Julia Gillard says rewarding carers and women should be 'new normal' after Covid-19

Gay Alcorn

Julia Gillard says there are two visions of a post Covid-19 world, and it is unclear which will prevail: a “new normal” that re-evaluates and rewards caring work, largely done by women, or a new austerity as government budgets come under huge pressure.

The former Australian prime minister spoke at a Guardian Live event, moderated by columnist Zoe Williams, on the eve of the launch of a book she has co-authored with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the former finance minister of Nigeria. The book, Women and Leadership, Real Lives, Real Lessons, to be launched in Australia on Monday, discusses research into why female leaders are treated differently and why it matters that women are under-represented in senior roles in politics and business.

It weaves through the personal experiences of eight leaders – New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern; prime minister of Norway, Erna Solberg; former US presidential nominee Hillary Clinton; former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; former UK prime minister Theresa May; former president of Chile Michelle Bachelet; former president of Malawi Joyce Banda; and the president of the European Central Bank (ECB), Christine Lagarde. The leaders were asked the same set of questions to test Gillard’s hypothesis about the experience of women in senior roles.

Related: Are female leaders more successful at managing the coronavirus crisis?

On Thursday, Gillard said that if countries did not follow through with the “emotional wave” of appreciating carers and the possibilities of remote working, progress would stall. Governments and businesses would “roll back on everything that looks like it isn’t core business, including gender and diversity programs … let’s just hunker down, survive, forget all of that.

“When those cutbacks come, they will tend to come in ways that disproportionately hurt women.”

The alternative is “one where there is a real endeavour to build back better, so rather than thinking that gender equality, diversity, work inclusion is fluffy stuff that doesn’t need to be thought about now, people actually take what has been learned in this period about the value of caring work, about virtual work, working from home, and craft it into a new world of work which is better for women but better for diversity generally.”

Since leaving politics in 2013, Gillard has forged an international career centred on education and gender equality. She is chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College in London and of the Australian mental health organisation Beyond Blue.

Related: Julia Gillard's misogyny speech voted 'most unforgettable' moment in Australian TV history

Gillard, who was subject to horrific examples of sexism while serving as Australia’s first female prime minister from 2010 to 2013, is best known internationally for her “misogyny speech” to parliament.

She told the Guardian forum that the case for more women in leadership positions was not about whether women were better leaders, and did not imply that somehow women led differently.

“The case for women’s leadership is as simple as this, that if you believe that merit is distributed between the sexes equally, then we should, in the ordinary course of things, be seeing half men and half women coming through.”

Nonetheless, the warm empathetic style of some female leaders, such as Ardern and Solberg, is being well received by the public through the coronavirus crisis, as opposed to the “absolute macho strongman” approach epitomised by Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro.

Gillard pointed out that around the world, more nations had never had a female political leader than had had one, and only two had had three female leaders – New Zealand and Iceland. Nowhere in the world was it routine to have women leaders.

She said psychological research showed that everyone held gender stereotypes and they posed particular challenges for women.

“Women intuitively know that there will be a price they pay if they come on too strong … if they come too hard on the strong side people will think they are tough, hard-boiled, not likeable. If they come too strong on the caring side people will think they don’t have the backbone to lead.”

The pandemic proved to citizens that governments mattered, and that expertise mattered. “It’s been so serious in 2020 that the capacity of people [whom] voters have selected right around the world has increased or decreased people’s chances of living or dying. That’s how serious this decision is.”

Health experts had been listened to, and the same lessons could be learned when facing issues such as climate change, Gillard said.

“In my less optimistic moments I would be concerned that the economic shock will take all of people’s attention … and that will distract from the political energy needed” to tackle climate change.

The solutions might vary, but the impulse for gender equality was similar to the push for greater racial and ethnic diversity, she said.

“If you are passionate about diversity on gender, then I think it necessarily takes you in the direction of saying merit can be found anywhere.”