Is life a bit tougher for Gillard in politics because she’s a woman?

I would say almost certainly. It’s not my intention to comment on particular insults thrown her way, because that kind of argument inevitably ends up with people arguing that male prime ministers get insulted too (they do) and that Gillard just gets so much criticism because she is terrible (no comment). If you want that kind of thing feel free to see here or here.

The reason I think that Gillard has it a bit tougher is to do with unconscious biases. There’s several studies out there that show that people tend to prefer men to women as leaders. See for example, this article on “How the sex bias prevails.” The article describes an experiment comparing a hypothetical male leader to a hypothetical female leader. From the article:

The only difference between what the groups were told was that some people thought they were hearing about a leader named Andrea while others thought they were hearing about a leader named James. Heilman asked her volunteers to estimate how likeable Andrea and James were as people. Three-quarters thought James was more likeable than Andrea.

Using a clever experimental design, Heilman also determined that four in five volunteers preferred to have James as their boss. Andrea seemed less likeable merely because she was a woman who happened to be a leader.

Last year, another experiment comparing people’s perception of men to women made the news, this time looking at men vs women in science. From the abstract of the study:

In a randomized double-blind study (n = 127), science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student—who was randomly assigned either a male or female name—for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant.

These are just a couple of studies, but the results are pretty telling: there is still a bias against women. In real-life examples, it’s so often hard to tell if a particular woman is having a tough time just because she isn’t doing a good job or isn’t as qualified or so on, but in these studies, the only variable is the gender of the applicant. What’s worse, these biases are often subconscious, so people may not realise they are even guilty of biased behaviour.

What does this mean for Gillard? Well, even for people who don’t think of themselves as sexist, it’s possible they may judge her more harshly than a man who was to exhibit the same behaviour and qualities. For what it’s worth, I believe there’s plenty of overt sexism out there too (comments on the internet are not always a barrel of laughs). Do I think that every criticism of Gillard or her currently poor opinion poll ratings are entirely because she’s a woman? Of course not. But I do think it makes her political life harder.


Some recommended reading if you’re interested in this type of thing (and also gets at aspects such as race and sexuality I haven’t discussed here).

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