27 September 2023

Boys clubbed: Bishop delivers sermon on women’s leadership

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Shannon Molloy* says former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has delivered one of her most powerful speeches, reflecting on the role of, and need for, women in leadership.

Julie Bishop has gotten used to frequently being the only woman in a room full of men.

After two decades of working in the law and recently notching up the same amount of time in politics, the former Foreign Minister has forged formidable careers in two major boys’ clubs.

Last week, Ms Bishop delivered perhaps her most powerful speech since stepping down from her prominent post.

“Two months ago — not counting — I had to make what I think was one of the hardest decisions, to resign as deputy leader and then resign as Foreign Minister and leave the Cabinet,” Ms Bishop told the Future Women dinner.

She also spoke about her time as the lone woman on former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s frontbench.

The lone woman

When Ms Bishop became Foreign Minister in 2013, there was “not one” other woman in Mr Abbott’s senior leadership.

“And yes, it was lonely and there were times when I found it very frustrating,” Bishop said.

“I was continually interrupted. Can you guys not hear us or something?”

“I found that I would come up with idea, a proposal or an issue, and they would move on to the next person, and about three down someone would say exactly what I said … and the guys would go ‘Genius, let’s do that’.”

As more women were appointed to Cabinet over the years, Ms Bishop said they formed an almost unspoken pact to support each other.

When one of them was dismissed, the other would step in and back her.

“We would say, ‘Don’t interrupt, she’s speaking’, or, ‘Why have you just said that, [she] said that five minutes ago’.”

“It was reminding them that women’s voices deserve to be heard.”

On the world stage

During her 110-odd international trips as Foreign Minister, Ms Bishop said she made a point of meeting women in various leadership roles in each country.

And she formed a club with other female Foreign Ministers.

“Over time, we started meeting formally,” Ms Bishop said.

“We would often comment about the contrast between meetings when we got together and the more usual meetings where we would be perhaps the only or one of two women in a room.”

She recounted a meeting of the Counter ISIS Group, comprising 26 nations who were represented by their Foreign Ministers, which was chaired by then-US Secretary of State John Kerry.

“I was the only female, along with Federica Mogherini, who is the high representative of the European Union, and the rest were male,” Ms Bishop recalled.

“The discussion was brutal, aggressive, people shouting over each other and interrupting.”

“At one point, Federica turned on her microphone and said, ‘Why don’t you boys just go outside and fight it out?’”

“That night, I went to a meeting of the female foreign ministers … there were about 25 of us.”

“We discussed the same topic, the same facts, and there could not have been a greater contrast in tone, style, outcomes, narrative and the way we saw the world.”

Ms Bishop singled out three women who served as US Secretary of State for being sources of support during her tenure: Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.

“These were three women who gave me ideas and advice on the challenges they faced in an increasingly challenging world, and what they were trying to do to overcome them,” she said.

While her praise of Ms Clinton might come as a surprise to some, given their differences in political ideology, Ms Bishop said it was important for women not to destroy each other.

“Always back other women,” she said.

“They are not your enemies.”

“They might be your competitors, but they are not your enemies.”

Gender and leadership

Reflecting on her experiences sitting across tables from some of the most powerful people in the world, Ms Bishop said she had noticed differences in leadership styles.

She is now convinced by research that shows women tend to build teams, emotionally engage with individuals, and be empathetic and sympathetic to the needs of people.

“Men are more likely to be driven empirically to set team goals, they’re less likely to focus on the individual and it’s much more punitive and less sensitive,” Ms Bishop said.

“They set goals and judge the team and call them to account at every step.”

“The research concludes that women’s leadership style is transformative, men’s style is transactional.”

“Of course, there are strengths and weaknesses in both.”

“But it leads me to conclude: if you’re trying to be a man, it’s a waste of a woman.”

After stepping down as Foreign Minister, Ms Bishop spoke at an Australian Women’s Weekly lunch about the sometimes toxic nature of politics.

She spoke of being horrified at things she had witnessed, particularly how some female politicians are treated.

She insisted her remarks were not, however, a sign that she was “walking away” from a sense of optimism for women in power.

Instead, Ms Bishop said she hoped to encourage women “to aspire, to inspire, to success, to be fulfilled and then be empowered”.

“No nation will reach its potential unless it fully engages with and harnesses the skills and talents and energy and ideas of the 50 per cent of its population that is female,” she said.

“And in the case of Australia, that’s 51 per cent.”

Ms Bishop left the audience of female leaders with some advice, gleaned from her experiences.

“Never let anyone define who you are and what you can achieve,” she said.

“You set your own standards, you set your own benchmark and you strive to meet it.”

“Ignore those whose standards they wouldn’t or couldn’t meet themselves.”

“Be authentic, be yourself.”

* Shannon Molloy is a Sydney-based journalist, interviewer and writer. His website is www.shannonmolloy.com.

This article first appeared at www.heraldsun.com.au.

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