Gillard: pandemic poses risk to gender equality gains

Former prime minister Julia Gillard said there are both challenges and promising signs for progress from the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Getty Images
Former prime minister Julia Gillard said there are both challenges and promising signs for progress from the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic presents an opportunity to campaign to ensure gains for gender equality are not lost, and that some positive elements to the new normal are retained, according to former prime minister Julia Gillard.

Of particular concern to Ms Gillard, who raced back to Australia from London in March as the pandemic took hold around the world, is the risk that girls in disadvantaged countries where schools have been shut down without online learning won't return to the classroom when classes resume.

"Evidence from past problems like Ebola, the Ebola epidemic shows that if you close schools some of the most marginalised children, particularly girls don't make it back."

It's one of the challenges Ms Gillard is working on as chair of the Global Partnership for Education, which works to fund education for poor and vulnerable children.

As an optimist, Ms Gillard also sees gains to be made for gender equality in the current environment, including in flexible working arrangements that allow for a better balance of career progression and family life.

"We're also revaluing caring work, the kind of work that women disproportionately do, in this pandemic. The message has got through to all of us just how vital it is that that workforce is doing what it needs to do to keep us all safe and well."

The situation also presents risks to hard-won gains for women, Ms Gillard believes, including that women have been hit harder when it comes to job losses in the worldwide recession, and could again feel the pinch if governments react to higher budget deficits with austerity measures.

"I'm also worried that businesses under the pump might say to themselves that the investments they were making in diversity, including gender diversity, now look like a luxury and they should be pruned as the business tries to get used to the more challenging economic circumstances," she said.

"There's a real role for campaigning here to maximise the positive and make sure we don't get trapped in the negative cycle."

True equality will be when men and women of merit, who may well have very different leadership styles, but not leadership styles correlated with gender, get to come through in equal numbers.

Julia Gillard

Ms Gillard is speaking as she releases a new book Women and Leadership, co-written with former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. The book features interviews with world leaders like New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, both who have been praised for their leadership in the pandemic.

While there has been focus on whether women leaders have handled the crisis better, Ms Gillard believes that equality in leadership means that traits like empathy or strength won't be considered the domain of one gender or another.

"True equality will be when men and women of merit, who may well have very different leadership styles but not leadership styles correlated with gender, get to come through in equal numbers," she told The Canberra Times.

"Amongst the leaders that come through in that gender-equal world there might be a tough, strong, brook-no-opposition female leader and there might be an empathetic caring nurturing male leader, because gender equality will mean we're no longer stereotyping certain characteristics as belonging to people of a particular gender."

That doesn't mean that the traits that have been attached to women leaders aren't valuable, she said.

"If in that future world people say the leadership style they like the best comes with warmth and empathy then obviously I think that would be a good thing, but that would mean they look for that warmth and empathy in all leaders, male and female, not just putting that as an extra requirement on women leaders."

READ MORE:

Watching the coronavirus pandemic unfold from her Adelaide home, between video conference meetings across multiple timezones for her global roles, Ms Gillard said Australia had a lot to be proud of in its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

"We can be very proud as Australians that we brought a number of natural advantages to facing this pandemic. By the standards of the wold we have a good healthcare system, a healthcare system that while it has some inequalities is not at the ugly extremes we see in some countries, people can get care if they need it," she said.

"We bring to this crisis a talented public service, goo health care instrumentalities, we've war-gamed and prepared in the past for pandemics, and all of that institutional knowledge has been there to come into the service of the current leadership."

  • A longer interview with Ms Gillard about her book Women and Leadership, co-written with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, will be in Saturday's Canberra Times. Ms Gillard is also appearing at a Australian National University/Canberra Times Meet The Author event on July 15. Register here.
This story Gillard: pandemic poses risk to gender equality gains first appeared on The Canberra Times.

Comments