Who has inspired one of Australia’s most well-known political leaders Julie Bishop?

In this speech as part of the CEDA leadership series we find out:
Female leaders in the 21st Century
Hon. Julie Bishop to CEDA


Last week there was a photograph in the international media that spoke volumes about power and influence, who wields it and how.

The photograph captured the meeting between Hillary Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon depicting the beginnings of a new relationship between the United States (US) and Burma after a 50-year freeze.

These two women simply ooze power and influence. Both are champions for freedom, democracy and human rights, yet their circumstances could not be more different – the overt power of Hillary Clinton as the Secretary of State with all the resources and clout of the world’s only super power and mega democracy in the US, and the covert power of Aung San Suu Kyi who has been fighting for freedom and democracy in Burma’s repressive regime while under house arrest for the best part of the last 20 years.

While their circumstances could not be more different, both women in their own way wield enormous in influence and have inspired many to their respective cause.

I had the good fortune to meet Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon in 1995 before I went into politics and it was shortly after she was released from her first period of detention. The meeting, which lasted about an hour, remains one of the most important memories in my life, for her selfless example and commitment to the people of Burma at great personal cost was so inspiring.

It was simply exhilarating to hear her speak, as the Opposition Leader in Burma, of her battle against the military regime at the time – a battle that was recognised with the award of a Nobel Peace Prize as one of the most lonely and courageous acts of leadership in recent times.

Leadership is an intoxicating subject. Many words have been written and spoken about leadership and its defining characteristics. Are leaders born or made? Is leadership an innate ability inherent in a small number of people? Or can anyone rise to the challenge of leadership under the right circumstances?

Into this complex field of study comes the issue of female leadership. Is it in fact different from male leadership, and if so, what are those defining characteristics? There is always of course a danger in stereotyping people whether it is based on their ethnic or cultural backgrounds, or their gender. However, there is a body of research backed up by evidence – mostly empirical – that
indicates that women are different and women do take a different approach to leadership than men do.

Back in 1996 I undertook an MBA-style short course at Harvard Business School, the Advanced Management Program – a three-month intensive course on management and leadership – and among our prescribed reading was work by US researcher Dan Goleman on the topic of ‘emotional intelligence’ (EQ). I brought his book home with me and dipped into it again the other day.

According to Goleman, consider yourself to have a high EQ if you have:

  1. The ability to be self-aware and know one’s strengths and weaknesses;
  2. The ability to manage oneself, in terms of maintaining high levels of motivation and avoiding negativity;
  3. Awareness of other people and their strengths, weaknesses and moods;
  4. The ability to manage interpersonal relationships to promote teamwork, harmony and collaboration while limiting conflict.

That, to me, sums up the skills that I have observed in many women in leadership roles – in business, in communities, in politics, in families.

Research by the United Kingdom Chartered Management Institute predicts that management traits generally described as ‘female’ will be increasingly sought after by companies over the next decade.

US researcher Carol Kinsey Goman wrote in the Washington Post recently that:

“…the 21st century is seeing the combination of new employees, new technologies and new global business realities add up to one word: collaboration. New workers are demanding it, advances in technology are enabling it…

“These new business realities usher in the need for a new leadership model, one that replaces command and control, with transparency and inclusion. This will increasingly highlight the value of a more feminine approach.”1

Goman describes women’s leadership style as more participative, more likely to share information and power, strong relational skills that make them seem empathetic to their staff and – with apologies to the males in the room – she nds that the opposite is generally the case with male leaders.

As Goman concluded:

“The most successful leaders of the future will take the time and effort necessary to make people feel safe and valued. They’ll emphasise team cohesiveness while encouraging candid and constructive contact, they’ll set clear expectations while recognising what each team member contributes, they’ll share the credit and the rewards. And most of all they’ll foster true networked collaboration through a leadership style that projects openness, inclusiveness and respect. Any leader can do that. Female leaders just already do it more naturally.”

I don’t want to overstate the female leader characteristics because there are as many individual styles as there are leaders but I think there are certain attitudes and behaviours that are more prevalent in women than in men.

I won’t go into the ‘men as hunters, women as gatherers’ type of argument, but I believe that as more women around the world take on leadership positions – in their communities, in their countries, across continents – the impact of female leadership will be profound. As profound, I suggest, as the impact of increased female participation in the workforce.

According to McKinsey’s report, Women Matter, the gross domestic product (GDP) of the US is now about 25 per cent higher over the last four decades because of the women who have entered the labour force in that time.

Research by Goldman Sachs suggests that if the remaining gap between male and female employment rates were eliminated, it could boost GDP in the US by a further nine per cent. Eliminate the gap in the Eurozone and it would be a GDP increase of 13 per cent, and for Japan it will be a whopping 16 per cent increase.

So there has been a considerable body of research that sends a strong correlation between women in management positions in companies and corporate success in the marketplace of those companies. There is now a business case for women in senior positions.

And let’s face it, including women in leadership teams adds a diversity of attitudes, outlooks and experience. And greater diversity, I’ve always found, means the team is more likely to come up with new ideas, more creative approaches, and more exible thinking and responses to challenges.

My current goal in life – and I think we all should set goals from time to time – is to become the next Foreign Minister of Australia. If I am able to achieve that, I will become the first female in this country to hold that role. Once that barrier is broken, I expect and hope that other women will aspire to that position.

