When I was growing up I didn’t dream about sport stars or musicians, I looked up to politicians. I was the kid that not only knew who the Prime Minister was, but also all the members of cabinet. When Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female PM I was genuinely excited. I didn’t particularly like the way in which she became PM, I would have much preferred her coming in through an election, but it made me start to think – maybe I could be Prime Minister.
When Julia gave a speech introducing what Labor’s plan was for 2011 the media response appalled me. It made me realise that if you’re a woman in politics you would be treated differently to your male counterparts. I opened the West Australian to a double page spread detailing that our PM had changed her style – she got glasses and a haircut! (ground breaking stuff). I was furious when I read this. I remember telling my mum, I didn’t care what she was wearing I wanted to know about the speech and her party’s policies. I went on to say, “but if she was a man that never would have happened, can you imagine the media doing this to John Howard or Bob Hawke?”
From then on, I have realised just how the media talks to and about female politicians. I started to notice the questions of “what does your partner do?” “how does he feel about this?” “why don’t you have kids?” all being directed at Julia. All these questions instead of asking about her about her policies. The more I paid attention to it, the more obvious it became.
This type of scrutiny laid upon Julia Gillard was incredibly frustrating to watch. I think it’s extremely important that media questions politicians on their policy, it’s crucial to ensure accountability. I saw what the media criticised her on, it wasn’t for her policies (which is fair game), it was comments that related to her gender. The fixation on how she became leader was incredible, did Kevin Rudd get the same treatment when he did the exact thing that Julia did? – no. If the media treated her did in the same way they treated Rudd then it would be different.
Recently in America we all saw the drama unfold over Hilary Clinton email scandal. What she did was wrong and she shouldn’t have done it, but why was it when it happened to Mike Pence, nothing happened? The Republican campaign was centred around Clinton’s email scandal, and how she should be imprisoned and barred from running for President. But when it emerged that while Governor of Indiana Mike Pence had discussed sensitive information over his personal email account – everyone seemed to brush it off. The media didn’t make a fuss as I honestly thought they would, especially when we look at how the media responded to Clinton. Nobody said he should be barred from running for Vice President, much less imprisoned. It’s hard not to assume gender plays a role as both situations are so remarkably similar.
During the Icelandic election the only female candidate, Halla Tómasdóttir, also faced her own struggles. I would highly recommend watching her TED talk, titled “It’s time for women to run for office”, in which she details the difficulties she faced. She details the comments made by the sitting Icelandic President who was considering running for another term as President but pulled out of the race because of the infamous Panama Papers. Indeed, he stated that now there were two qualified men who could fill his shoes running for office. She detailed the troubles of getting enough air time in the lead up to the election. Though I will add that the Icelandic media didn’t make any comments about her clothing (what a win!) Hearing her experiences made me sad because this was in Iceland, one of the best places in the world for women! Since 2010 Iceland has been rated number one in the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index, half of board members of listed companies are now women, while 65% of Iceland’s university students and 41% of MPs are female. Other policies including their parental leave scheme which encourages more men to take a longer paternal leave has seen women go back to work quicker and back to pre-child hours.
I can only hope in the future women politicians will get treated the same as men. That doesn’t mean never to scrutinise them, no. I expect those women to get criticised on the policies and speeches that they make, not for the clothes they wear, what their partners do, or if they choose to have a family.
Words by Leah Roberts
This article first appeared in print volume 88 edition 4 GIRL