The secrets of women leaders - from Julia Gillard and Kate Bingham

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Julia Gillard and Dame Kate Bingham sat down with the Telegraph Associate Editor Camilla Tominey to discuss their careers, childhood aspirations, and whether or not women make better leaders.
Julia Gillard and Dame Kate Bingham sat down with the Telegraph Associate Editor Camilla Tominey to discuss their careers, childhood aspirations, and whether or not women make better leaders.

They’re two of the world’s most successful female leaders: one was the first and only female prime minister in Australian history, responsible for various major policy initiatives, while the other is the venture capitalist behind the UK’s vaccine success. Julia Gillard and Dame Kate Bingham have much in common – and both have had to navigate the unique challenges of being women in positions of power.

In today’s Women Mean Business virtual summit, Gillard and Bingham sat down with the Telegraph Associate Editor Camilla Tominey to discuss their careers, childhood aspirations, and whether or not women make better leaders.

What differences are there, then, between male and female leaders?

Gillard, now Chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, Beyond Blue, and Wellcome, said: “I certainly think it helps during negotiations to have good emotional intelligence, and I think we are in many ways more likely to teach that to and expect that of our daughters rather than our sons. I think that's an error – I think we should expect that of everyone.”

When Gillard entered office in 2010, she was grappling with the aftermath of the global financial crisis, as well as a coalition formed after a hung parliament. “What I found when I did the negotiations to put the government together is that of course you had to genuinely listen... emotional intelligence, in that drawing together of people and welding them into a team, did really matter for me,” she told the audience of online attendees.

In her own position of leadership – because of which she was suddenly thrust into the public eye during a global crisis – Bingham, now Managing Partner of SV Health Investors, said her style was to “lead by example”. “If something needs to be done I'll roll up my sleeves and we’ll do it. So I'm very practical, pushy, and like a lot of venture capitalists, somewhat ADHD,” she said.

Bingham added that “we tend not to always have the same shared hobbies and interests as men, and an aspect of being on your own in a boardroom or management team is if guys go off and play golf or football or whatever – if that’s not something that you as a woman want to do, that’s quite an exclusionary activity. As women leaders you need to be conscious of that, because you’re not going to be in the forum where a lot of these discussions have been taking place between men.”

When asked if it’s necessary to be a “bloody difficult woman” in office – a phrase coined by former British PM Theresa May – Gillard pointed out that we might not use this language to refer to the same “difficult” behaviour in a man. In terms of her own leadership style, she said that she’s “not someone who ever raises their voice or anything like that.”

“Do we watch a man who has exacting standards and requires exemplary performance from others, and just say 'he's a tough boss, good leader'. And do we see exactly the same behaviours in women leaders, and say to ourselves 'she's a bit of a …'?” she asked. “And I will let you supply the word that normally lies at the end of that sentence. I think we do."

Online trolling seems to have become a grim staple of being a woman in the public eye. While Gillard said “you’ve got to grow a thick skin” in the cut and thrust of the parliamentary chamber, she added that “nothing will ever excuse the violent toxicity that there is on social media and which can spill into the real world”.

Bingham, a mother of three, admitted that she suffered from guilt when her children were young: “[When] you go off to work, and they burst into tears every time you leave the house, you know literally as soon as you go, they'll stop crying again. But there's always a little bit of guilt.”

Gillard does not have children, and she said early on she learnt that “if you're a woman in politics, there's no right answer to the question “Do you have children”. Because if you say yes to it - and many of my female colleagues did have children - then the question that comes next is, you know, who's looking after them?”

“If the answer is - as mine is - “no I don't” then you're easily stereotyped as someone who is out of touch with ordinary family life because you don't have your own children.”

Gillard is also known for having called out the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, in her famous 2012 misogyny speech. “It was the moment that women were waiting for,” pointed out Tominey. But Gillard admitted that it used to frustrate her when she came out of politics that many people only knew her for that speech. “I was in politics for 15 years, I was deputy prime minister, I was prime minister, I did a few other things!... apparently my political career comes down to that one moment, but I’m at peace with it now”.

Bingham has also experienced prejudice too, such as the suggestions she got the job as head of the Vaccine Taskforce because her husband is Conservative MP Jesse Norman. But, she says: “That didn’t bother me, because I knew it was b-------.”

One listener asked the two women what they’re most proud of, and Gillard answered that she’s particularly proud of initiatives she took in politics – namely education reforms, and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Bingham said that heading up the Vaccine Taskforce is “definitely not” her proudest moment. Instead, she said: “The biggest decision or thing that I've got right, is actually to get married to a lovely man… and we’ve got three really healthy, happy, apparently grounded kids.” She played down her achievement in vaccine delivery, however, saying that “it wasn’t rocket science – there was nothing particularly unusual or exciting about it”. As Tominey pointed out, Bingham’s answer was “a bit modest”, given her huge success.

Did she envision herself achieving such success when she was a schoolgirl? On the contrary: “I was far too busy enjoying myself [with sport and music] to actually have any long-term thoughts about careers,” said Bingham.

Gillard said she “most assuredly was not” a budding prime minister as a child – she was “really a pretty quiet and shy kid”. Only when her friends dragged her to school debating did she experience anything like public speaking.

“If you’d said to me when I was growing up in suburban Adelaide and going to the local government schools you could be Prime Minister one day, it would be as fanciful as saying I could jump on the moon alongside Neil Armstrong.”

Follow Women Mean Business updates on Twitter: #WMBLive2021 or through the @TelegraphWomen Twitter account. Visit the Telegraph's YouTube from Friday for videos from the event and listen to the special WMB episode of Imposters, with Holly Tucker, on all podcast platforms.

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