Throughout your career, you have championed access to education. What does education mean to you?
The idea of education as an opportunity was instilled in me in my family home. My father left school at 14 because his family needed him to earn a living and my mother left school because she was unwell, so they recognised that finishing secondary school and continuing with higher education would open doors.
I have a strong recollection of my primary school English teacher, Mr Crow, who was the Deputy Principal and made that shift for me from spelling words and telling us to read certain texts, to inspiring us to love the language of storytelling. In Australia, you continue to study a broader range of subjects, so in my final year at school I took English, chemistry, physics, economics and maths, then we do double degrees so I did Law and Arts.
When I was growing up, the task of educators was to get knowledge from the teachers’ brains to the pupils’ brains. School was about memorisation tasks and you would survive on that for the rest of your career - I can still recite the periodic table all these years later. I believe the approach to education needs change: while we still need foundational skills – the ability to read and write and numeracy – we now need to inspire young people to be continuous learners and critical thinkers, using the knowledge that is available at our finger tips, via technology, to develop our skills.
Can you share an occasion when you failed at something and how that shaped you?
Failure is inevitable so given that, you have a choice about how you pick yourself up afterwards. It’s not the fall but how you land and compose yourself. I had a lot of early political failures, with three or four unsuccessful goes at running for a senate seat, so I had to learn early how to deal with it. Every time, I had to consider what I’d learned and how I would do better next time. And it made me better. By the time I got preselected for a senate seat and won, gaining a seat in the national parliament, I was ready to do the job.
There are people who achieve remarkable success very young, but the one thing you can predict is that no-one gets an uninterrupted inexorable upwards path year after year. Hitting challenges and dealing with them builds resilience and enables learning.
You have been a vocal advocate of equal rights, through unions, as a lawyer, as a politician – you made a now famous speech about misogyny - and now in various leadership roles. Would you describe yourself as a feminist?
I first described myself as a feminist when I was studying at university in Adelaide in 1979, where there was a lively feminist movement on campus, and have called myself a feminist ever since. It means I believe we don’t have gender equality because there are structures that hold women back and we need to address them.
Many, many things have changed for the better during my lifetime. My sister and I aspired to culture and higher education, but many of our contemporaries were taught as young girls that they’d work for a few years before marrying, raising a family and keeping house. Today, higher income countries largely approach the education of sons and daughters as equal, and young girls announcing they want to be astronauts or Prime Ministers is considered normal. There still aren’t the dept of role models everywhere, but we do have very visible female world leaders and women at the top of science, business, media and culture. Yet women still lose their lives walking home at night. They are still discriminated against in the workplace. They don’t step up for leadership. The fact that we have national movements and global conversations about gender equality, violence against women, pay gaps, women’s rights and sexism is important as the World Economic Forum says it will be more than 130 years before we achieve global gender equality.
Women in the public eye have their appearance scrutinised, often undermining their work and achievements – how do you deal with that?
Now I’m not on such a public stage, I focus on comfort and practicality and dress to please myself. In the book I wrote with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Women and Leadership: Lessons from some of the World’s Most Powerful Women, Bantam Press), we recognised that what women wear is nuanced and terminology of appearance can lead to a dangerous judgement of character, competence and ability that isn’t applied in the same way to men. Terms such as battleaxe, frump or tart are commonly used to describe a woman’s appearance and are dangerous because they are loaded with deep meaning about character too.
I feel frustrated that women are judged on what they wear. Men (in politics) basically have the benefit of a uniform: suit and tie during the day and then a tuxedo for a function, plus an off duty look which in Australia is the bush hat, chinos and a shirt. If you have three looks, that is the way it is. Easy.
Women have constant judgement because they don’t have a uniform and have to develop our own to take comments on our appearance out of the equation. Angela Merkel was a prime example of that. For someone such as Theresa May, who is interested in fashion and likes to express herself using clothes and accessories, the judgement can be a burden we don’t ask for and the constant analysis can undermine the work we do. In politics, that scrutiny of women can completely distort the day’s agenda or can even prevent women from progressing.
For example, if there was an aspiring woman politician who had her blouse untucked, her hair unbrushed, her clothes crumpled, say, would she become Leader of the Conservative Party? No way. Theresa May says such a woman wouldn’t even be pre-selected as a candidate for MP in the first place, as she would be labelled as disorganised, and not smart enough to hold the position.