Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Picture: REUTERS
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Picture: REUTERS

JULIA Gillard, Australia’s first woman 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 had been a male in that position," Pru Bennett, head of corporate governance in the Asia-Pacific for BlackRock, told the Bloomberg Australia Economic Summit in Sydney this week. "This has contributed to the current way voters are thinking."

Ms Gillard, whose ruling Labour party is trailing in opinion polls ahead of elections to be held on September 14, has faced opposition supporters’ taunts that she is childless and protesters at antigovernment demonstrations carrying placards reading "Ditch the Witch".

Women make up 9.2% of executives in the 500 biggest publicly listed companies in Australia, compared with 16.1% for the US Fortune 500 index, according to a government-commissioned report.

In October last year, the prime minister labelled opposition leader Tony Abbott a sexist and misogynist in a fiery speech that went viral on the internet.

"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."

Ms Gillard, who last month faced down the second challenge to her leadership of the Labour party in just over a year, told a forum in Sydney on April 4 that Australians were still getting used to having a woman 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 Labour is trailing Mr Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition by 10 percentage points, according to a Newspoll this week, Ms Gillard says she can win the election — which she has described as a contest between "a strong feisty woman" and a "policy-weak man".

Mr Abbott, who is married with three children, has emphasised family values, drawing a contrast between himself and Ms 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, Ms 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," Ms Michaux said. "It is an area we need to look at."

Ms Gillard’s challenges as a woman leader are replicated in corporate Australia. 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 women as of the end of last year. Failure to use fully the "hidden resource" of women costs Australia’s A$1.5-trillion ($1.6-trillion) economy as much as 13% in lost annual production, Goldman Sachs analysts estimate.

Mixed boards can lead to better financial performance, according to last year’s analysis by Credit Suisse.

In the past six years, companies with a market value of more than $10bn and with at least one woman on the board outperformed those with all-male boards in share-price performance. Mixed boards also had a higher return on equity, lower gearing and better average growth, the report showed.

"The problem is that women are not getting to senior roles in business," Billabong International CE Launa Inman said. "When they do, they tend to be in more support roles, like human resources."

Ms Gillard has five months to revive Labour’s popularity and is seeking to focus voter attention on the nation’s economic strengths ahead of delivering the annual budget on May 14.

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 Ms Gillard’s credibility even as the world’s 12th-largest economy has enjoyed more than two decades of expansion.

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