No. 32

Men are from Mars, women from Venus, and all politicians come from planet purgatory.

Stone the crows! What a setback for old-fashioned feminism! With a woman in the top job, it’s hard to argue the odds are against women in politics.

But this did not stop some of the sisters having their say, generally about, well nothing much.  Anne Summers said just because a woman had made it to the top job did not mean equal opportunity has arrived, “just look at the upper echelons of business, the military and the federal public service, and you will see women are as rare in these areas as female prime ministers once were.”[1]

Bettina Arndt thundered about the prime minister’s domestic arrangements, worrying her unwed state sends the wrong signal to impressionable young women.[2] Myf Warhust responded with a piece that read like Catherine Deveny calmed by herbal tea. The piece was more about Myf than what having a woman in (or at least with its keys) in the Lodge meant.[3]

And demonstrating some of the sisters prefer political martyrs to mavens, Virginia Haussegger suggested Joan Kirner and Carmen Lawrence blazed the trail for Gillard.[4] It was an unlikely argument. While Kirner and Lawrence were incapable of raffling a chook in a pub; if you put the PM in a public bar with some chickens within the hour they would have a new industrial award and preselection for a safe seat.

It was left to Sue Dunlevy to actually address an important issue, whether the prime minister will be judged by her gender: “The trick Gillard must pull off is to be ruthless and caring if she wants to straddle the opposing stereotypes our society has of women and leaders,” she wrote.[5]

But even Ms Dunlevy was arguing out of the old paradigm, which assumes women in politics are forced to play roles, rather than be themselves. The canon for this crock is Dr Julia Baird’s book on women in politics, in which she explained why Carmen Lawrence, Natasha Stott Despoja and Cheryl Kernot were cruelly treated:

Men and women need to tackle and confront the political culture together. In politics, women remain a symbol of what the problems are, as would any marginalised, disenfranchised group. Some women will fail. Some will be mediocre performers, average policy performers, uninspiring legislators. Just like a lot of the men. But their exclusion still represents lack of justice, and they remain, despite all their protestations, hope-for change agents.[6]

Women as a marginalised group? Excluding the prime minister apparently. The point Dr Baird missed was the women she studied failed in politics, not because they are women, but because they were spectacular duds.

Perhaps people will judge the prime minister by their ideas of how women should behave but nobody who has ever observed her working will. Because gender is irrelevant to the way successful people in politics, and management for that matter, behave. Of course everybody has their own individual approaches and values, but there gender is no predictor of performance.

There are as many big, boofy birds as there are hard faced bitch-blokes.

ANU academic Judy Wajcman argues, the idea women behave differently to men in demanding jobs is based on “stereotypical femininity …  The problem is that the qualities, characteristics and culture ascribed to women originate from the historical subordination of women,” she writes. And goes on:

In practice senior women managers manage in much the same way as senior men within the same specific context. This is because styles of management are shaped more by organisational imperatives than by the sex or personal style of specific individuals.

It is hard to imagine a culture with more prescriptive rules that universally apply and to which all players conform than politics. Or one which better makes Wajcman’s point; “The individuals of either sex who succeed are those who are prepared to be hard, those who can ‘take it like a man’. Feminine and masculine qualities are not the exclusive preserve of either sex.” [7]

The most prominent example of a woman in politics who played the feminist card but failed because of her too obvious ambition and self-obsession alienated staff and unsettled electors is Hillary Clinton.

Two substantive biographies of the now secretary of state demonstrate how she was as aggressive and insensitive, as ruthless and rapacious, as any man in the way she played politics.

According to Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta jnr, Hillary Clinton has always had a tin ear for human relationships and a solipsistic sense of superiority, resulting “in a forced, artificial demeanour, a reinforced tendency toward arrogance and a belief that she is immune to the rules, and a sense that anyone who disagrees must be an enemy”[8]

Carl Bernstein lauds her ideals but questions her character, but details the way she assumes everybody in her orbit only exists to oblige her:

Great politicians have always been marked by the consistency of their core beliefs, their strength of character in advocacy, and the self-knowledge that informs bold leadership. Almost always, Hillary has stood for good things. Yet there is often a disconnect between her convictions and words, and her actions.[9]

Insert the name of the Australian politician this description reminds you of most and I will buy you a beer if it is not a bloke.[10]

Wajcman’s point about the pursuit of power transcending gender is made by the way Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democrat primaries. In books about the campaign Clinton comes across as the lesser politician, with less strategic sense, less ability to assemble a team, less capacity to stay on message and far less talent to inspire affection or respect. She worked her staff to exhaustion, never disguised her belief they were expendable and always acted as if everything was about her.

