How Gillard's experience inspires or discourages women

13 January 2015

Julia Gillard served as the 27th Prime Minister of Australia.
Julia Gillard served as the 27th Prime Minister of Australia.

Does being reminded of the sexism that Julia Gillard faced as Australia's first female prime minister challenge women to enter politics or discourage them?

"We found a polarising effect with women responding in different ways depending on their attitudes to gender roles," said Dr Christopher Hunt, lead author of the research from the University of Sydney's School of Psychology.

Hunt, together with the School's Dr Karen Gonsalkorale and Dr Lisa Zadro published their findings in the European Journal of Social Psychology, last month.

"For women who hold traditional gender values - those who think that women should be modest, place their families before themselves and put a lot of importance in taking care of their home and their physical appearance - being reminded of Julia Gillard's experiences made them want to avoid politics," Dr Hunt said.

"However for women who rate themselves as non-conformists in regards to gender values, being reminded of Gillard's difficulties motivated them to go into politics - she appears to be a role model for this group."

These effects were not related to any changes in women's belief in their ability to lead.

"So the changes seem to be driven by thinking about how others will react to them - about the possibility of a backlash," Dr Hunt said.

"International research shows that women in countries with more women politicians display greater interest in politics than women from countries with lower female representation. Our research suggests such role model influence changes according to women's other beliefs and values."

The study assessed 167 Australian undergraduate students on a measure of conformity to gender norms. They then either read statements about generic difficulties experienced by leaders or the gender-based difficulties experienced by Gillard before completing a questionnaire on their attitudes to leadership and certain occupations.

For male participants, those with high conformity to masculine norms showed a greater belief in their own leadership capabilities after reading about Gillard's gender-based difficulties than when reading about generic difficulties, while low conforming men showed the opposite pattern.

"This suggests that Gillard's example provoked a defensive reporting of leadership capability - consistent with research showing that women who succeed in traditionally male domains are often perceived to be threatening," said Dr Hunt.

The next step in continuing this work is to see if these findings were specific to politics or whether the same findings would apply in other professions.

"It would be interesting to apply this research to the business community where research has suggested gender roles are even more strictly enforced than in politics."

Contact: Verity Leatherdale

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