PhD Candidate Blair Williams of the ANU School of Politics and International Relations met with the Hon. Julia Gillard last week to further enrich her research for her thesis on gendered print media coverage.
Blair provided us a fascinating overview, below, or her discussions spent with the former Prime Minister:
Women politicians and political leaders have long experienced media coverage that positions them in stereotypically feminine or otherwise gendered ways. Their appearance, personal relationships and family lives are frequently featured in news stories and, through such portrayals, they become regarded as women first, politicians second. This can trivialise their roles as political leaders, discourage other women from entering politics and emphasise damaging gender stereotypes. My PhD thesis examines this phenomenon and compares the gendered print media coverage of women prime ministers from Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand in order to further understand why the print media create these gendered representations and how they use discourse and images to do so.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview the Hon. Julia Gillard, Australia’s first woman prime minister, to further explore this phenomenon and to understand how this impacted her personally during her prime ministerial term. Gillard agreed that this kind of gendered media coverage is damaging, not only to women politicians and leaders but also to the general public, as it erodes the relationship between the political actor and the electorate. She argued that such undue focus on appearance or personal life takes up valuable space in relatively short articles that should instead be dedicated to examining policies and, as a result, generates less informative news. It also reinforces outdated and harmful gender stereotypes that strengthen the status quo and trivialise women political actors while negatively shaping how they are regarded by the public. Gillard remarked that, when she met people in the electorate, they were often surprised by her approachability and sincerity – certainly not the ‘ogre’ that the mainstream media portrayed. This phenomenon is not a problem solely confined to Australia, though Australian media coverage of Gillard was a particularly acute case. Contemplating my question of whether this is more prevalent or extreme in Australia, Gillard specified that our media culture is particularly unique in that there is a heavy concentration of media ownership in the hands of certain corporations that, combined with the general conservativism of these corporations, produces a landscape in which women are more likely to be portrayed in gendered, and sometimes sexist, ways.
I also asked: What will the future look like for women politicians and political leaders both in Australia as well as internationally? We discussed how the recent wave of Australian women politicians speaking out about the sexist harassment and bullying they faced in parliament is a positive step in creating change, but that more needs to be done. Especially pressing is the need for gender quotas, which will hopefully encourage more women to enter politics and result in more equal representation. This would also aid in accomplishing a normalisation of women in politics, decreasing the prevalence of their representation as novelties and preventing the persistence of current forms of gendered mainstream media coverage. Additionally, Gillard observed that politicians, parties and public actors should all strive to call out unfair and gendered media treatment of women politicians. However, she also identified that, most importantly, it was necessary for the mainstream media to reflect on the ways in which they portray all women to ensure that their portrayals do not reinforce gender stereotypes. She argued that this would be achievable through simply replacing the names and pronouns of women in media articles with the names and pronouns of men to observe whether it sounds different, or jarring, then change it accordingly. This is a preliminary step that would assess whether writers are relying on gender in their coverage of women, but there is still a long way to go. Wrapping up the interview, Gillard seemed positive about the future and preserved an optimistic perspective that it will be easier for the next woman prime minister, though she acknowledged that a complete change would require several more generations of women in power. Ultimately, it won’t be until women prime ministers are so common and normalised and are referred to as simply ‘prime minister’ without the qualifier ‘woman’, that gender will no longer attract the same attention from both the mainstream media and the public.