The brutal way Hillary Clinton sacked long time staffer and supposed friend Patti Solis Doyle, by email, during the primaries and then acted as if all could be forgiven when she realised the decision was a disaster, demonstrated a tin ear for human emotions – the sort of emotional illiteracy the sisters say is a male characteristic. [11]

In contrast, Obama understood and even respected other people’s emotions, which is why he could credibly sell his caring candidacy. Where Clinton commanded obedience, Obama generated loyalty, even love.

Obama’s character and working style was an important element in his victory. It was not a case of a man in touch with his feminine side beating a woman brutalised by politics into acting like a man. Rather, the better politician won and empathy with people is an important part of being better.

On planet purgatory, where politicians come from, gender difference does not matter, character does.


[1] Anne Summers, “Historic moment, but barriers remain for half the population”, Sydney Morning Herald, June 25

[2] Bettina Arndt, “Shacking up is hard to do” Sydney Morning Herald, June 29

[3] Myf Warhurst, “Is Gillard’s relationship the biggest issue”, The Age, July 2

[4] Virginia Haussegger, “The polka dots dance on the political stage”, The Age, June 29

[5] Sue Dunlevy, “There’s no sympathy for sex and sitting MPs”, Daily Telegraph, June 30

[6] Julia Baird, Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians (Scribe, 2004) 268

[7] Judy Wajcman, Managing like a man: Women and men in corporate management (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998) 158-159, 160

[8] Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta jnr, Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Little Brown, 2007) 225

[9] Carl Bernstein, A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Vintage, 2008), 554

[10] conditions apply

[11] John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime (Harper, 2009) describes the Solis Doyle sacking in excruciating detail, 448

Men are from Mars, women from Venus, and all politicians come from planet purgatory.

Stone the crows! What a setback for old-fashioned feminism! With a woman in the top job, it’s hard to argue the odds are against women in politics.

But this did not stop some of the sisters having their say, generally about, well nothing much. Anne Summers said just because a woman had made it to the top job did not mean equal opportunity has arrived, “just look at the upper echelons of business, the military and the federal public service, and you will see women are as rare in these areas as female prime ministers once were.”[1]

Bettina Arndt thundered about the prime minister’s domestic arrangements, worrying her unwed state sends the wrong signal to impressionable young women.[2] Myf Warhust responded with a piece that read like Catherine Deveny calmed by herbal tea. The piece was more about Myf than what having a woman in (or at least with its keys) in the Lodge meant.[3]

And demonstrating some of the sisters prefer political martyrs to mavens, Virginia Haussegger suggested Joan Kirner and Carmen Lawrence blazed the trail for Gillard.[4] It was an unlikely argument. While Kirner and Lawrence were incapable of raffling a chook in a pub; if you put the PM in a public bar with some chickens within the hour they would have a new industrial award and preselection for a safe seat.

It was left to Sue Dunlevy to actually address an important issue, whether the prime minister will be judged by her gender: “The trick Gillard must pull off is to be ruthless and caring if she wants to straddle the opposing stereotypes our society has of women and leaders,” she wrote.[5]

But even Ms Dunlevy was arguing out of the old paradigm, which assumes women in politics are forced to play roles, rather than be themselves. The canon for this crock is Dr Julia Baird’s book on women in politics, in which she explained why Carmen Lawrence, Natasha Stott Despoja and Cheryl Kernot were cruelly treated:

Men and women need to tackle and confront the political culture together. In politics, women remain a symbol of what the problems are, as would any marginalised, disenfranchised group. Some women will fail. Some will be mediocre performers, average policy performers, uninspiring legislators. Just like a lot of the men. But their exclusion still represents lack of justice, and they remain, despite all their protestations, hope-for change agents.[6]

Women as a marginalised group? Excluding the prime minister apparently. The point Dr Baird missed was the women she studied failed in politics, not because they are women, but because they were spectacular duds.

