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Julia Gillard & Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala - Presentation Landscape image

INTERVIEW: Julia Gillard and Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on Women and Leadership

Our interview on under-representation of women in leadership roles and what can be done about it

Julia Gillard & Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala - Presentation Landscape image

"She's a Bit of a Bitch" is one chapter in Women and Leadership , whose high-profile authors joined The Growth Faculty for a livestream interview this week.

It was also considered for the book's title.

"She's a Bit of a Bitch" refers to the persistent poor perception of ambitious women, one of many minefield subjects explored by the book's history-making co-authors, and their subjects.  

Julia Gillard is Australia’s first woman Prime Minister. She now chairs the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership. Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is an economist and international development expert. She’s the first woman to have been both finance and foreign minister in Nigeria, and very topically, she chairs GAVI – the Vaccine Alliance.

In their interview, Julia and Ngozi gave us an insider's look at the challenges facing women leaders.

Stand out lessons for women from Women and Leadership: 

1. Judgements are made on appearance. Expect it. 

2. No right way to be a woman leader. Consider if you want to plainly state your ambition and understand there may be consequences by doing so. 

3. Think about strategies to minimise the impact of being characterised as ‘She’s a bit of a bitch’ – once it takes hold it can be impossible to shift. 

4. No handbook of rules for managing family and work life. Discuss this early with your partner. Expect some guilt and think in advance how you’ll cope with it. 

5. If competing with another woman, stop and think. Is this fair, or is it a set-up? 

6. Hold true to yourself and your values. 

7. Think now about whether, how and when you will call sexism out if it happens to you. Try scenario-planning exercises

8. Always remember to role-model the positive. Be realistic about the time you can devote to mentoring. Look out for positive male role-models and sponsors too. 

9. Broaden your networks and build new coalitions. Contacts can be critical in challenging times. 

10. Access someone with expertise to give advice on the gendered aspects of how your leadership is being perceived. 

For men: 

1. It’s not the sole responsibility for a woman who’s subjected to sexist conduct or stereotyping to call it out. 

2. Think about whose voices are being heard. As yourself “Am I talking or interrupting more than I should?” “Are the women not being heard?” 

3. Achieving work and family life policies that are better for balance is not women’s work. Workplaces will change faster if pressure comes from all sources. 

4. Men can and should serve as mentors, role models and sponsors to women at critical times in their career progression and leadership journeys. 

5. Men disproportionately hold the power, so men should and can choose to use that influence for change. Male leaders are more favourably evaluated and encounter positive reactions when drawing attention to gender inequality. 

Statistics show gross under-representation of women in leadership positions.

Despite the proportion of women in senior management roles growing to an all time high in 2019, here are a few curiously unsettling stats from Women and Leadership:


  • Only one woman has won the Academy Award for Best Director. Can you name her? Or the 93 men who did?
  • How many women have led the United Nations or the World Bank? Zero.
  • Over 60% of the world's nations have never seen a woman in the top job, even as stand-in.
  • The Fortune 500 lists the largest companies incorporated in the U.S. 6.6% of CEOs on it are women (2019 data - and it was a milestone result).

It's also a pipeline issue. Women browse LinkedIn jobs just like men, and as often, but apply for 20 per cent fewer jobs than men.

To research this issue, Julia and Ngozi interviewed 8 women:

8 hypotheses tested, and key findings: 

1. You Go Girl – Women should not hold themselves back, but neither should they be naiive. The attitude of the father is important to encourage girls, and all of the women leaders said “responsibility” was an important word in their upbringing. 

2. It’s all about the hair – Research shows coverage is more gendered now than it was when Margaret Thatcher was elected UK Prime Minister in 1979. Be prepared for judgements on appearance.

3. Shrill or soft – known as the style conundrum. Women walk a tightrope and have to maintain a ‘bilingual” impression of themselves as both nice and able. Negotiating for themselves is likely to be viewed negatively. 

4. She’s a bit of a bitch - Research shows there can be contempt and disgust if women are power-seeking. This was a light-bulb moment for Julia, she says in the book. 

5. Who’s minding the kids? Understand the attention paid to this, and the guilt around it – as NZ Prime Minsiter Jacinda Ardern explains in the book, women are "high guilt" creatures. 

6. A special place in hell – do women really support women? Women must champion each other, but recognise this can be difficult. On the pathway to power most are supported, but the higher they climb the more they see the animosity that the politics of scarcity can engender.

7. Modern day salem – this looks back on rallies where people held up signs calling Julia a witch….women leaders should look out for opponents grasping for ways to do extra harm.  

8. The role modelling riddle – superwoman (alienating) versus super honest woman (speaks about problems – including online abuse).

Ways to emphasise the positive

Ultimately, it's a journey frought with frustration and dead ends. However, Julia and Ngozi tell us that reminding yourself why you want to be a leader, and the benefits for women coming behind you, as you forge new paths, helps.

From Women in Leadership:

  • Start with why it’s wonderful to be a leader. When speaking with women and girls it’s easy to assume they’re already keen to lead….so don't begin jumping over the amazing aspects to get to the ‘How to tips”. 

  • Be clear about the sense of purpose that drives you – it should be written down and carried with you day by day. 

Members can access the full interview with Julia Gillard and Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala by logging into The Growth Faculty member platform.

Information on upcoming author talks, leadership masterclasses, plus the benefits of becoming a member are all here at The Growth