Gillard’s Bias Battle Replicated in Boardrooms Across Australia

Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, is contending with national media condescension that replicates sensibilities in the nation’s corporations, according to three leading women executives.

“The press do give Julia a hard time and I think probably harder than if there’d been a male in that position,” Pru Bennett, head of corporate governance in the Asia-Pacific for BlackRock Inc., told the Bloomberg Australia Economic Summit in Sydney yesterday. “This has contributed to the current way voters are thinking.”

Gillard, whose ruling Labor party is trailing in opinion polls ahead of elections to be held Sept. 14, has faced opposition supporters’ taunts that she’s childless and protesters at anti-government demonstrations carrying placards reading “Ditch the Witch.” Women comprise 9.2 percent of executives in the 500 biggest publicly listed companies in Australia, compared with 16.1 percent for the U.S. Fortune 500 Index, according to a government-commissioned report.

In October last year, the prime minister stood up in Parliament and labeled opposition leader Tony Abbott a sexist and misogynist in a fiery speech that went viral on the Internet, garnering more than two million views on YouTube.

“My immediate reaction was good on her and I’m amazed that she waited so long to snap and do that,” Fabienne Michaux, Standard & Poor’s chief credit officer for the Asia-Pacific, said at the Summit. “It was a liberating moment. That was seen as a very big positive in a lot of places outside of Australia at the time and it really was a positive in respect to women, seeing Julia stand up like that.”

Female Leader

Gillard, 51, who last month faced down the second challenge to her leadership of the Labor party in just over a year, told a forum in Sydney on April 4 that Australians were still getting used to having a female leader.

“I am not a man in a suit, and I think that that has taken the nation some time to get used to,” she said. “It’s the same sort of journey that many other nations around the world are on, and it speaks really to the changing nature of our times, and the forward progress for women in societies like ours.”

While Labor is trailing Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition by 10 percentage points, according to a Newspoll published in the Australian newspaper this week, Gillard says she can win the election -- which she has described as a contest between “a strong feisty woman” and a “policy-weak man.”

Family Man

Abbott, 55, who is married with three children, has emphasized family values, drawing a contrast between himself and Gillard, who is unmarried. He told Parliament in May 2011 that as a husband and father he understood “the financial pressures on nearly every Australian household.”

In 2005, Gillard had posed alone for a magazine photograph in the kitchen of her home in Melbourne, backed by stark bench-tops and an empty fruit bowl, a shot that stirred public association with her choice to build a career rather than marry and have children.

A 2011 television show, “At Home With Julia,” depicted her lying naked under the nation’s flag after having sex in her office with her hairdresser boyfriend.

“In terms of unconscious bias, people respond to what’s in front of them,” S&P’s Michaux said. “It is an area that we need to look at.”

Gillard’s challenges as a female leader are replicated in corporate Australia.

Sole Woman

At the Reserve Bank of Australia, Assistant Governor Michele Bullock is the sole woman among its top eight officials, and just three in 10 managers at the central bank are female as of the end of last year.

Failure to fully use the “hidden resource” of women costs Australia’s A$1.5 trillion ($1.6 trillion) economy as much as 13 percent in lost annual production, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. analysts estimate.

Mixed boards can lead to better financial performance, according to a 2012 analysis by Credit Suisse Group AG. In the past six years, companies with a market value of more than $10 billion and with at least one woman on the board outperformed those with all-male boards in terms of share-price performance, according to the report. Mixed boards also had a higher return on equity, lower gearing and better average growth, the report showed.

Women CEOs

“The problem is that women are not getting to senior roles in business,” Billabong International Ltd. Chief Executive Launa Inman told the Summit. “When they do, they tend to be in more support roles, like human resources or corporate affairs. There are very few women CEOs.”

Gillard has five months to revive Labor’s popularity and is seeking to focus voter attention on the nation’s economic strengths ahead of delivering the annual budget on May 14. Labor rose 3 percentage points to 45 percent on a two-party preferred basis, while Abbott’s coalition fell 3 points to 55 percent, according to the latest Newspoll. Gillard’s satisfaction level rose 2 points to 28 percent.

Her government announced plans last week to curb tax concessions for wealthy Australians saving for their retirement amid efforts to plug a budget deficit created by revenue shortfalls. That came after Treasurer Wayne Swan was forced to abandon a pledge to return the budget to surplus this fiscal year, damaging Gillard’s credibility even as the world’s 12th-largest economy has enjoyed more than two decades of expansion.

“People will look back and recognize that she was the first woman in Australia to actually lead the country,” Billabong’s Inman said. “Just like Margaret Thatcher, whether you liked her or not, I don’t think anyone can dispute that she did change politics.”