The need for women in leadership: Julia Gillard speaks to the Phil

The former prime minister of Australia visited the Phil to speak about accessing education

The former Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, addressed members of the Phil yesterday. Gillard, who is the first woman to hold the highest political office in Australia, commenced a short speech by informing the audience that today was significant as “it is my first visit to Dublin, my first visit to Ireland, certainly my first visit to Trinity College Dublin.” She also said that come Saint Patrick’s Day, she will seek out her Irish ancestry on her maternal grandmother’s side and that being born in Wales highlighted the proximity of possible Irish relations.

Noting how her flight had arrived earlier that morning Gillard joked that she would like to have said that she “flew all the way from Australia just for this event, but that would be a lie.” Gillard is scheduled to speak in Dublin at a conference in her role as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE). Highlighting the work the organisation does in expanding access to quality education in developing countries, Gillard cited a stark figure that there are approximately “650 million children around the world who will never be able to attend a single day of school, they are locked out from education”. Gillard concluded that members of the audience should be aware of the rare privilege afforded to them in receiving a university education.

President of the Phil, Sorcha Ryder, began a brief Q&A with Gillard opening with what the next step should be in accomplishing the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals as regards to education. Gillard responded that although she was not critiquing the goals nor their noble aims since “the goal was to have universal access to primary education, and because it was an access problem, the quality of education afforded to children actually declined as classroom sizes grew to 50 and from there to 100.” She highlighted how the world’s understanding of the importance of education in development has seen “a shift in focus towards the quality of education”, and how GPE seeks to address this.

Stressing her belief in the equality of opportunity, Gillard said it was her parents’ inability to access quality education during their childhood in Wales “despite being very intelligent individuals, that saw them seek out the best opportunities for their children to succeed.” Her parent’s choice of a suburb in Adelaide where she could receive a quality education meant that both she and her sister “became very aware of [their] privilege in attending school.” In doing so Gillard argued that this recognition of the empowerment education provides has motivated her work in the sector both inside and outside of politics.

Ryder enquired as to whether Gillard believed her success as Prime Minister paved the way for women to achieve success in politics. “I would like to think so”, she responded and highlighted how “a lively discussion on sexism in politics” has begun since her time in office, arguing that “talking about a problem is the first step in solving it.” She also recalled her disappointment in Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 US Presidential election. “I know Hillary Clinton well and I was shocked and appalled when she lost”, Gillard stated that “she has become the preeminent example of how people view women in leadership positions” and that the American people “missed a real opportunity in not electing her.”

Questions were also taken from members of the audience with one asking whether her stance on same-sex marriage has changed since she voted against a bill that would have legalised it in Australia in 2011. Gillard said that she was proud to have voted yes in the plebiscite that gauged support for same-sex marriage in Australia in 2017. She said her earlier objections were down to the mechanisms of the Australian parliament and not representative of her personal view. Another question asked what role Australia should play in combating climate change, Gillard responded that she tends to keep out of ongoing discussions on government policy “which is against the trend, actually”, she joked, but that Australia must play its role in “bringing about a change” and that discussions on how to achieve this are vital.

The final question from the audience referred to Gillard’s famous parliamentary speech on sexism in politics that went viral soon after it was broadcast on Prime Minister’s questions. Asked whether she anticipated the speech would have such an impact, Gillard simply responded: “no, at least certainly not outside parliament, I definitely expected the parliamentary reaction to it.” Gillard is taken aback that women “still stop me in the street and talk about that speech, often with little knowledge of Australian politics apart from that particular moment.” A common theme throughout her talk was the sexism that women face in the political sphere. Gillard argued that “while there are difficulties in combating sexism in politics, there is no other career that provides the maximum capacity to lead”.

Cian Mac Lochlainn

Cian Mac Lochlainn is an Economics and Politics student, and a Contributing Writer for Trinity News.