Perhaps people will judge the prime minister by their ideas of how women should behave but nobody who has ever observed her working will. Because gender is irrelevant to the way successful people in politics, and management for that matter, behave. Of course everybody has their own individual approaches and values, but there gender is no predictor of performance.

There are as many big, boofy birds as there are hard faced bitch-blokes.

ANU academic Judy Wajcman argues, the idea women behave differently to men in demanding jobs is based on “stereotypical femininity … The problem is that the qualities, characteristics and culture ascribed to women originate from the historical subordination of women,” she writes. And goes on:

In practice senior women managers manage in much the same way as senior men within the same specific context. This is because styles of management are shaped more by organisational imperatives than by the sex or personal style of specific individuals.

It is hard to imagine a culture with more prescriptive rules that universally apply and to which all players conform than politics. Or one which better makes Wajcman’s point; “The individuals of either sex who succeed are those who are prepared to be hard, those who can ‘take it like a man’. Feminine and masculine qualities are not the exclusive preserve of either sex.” [7]

The most prominent example of a woman in politics who played the feminist card but failed because of her too obvious ambition and self-obsession alienated staff and unsettled electors is Hillary Clinton.

Two substantive biographies of the now secretary of state demonstrate how she was as aggressive and insensitive, as ruthless and rapacious, as any man in the way she played politics.

According to Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta jnr, Hillary Clinton has always had a tin ear for human relationships and a solipsistic sense of superiority, resulting “in a forced, artificial demeanour, a reinforced tendency toward arrogance and a belief that she is immune to the rules, and a sense that anyone who disagrees must be an enemy”[8]

Carl Bernstein lauds her ideals but questions her character, but details the way she assumes everybody in her orbit only exists to oblige her:

Great politicians have always been marked by the consistency of their core beliefs, their strength of character in advocacy, and the self-knowledge that informs bold leadership. Almost always, Hillary has stood for good things. Yet there is often a disconnect between her convictions and words, and her actions.[9]

Insert the name of the Australian politician this description reminds you of most and I will buy you a beer if it is not a bloke.[10]

Wajcman’s point about the pursuit of power transcending gender is made by the way Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democrat primaries. In books about the campaign Clinton comes across as the lesser politician, with less strategic sense, less ability to assemble a team, less capacity to stay on message and far less talent to inspire affection or respect. She worked her staff to exhaustion, never disguised her belief they were expendable and always acted as if everything was about her.

The brutal way Hillary Clinton sacked long time staffer and supposed friend Patti Solis Doyle, by email, during the primaries and then acted as if all could be forgiven when she realised the decision was a disaster, demonstrated a tin ear for human emotions – the sort of emotional illiteracy the sisters say is a male characteristic. [11]

In contrast, Obama understood and even respected other people’s emotions, which is why he could credibly sell his caring candidacy. Where Clinton commanded obedience, Obama generated loyalty, even love.

Obama’s character and working style was an important element in his victory. It was not a case of a man in touch with his feminine side beating a woman brutalised by politics into acting like a man. Rather, the better politician won and empathy with people is an important part of being better.

On planet purgatory, where politicians come from, gender difference does not matter, character does.


[1] Anne Summers, “Historic moment, but barriers remain for half the population”, Sydney Morning Herald, June 25

[2] Bettina Arndt, “Shacking up is hard to do” Sydney Morning Herald, June 29

[3] Myf Warhurst, “Is Gillard’s relationship the biggest issue”, The Age, July 2

[4] Virginia Haussegger, “The polka dots dance on the political stage”, The Age, June 29

[5] Sue Dunlevy, “There’s no sympathy for sex and sitting MPs”, Daily Telegraph, June 30

[6] Julia Baird, Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians (Scribe, 2004) 268

[7] Judy Wajcman, Managing like a man: Women and men in corporate management (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998) 158-159, 160

[8] Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta jnr, Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Little Brown, 2007) 225

[9] Carl Bernstein, A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Vintage, 2008), 554

[10] conditions apply

[11] John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime (Harper, 2009) describes the Solis Doyle sacking in excruciating detail, 448

'2012