Julia Gillard became Australia's first female prime minister in June 2010. Her entry into the position followed an unorthodox and controversial route: she replaced the incumbent prime minister via a party-room ballot,1 rather than leading her party in opposition and becoming prime minister as the result of a general election. Gillard herself deviates in many ways from the traditional profile of a political leader; not only is she a woman, but she is also unmarried and has no children (and is a redhead, as she noted facetiously in her first press conference as PM). Previous media coverage of Gillard has focused on her ‘deliberate barrenness’ (as she was described by an opposition minister), a newspaper photo that ‘caught’ her in her house with an empty fruit bowl, and her alleged inability to manage her hair or clothing style effectively. There are thus many ways in which Gillard does not conform to a straightforward political stereotype, a situation that provokes public curiosity and provides a striking opportunity for news media to interpret the new leader for the Australian public.
Discussion of the social significance of Australia finally having a female prime minister was an important feature of media coverage of Gillard's rise to that office. In addition to analysis of the immediate effects of the leadership takeover on day-to-day politics, much was made of the historical nature of the event and its (potential) wider significance for gender equality in Australia. However, although the great successes of individual women are symbolically important for gender politics, widespread celebration of them as evidence of the disintegration of the glass ceiling is unduly optimistic. Gender inequality in the workplace is still entrenched as reflected by indicators such as the pay gap, lifetime earnings, seats on corporate boards, appointments as CEO, and election as political representatives; although there are local variations, it remains the case that these indices show a substantial disadvantage for women in Australia (Kee, 2006), Britain and Western Europe (Arulampalam, Booth, & Bryan, 2007), Canada (Catalyst, 2009), and the United States (Catalyst, 2010). Research suggests that ambition in women remains ideologically problematic, and that women aspiring to positions of power must find ways to negotiate the tensions between normative prescriptions of femininity and the more masculine qualities associated with positions of power and influence (e.g., Okimoto & Brescoll, 2010). Furthermore, recent research by Ryan, Haslam, and colleagues has shown that when women are appointed to positions of high power and responsibility within organizations it is disproportionately likely to be in circumstances of crisis (e.g., Ryan & Haslam, 2005). The development of effective strategies for women to manage these issues is complex and fraught, and yet must be addressed if women are to continue to narrow the gaps in opportunities and outcomes that they experience in their working lives.
The recent events in Australian politics provide a powerful, contemporary context in which to explore the constructions of ambition in a politically powerful woman, in order to understand the specific challenges faced by aspiring women and how such challenges might be addressed. In this paper, we draw together insights from work on female leaders in organizational contexts as well as work that directly examines perceptions of women in politics to develop a picture of the particular issues that must be negotiated by women with ambitions to success in politics. Although there are important differences between political and organizational contexts, in particular that women in politics have a wider audience on whose approval their success depends than do women in other organizational contexts, we consider these contexts to be closely linked and mutually informative. Politicians occupy high-profile but relatively rare positions; many more women occupy non-traditional roles in organizations than in politics, and most of the ground-breaking work on how women occupying traditionally ‘masculine’ roles are perceived comes from studies of organizational leadership. Conversely, the public nature of politics means that the examples of women occupying traditionally male roles in this domain are highly visible and may provide very salient examples of the counter-stereotypical abilities and qualities of some women that can allow female politicians to serve as role models for women aspiring to leadership in public life both within and beyond politics. Furthermore, as most ‘contact’ between politicians and the general public occurs via the media, it is particularly important to examine how these successful female politicians are constructed in the media, as it is the perceptions that flow from these presentations – rather than their ‘actual’ qualities and actions – that form the basis for shared cultural understandings about the contributions that can be made by women in public life and the rewards and costs associated with these roles. In this paper, we aim to augment the literature on how female success in traditionally male domains is understood by analysing the ways in which the Australian news media portrayed Julia Gillard in the days immediately following her elevation to the office of prime minister.
Women in politics: Ambition, androgyny, and the need to establish (sufficient) femininity
Gender is a more salient feature of female political leaders than male leaders not only because of the relative scarcity of women in such positions, but also because of the incongruence between cultural stereotypes of women and politicians (Eagly & Karau, 2002). Ambition and other power-seeking characteristics are cardinal features of the stereotype of politicians, understood as being necessary for success in the ‘cut throat’ world of politics (Huddy & Capelos, 2002). Ambition combines elements of assertiveness, competitiveness, confidence, and self-promotion, characteristics that form a central part of cultural stereotypes that present men as agentic and self-focused, but that have a more problematic relation with stereotypes of women that emphasis communal characteristics of warmth, sensitivity, nurturance and self-effacement (Bem, 1974; Prentice & Carranza, 2002). This stereotype incongruence presents two potential problems for women aspiring to political leadership. The first is that women must overcome stereotype-based expectations that lead them to be considered less competent than men and work to overcome assumptions that they will not be ‘tough enough’ for the hard decisions and personal attacks of political leadership. Women who do succeed in overcoming these expectations of lower competence by displaying counter (gender) stereotypical agentic qualities must then contend with a second issue; the prescriptive elements of the gender stereotypes, which imply that women should be communal and that lead displays of agentic behaviours in women to be seen as evidence of coldness and unfemininity (Eagly & Karau, 2002; Prentice & Carranza, 2002). It is for these reasons that women's aspiration to positions of power in public life is widely understood as involving a double bind, in which women's exhibition of characteristics traditionally understood as required for successful political leadership, such as assertiveness, authority, and ambition, can come at substantial cost to their likeability and thus their popularity and electoral success (e.g., Jamieson, 1995).
