Ms Represented: Julia Gillard says sexism worsened the longer she remained PM

Former PM Julia Gillard says she was treated differently because of her gender.

Former PM Julia Gillard says she was treated differently because of her gender. Photo: Getty

Julia Gillard said the sexism she endured as Australia’s first female prime minister only worsened during her time in the role.

From being asked on a Perth radio program if her partner was gay, to discovering a Liberal National Party fundraiser menu had served a ‘Julia Gillard’ quail (featuring “small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box”), Ms Gillard said the criticism she faced became “more gendered over time”.

“The most sexist thing that happened to me in politics was the then-leader of the Opposition (Tony Abbott) standing in front of signs that described me as a witch and a bitch, and making no attempt to get people to take those signs down,” the former prime minister said.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott spoke at an anti-carbon tax rally in Canberra in 2011. Photo: AAP

Ms Gillard made the comments during episode two of ABC TV program Ms Represented, a series from ABC journalist Annabel Crabb commemorating 100 years of women serving in Australian parliaments.

The 30-minute program airs at 8pm on Tuesday and shows how sexist attitudes still plague women in Parliament eight years after the incident with Mr Abbott.

The program features a number of ‘firsts’, such as Ros Kelly becoming the first federal MP to give birth while in office in 1983.

“Ros Kelly went back to work two days after giving birth,” Crabb told The New Daily. 

“She was terrified people would think she was slacking off … Now, there’s a huge range of women combining parenthood and a parliamentary career.

“The fact they can do it is partly because Ros Kelly did it first.”

Other firsts include Bronwyn Bishop becoming the first Liberal woman popularly elected to the Senate in New South Wales in 1987.

But despite the leaps made by female politicians over the past 100 years, the personal accounts of sexual harassment and sexism revealed in the series show Australia still has a long way to go.

Former Liberal MP Julia Banks describes the moment a male colleague slid his hand up her thigh, while Kate Sullivan – one of Australian Parliament’s longest-serving women – revealed her own allegation of sexual assault on the Ms Represented podcast after being inspired by young Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins.

“I can understand how … sexual harassment, and how sexual assault and, sadly, how rape can happen in that place,” Ms Banks said on the program.

“That’s what makes (Parliament House), in my view, the most unsafe workplace culture in the country, when it should be the most safe and secure.”

Dr Marika Guggisberg, an expert in domestic, family and sexual violence at Central Queensland University, said she was unsurprised by the slow pace at which Australian Parliament was inching toward gender equality.

“Women are looked upon differently and treated differently than men,” she told TND. 

“That is something that is very ingrained in our society.”

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young has spoken out against sexist slurs in Parliament. Photo: Getty

Dr Guggisberg said there was a “continuous backlash” against feminism in Australia, as evidenced by the response to the #MeToo movement, which featured “very loud male voices, and sometimes even female voices, criticising women who speak out on women’s issues”.

“Sexual violence in any form and shape seems to still be a taboo topic because of the widespread misconception that it is a very rare occurrence,” she said.

“Women who speak up may very well suffer great loss, not just in terms of reputation. They could lose their job, and get dragged through the mud by the court of public attitudes.”

Code of conduct

A growing number of women across the political divide are calling for a code of conduct that clearly outlines the behavioural and ethical standards expected from politicians with regard to women in Parliament.

Last week, several federal MPs attended a two-day summit run by the Australian National University’s Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, chaired by Ms Gillard, to help establish a model of conduct for Australia’s Parliament.

The model will be formally submitted to the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, led by sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins.

“Change doesn’t happen without people pushing for it,” Crabb told The New Daily. 

“That is the story of women in politics more broadly, no matter what political party they’re from.”

  • For confidential support and services around sexual assault, contact 1800 RESPECT online or by phone on 1800 737 732. If you or someone you know needs help contact Life Line on 13 11 14
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