a carbon tax - have marred her term and lead the public to question her ability to lead the nation, " said Howard.

These defining events highlight the criticality of both trust and teamwork. "A leader's success relies on their ability to work cohesively across teams; relying on the strengths of all team members, not just the leader's individual capability."

"This lack of cohesion has been a major leadership issue for the Gillard Government. It means, as well as team-building, Australia's PM needs to rebuild trust; within the party, with voters and with business."

This year's International Women's Day theme is Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures - meaning if we set the right example for our girls and young women now, they will be inspired to a brighter future for all.

"When anti-carbon tax protestors are using language like "Bob Brown's Bitch" and "Ditch the Witch" - very personal attacks - what message is that sending to our girls and young women? That if you reach the top as a woman it is open season?" asks Howard.

Stepping away from politics, Howard believes the lack of women in senior executive positions - in the corporate and not-for-profit sectors - contributes to Australia's growing talent shortage.

"We're essentially wiping out half of our working population. It's not only a loss of potential talent, but it's an economically poor way of doing business," she says.

"It's not enough for women on corporate boards to be getting ahead; we should be campaigning for women in leadership at all levels. The ambition of women can be rewarding to women themselves, organisations, national GDP and global competitiveness," Howard says.