Research into role (in)congruence finds that there are indeed costs for women in being perceived as highly agentic. In organizational contexts, researchers have shown that professional women are perceived negatively when they exhibit agentic traits (Fiske, Cuddy, & Glick, 2007; Heilman, 2001; Rudman & Glick, 1999). Highly agentic women have been found to be perceived as less warm (Fiske, Xu, Cuddy, & Glick, 1999), less likable or friendly (Heilman, Wallen, Fuchs, & Tamkins, 2004; Rudman, 1998), and are more likely to be met with hostile sexism (Glick, Diebold, Bailey-Werner, & Zhu, 1997) than less agentic women or agentic men. In the political domain, there is a growing literature documenting the penalty attached to behaviour that is interpreted as power seeking in female politicians (e.g., Gill, 2004; Okimoto & Brescoll, 2010). The display of ambition, power, and leadership qualities has been shown to undermine the femininity and ‘relatability’ of female politicians (Herrnson, Lay, & Stokes, 2003). This research suggests that it is an ‘excess’ of agency that elicits negative reactions towards female politicians who act against stereotypes of women.
The double-bind account of women's under-representation as political leaders is complicated somewhat by recent research that suggests that it is not the presence of agentic (masculine) characteristics (such as ambition) per se so much as the implied hit to communality (femininity) that reduces liking of powerful women. Heilman and Okimoto (2007) found that less favourable evaluations of women leaders were attributable to an inferred lack of communality, rather than to their possession of agentic traits; when it was made clear that the agentic women did also possess communal qualities, the negative judgements that had initially been made were ameliorated. Similarly, Okimoto and Brescoll (2010) found that negative judgements of power-seeking female political candidates could be explained by a perception of lack of communality rather than by the presence of agentic qualities. There is also evidence that some audiences may reduce the perceived role incongruence presented by ambitious women by introducing differences in the nature of the ambition attributed to women and men; Larimer, Hannagan, and Smith (2007) found that ambitious women were perceived as being more collective in their ambition than ambitious men, whose ambitions were described in more self-serving terms. Taken together, these recent studies suggest that so long as evidence of their communality is maintained, female politicians are not necessarily judged negatively for their ambition. These findings present more cause for optimism for female leaders than the traditional double-bind analysis in that they offer a path by which aspiring women may display the agentic qualities so apparently necessary for political leadership without inevitably rendering themselves unlikeable.
If negative judgements of powerful women are centred around an inferred lack of communal traits, rather than an excess of agentic traits, then female politicians might be able to counter the potential hostility provoked by their perceived ambition and power seeking by finding ways to simultaneously show aspects of their communality (Heilman & Okimoto, 2007; Okimoto & Brescoll, 2010). On the surface, this seems consistent with long-standing ideas about androgyny – the simultaneous possession of high levels of masculine (agentic) and feminine (communal) characteristics – as the most desirable and effective constellation of attributes, particularly for successful women (Bem, 1974; Prentice & Carranza, 2002). In this way, women would be free to display ambition, aggression, and other power-seeking qualities in the same way and to the same extent as men without social penalty, as long as they balanced these characteristics with sufficient displays of self-effacement, concern for others, and other communal characteristics. Previous research on female politicians and femininity has focused largely on the ways in which appearance, style, and motherhood/domestic duties contribute to the (sufficiently) feminine identities of female politicians, such as Angela Merkel (van Zoonen, 2006), Hillary Clinton (Scharrer, 2002), and Helen Clarke (Devere & Graham Davies, 2006). The emphasis on these features is used to show that even as successful politicians, these women still share the concerns and priorities that enable them to be seen as ‘real’ women.
However, the strategy of emphasizing femininity as a means of balancing and thus ameliorating the negative consequences of being (“too”) ambitious is complicated by features of the political context, in which information about politicians is frequently presented in short, disjointed, and partisan formats; candidates may not be able to rely on constituents carefully collecting and weighing information across multiple contexts, but must instead create ‘balance’ within particular characteristics themselves. The ease with which individual attributes can be taken ‘out of context’ increases the need for female candidates to transform potentially unpalatable characteristics (such as ambition) into androgenized versions of these characteristics themselves, rather than simply balancing these agentic characteristics with unrelated communal characteristics. For example, although Hillary Clinton took many opportunities to emphasize her femininity during her bid for the Democratic party's presidential nomination, this did not serve to ‘balance’ the negative impression formed among many voters of her ‘overweening ambition’ (Gutgold, 2009). Conversely, Sheeler (2010) documents the ways in which gubernatorial candidate (and eventual Governor of Michigan) Jennifer Granholm's attractiveness and femininity was used to portray her as less knowledgeable and competent than her male counterparts. The need to create androgenized (rather than ‘balanced’) portraits of female politicians can be seen in the epithets used by their supporters; for example US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with a ‘heart of gold but a spine of steel’ (Dabbous & Ladley, 2010, p. 181), and Hong Kong official Lily Yam, known as the ‘Iron Butterfly’ (Lee, 2004, p. 212). In these descriptions, these women's possession of (apparently politically necessary) toughness and resolve are softened through the incorporation of communal/feminine elements.
