Approx Reading Time-12Women in power face a continuous climb, a task made all the more arduous by their detractors’ refusal to acknowledge that the hill actually exists.



I watch women who aspire to positions of power with much admiration. I may not always agree with them politically, but I admire their guts.

My lifelong feminism makes me very conscious of the degree of difficulty they all face. Difficulties that no man faces but that many (perhaps even most) believe do not exist. In other words, not only must these women fight a continuous uphill battle, their opponents make their task even tougher by refusing to acknowledge there is any incline.

The glacial progress of women at the top has led many people to ascribe it to the “women in deficit” model. They ask in quasi-bewildered tones why there are not more women in positions of power, implying by the very tenor of their question that it must be due to something intrinsically wrong with women. It’s a neat trick. It makes the questioner appear concerned while actually re-inforcing their prejudices.

Women aspiring to lead are given constant advice. They must dress differently (Clinton, Gillard, Vanstone), lower the pitch of their voice (Thatcher), smile more (Merkel), have full fruit bowls (Gillard), be nicer (Credlin), not stare (Bishop), be less aggressive (Mirabella, Credlin), not interrupt (Wong, Hanson-Young), be more feminine (Clark), stand by their man (Firth, Plibersek), not stand by their man (Clinton), get a man (Bishop, Gillard), but not too many men (Bishop, Gillard), not be too young or pretty (Ellis), not be too old and ugly (Merkel, Clinton), not yell (Cash), don’t be bossy (Bronwyn Bishop, Credlin), be a feminist (Julie Bishop, Cash), don’t be a feminist (Clinton, Wong, Plibersek, Hansen Young).

Phew! Its bewildering, contradictory and just goes to show that there is no “right” way to be a woman leader. Whatever you do is wrong. And there is a reason for this.

Sheryl Sandberg references the famous and much replicated Heidi/Howard experiment in her book Lean In, because it neatly reveals the pernicious unconscious bias that all women face. The experiment involves giving a mixed panel identical CVs and asking them to rate them for both skills and likeability. The only difference between the CVs is that some have the name Heidi attached, and some Howard. The panels – made up of both men and women – rated Heidi and Howard equally for skills (as they should as the CVs are identical). The stark difference appeared on the likeability scores. The higher they rated Howard on skills the higher they rated him on likeability. The higher they rated Heidi on skills, the lower they rated her on likeability.

Ouch! Women of accomplishment are automatically seen as hard, selfish bitches. Nice women sacrifice themselves for others, nasty women work hard to achieve something for themselves.

I think women unconsciously know this and that explains why they often avoid putting themselves forward. It’s a big price to pay, knowing your success will bring as much private condemnation as it does public congratulation.

Interestingly, however, it does seem to me that women on the conservative side suffer a little less from vilification than the other way around. Thatcher, for example, is up there alongside Reagan in the neo-liberal pantheon of heroes. I am hard pressed to think of a similar progressive female hero. Even when one is within reach – like the dogged and indefatigable Clinton – progressives seem to go out of their way to reject her. Any mistake or misstep is held up as proof she is unworthy. Gillard is a hero of sorts, thanks to her magnificent misogyny speech, but her status feels half-hearted.

Mind you, given the men who have been Australia’s PM since (Rudd, Abbott and Turnbull), she is looking much better in retrospect.

I think conservative women have a slightly easier time of it (there are exceptions – the crap handed out to Tony Abbott’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, immediately springs to mind) because of the way we divide politics into mummy and daddy parties. Conservative parties embody the power of fathers. Their strengths are seen as the economy, defence and law and order. Progressive parties embody the warmth and care of mothers. Their strengths are seen as health, education and welfare. A female conservative politician is bearable because the masculine identity of her side of politics makes her femaleness tolerable. The problem for female progressives is that a woman leading a party with largely female attributes is just too much for our still-misogynistic world.


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