Researcher says gender puts Gillard at a disadvantage

October 15, 2012

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A new study on media attitudes to Prime Minister Julia Gillard suggests she is held to a different standard because of her gender.

PhD candidate Lauren Hall of Murdoch University’s School of Psychology looked at all mainstream Australian coverage of Gillard following her replacement of Kevin Rudd.

Ms Hall concluded female ambition in Australia remains ‘ideologically problematic’.

“In articles with a negative slant, PM Gillard was framed as being driven by personal ambition, which explained why she committed this ‘ruthless act’ against Kevin Rudd. This in turn was presented as coming at a cost to a lot of people’s expectations of a woman,” Ms Hall said.

“More positive articles presented her as inclusive, nurturing and communicative and suggested she acted on her ambition not for personal gain, but for the good of her party, and by extension, the country.”

“Basically, to be perceived positively, her more forceful, traditionally masculine traits had to be cast through her gentler gender stereotype.”

Ms Hall said Gillard faced and faces the classic ‘double-bind’, in which a woman aspiring to a leadership position is viewed negatively for being either too masculine to be likable and trustworthy as a woman, or too feminine to be a tough, competent leader.

To be successful, a powerful woman has to combine both – maintaining key aspects of both feminine stereotypes and leadership stereotypes.

Yet this balancing act comes at a price.

“Women are perceived so positively for having these feminine traits, which means they face extremely heightened expectations that they should be moral, should be caring and shouldn’t lie,” Ms Hall said.

“Numerous instances of political opponents calling her 'Ju-liar' and casting her as dishonest suggest they are exploiting this dynamic.”

Ms Hall said this moral expectation was also the case with former Western Australian Premier Carmen Lawrence, who had been referred to as ‘Saint Carmen’.

“It’s so much easier to fall when you’re put up higher,” Ms Hall said.

‘Nice girls don’t carry knives: Constructions of ambition in the media coverage of Australia’s first female prime minister’ by Lauren J. Hall and Ngaire Donaghue is published in The British Journal of Social Psychology 2012.

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