One specific way in which female politicians may express their integrated communality and agency is by adopting aspects of the transformational leadership styles now widely acknowledged in the organizational leadership literature (e.g., Eagly, 2007). A transformational leadership style allows female leaders to display key agentic qualities of leadership while at the same time incorporating communal qualities to exhibit an integrated androgynous leadership style (Eagly, 2007). The communal qualities that are incorporated into transformational leadership include cooperation, open communication, and an ability to encourage others (Bruckmüller & Branscombe, 2010). Transformational leadership has been found to be more desirable in female leaders than a traditional leadership style, with women adopting this style perceived to be more effective, more likeable, and more trustworthy than women with a more traditional (non-communal) leadership style (see Eagly, 2007 for a review). A transformational leadership style may thus effectively convey an androgynous persona, allowing the female politician to create an integrated presentation of herself as both agentic and communal.
Female politicians and the glass cliff
Although it appears that the clear solution to overcoming the classic double bind of female leadership is for aspiring women to ensure that they highlight their communal qualities, this strategy is not without its costs. The emphasis on communality in the leadership styles of female politicians may have the unintended consequence of making them particularly appealing as leaders in times of political upheaval or strife. Extensive research in organizational contexts finds that women are much more likely to become leaders of companies during periods of crisis than at other times, leading to the phrase ‘think crisis, think female’ (Ryan, Haslam, & Kulich, 2010). This may be at least partly because women are seen to have the required traits to deal with crisis situations – namely, the flexibility, empathy, creativity, and communal interpersonal skills needed to motivate employees to work together in recovering from a crisis (Bruckmüller & Branscombe, 2010; Ryan et al., 2010; Ryan & Haslam, 2005). The women who gain these precarious ‘glass cliff’ positions can often find themselves in a lose–lose situation in which they are either the scapegoat if the organization does not successfully manage its crisis, or they are replaced by a male manager once the crisis has been resolved (Bruckmüller & Branscombe, 2010; Ryan & Haslam, 2005). The identification of the glass cliff phenomenon is a salutary reminder of the importance of focusing not only on the number, but also on the nature, of the opportunities for power and influence that are available to women. The systematic appointment of women to positions with a higher than usual chance of failure has profound consequences not only for the careers of the particular woman appointed to such positions but also for perceptions of the general suitability of women as leaders.
Evidence of the glass cliff can be seen in Australian politics, where women have come into power in times of crisis. Of the five female state premiers in Australia's history, all were appointed to the position mid-term following the resignation of an incumbent (male) premier, in the hopes of turning around the governments’ low popularity. Of these five, only one was subsequently returned to office following a general election, vividly illustrating the precariousness of the positions that these women were given the ‘opportunity’ to take. Similar findings have been reported in lower profile political races; Ryan and colleagues found that female politicians are seen to be more suited to risky seats, and male politicians to winnable seats (Ryan et al., 2010).
The present study
This study draws on recent political events in Australia to ask the question, how is the success of Julia Gillard, in becoming Australia's first female prime minister, accounted for, and how are the challenges she will face as prime minister constructed in the mainstream press? By exploring the various accounts that are constructed of how a woman can achieve success in breaking through this iconic gender barrier, we aim to show the nature of those barriers as well as the attributions and inferences that are made about what it takes for a woman to surmount them. We do this through an analysis of constructions within the media in order to understand the various ways the Australian public is encouraged to perceive Gillard, and strategies that are used to encourage these perceptions.
Of course there are idiosyncrasies in this case that introduce elements that may not be routinely present for other successful women in politics. In particular, the hostile removal of the incumbent prime minister, Kevin Rudd, by his own party, and the elevation of his former deputy (Gillard) inevitably introduces questions of loyalty and betrayal that might not be present (at least to the same degree) in more conventional transfers of power. Nevertheless, even with the idiosyncrasies and complexities of the particular case, events such as these have enormous social significance; they capture public attention and provide a powerful story about female success in traditionally male spheres – how it happens, what it means, what it costs, what it is worth. In so doing, they contribute to a shared social understanding of the meaning and function of gender in these domains, which itself provides a basis for the myriad unremarkable judgements, expectations, and exhortations that are made of and by women in the everyday world of work.
Our analysis of media coverage of Gillard's ascension focuses largely on the way her ambition is portrayed in conjunction with stereotypically masculine (power seeking) or stereotypically feminine (communal) traits. Specifically, we investigate the ways in which her leadership style is portrayed throughout these articles, and the extent to which qualities associated with agency and communality are used to construct both sympathetic and antagonistic representations of Australia's first female prime minister.