This is a theory I have: We have broken the glass ceiling with female premiers in a number of states, with female governors, a female Governor-General, and
of course our first female Prime Minister. And because those women have
broken through that glass ceiling, my theory, is that many more will follow.

While it would be a first for Australia to be a female Foreign Minister, in the field of international relations I have many outstanding role models as a number of countries have had a number of female leaders. I have looked particularly to the US, which has been represented by three outstanding women serving as Secretary of State – the equivalent of Foreign Minister here in Australia.

I look to these three as inspiration and have taken careful note of their leadership styles when it comes to dealing with the highly complex and challenging world of international relations. Two are from the Democrat side of politics, one from the Republican.

The first woman to hold the high office in the US was Madeleine Albright after receiving unanimous support from the US Senate when she was sworn in.

Albright was an unusual choice. She was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937 into the world of foreign affairs as her father Josef worked in the foreign service of his country. But in 1948, after a communist revolution, her father was sentenced to death. Her family was granted political asylum in the US when Albright was just 11 years old. So that was her welcome to the world of international relations.

Albright excelled academically; she gained qualifications in political science and international relations. Her working career involved stints on political campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, and she was appointed senior foreign policy adviser to Bill Clinton for hisfirst presidential campaign in 1992. Clinton later appointing her Ambassador to the United Nations.

But everything I have read about Madeleine Albright shows that she used her formidable networking skills to balance the three main groups in her sphere of influence – the United Nations of representatives from other countries in the US, the President and his staff, and the US public.

One of her first missions overseas as Secretary of State was to engage in Middle East peace negotiations and that included meetings with then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As they say, the more things change the more they stay the same. The current Secretary of State is often engaged in Middle East peace negotiations with the now Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Albright took the courageous decision to visit North Korea in 2000. And I don’t say it was brave because of fears for her personal safety, but because no other Secretary of State had visited North Korea, and we can muse whether it was her female leadership characteristics that led her to make the decision to try to extend the hand of friendship to North Korea.

While I have suggested that women bring particular abilities to leadership, I think actually getting the North Korean regime to cooperate as a responsible global citizen was still a step that was too far even for Madeleine Albright.

But it is to her great credit that Albright left offce in 2001 admired as much as when she assumed the position in 1997. She managed to exert the influence and power of the US without unnecessarily alienating others, and I would argue that her obvious high emotional intelligence was a key factor in her success.

In line with my theory that once a women has broken through the glass ceiling, the first pioneer is followed by others, it was only a few years later that the second woman to be appointed as US Secretary of State was sworn in, on 28 January 2005.

Condoleezza Rice had been President George Bush’s national security adviser from his inauguration in 2001 during a particularly tumultuous period in US and global events.

She was the first woman to hold that position of national security adviser and one can only imagine the stress and pressure on the role of national security adviser during and after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Reportedly, the Bush White House was staffed by a number of very dominant male advisers to the President, and Condoleezza Rice clashed repeatedly with them on a number of key decisions as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were being planned and executed.

Dr Rice was then appointed Secretary of State in 2005, the first African American woman. I had the pleasure and honour of meeting her in 2006, and I have long admired Dr Rice for her calm demeanour and her grace. Sure she was a woman but she was an African American woman. She had grown up in Alabama in the 1960s at a time when segregation, a form of apartheid, was still in place.

She credits her parents for instilling the confidence in her that while growing up and being subjected to segregation laws that, for example, prevented her from say buying a hamburger in a café that was reserved for white people, she could still, and did, aspire to one of the highest offices in the land.

It is amazing how often women credit the support of others for their success,  and I think that is a key element of successful leadership.

One of Rice’s colleagues once described her leadership style in the following terms: “I would say she is firm, which is maybe a nicer word for tough, and that is because she does her homework and she knows her position.”

One factor that made Dr Rice such a powerful Secretary of State is that she developed a close and enduring bond with the President and that was widely recognised within and outside the White House. No one had any doubt that when she spoke, it was with the authority of the President.

To me, that means that it was her ability to maintain a close working relationship with her superior, in this case the President, that underpinned her authority. I think there is a lesson in that. She was neither threatened nor intimidated and she used the relationship to build her own position of influence and independence.

A hallmark of her tenure was her relentless campaign to ease tensions created by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Condoleezza Rice was followed by the incumbent Hillary Clinton, the former First Lady of the US. As we know, Hillary showed enormous strength of character during her husband’s second term as President, when he faced impeachment after giving misleading testimony in relation to his very public affair with Monica Lewinsky. Just think what she must have been going through.

Bill Clinton had been a towering figure in US politics as a hugely popular President. So when Hillary Clinton sought the Democratic nomination for the Presidency in 2008, she began the contest as the overwhelming favourite but she was up against Barack Obama.

It was a fierce and occasionally bitter contest between the two, yet at the end of it Obama nominated Clinton to be his Secretary of State.

Clearly, Hillary Clinton was able to maintain a working relationship with what had been a bitter presidential rival, and despite the very strong contest, she did not alienate her opponents.

During her swearing in process, Clinton addressed the powerful US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where she said:

“… foreign policy must be based on a marriage of principles and pragmatism, not rigid ideology. On facts and evidence, not emotion or prejudice. Our security, our vitality, and our ability to lead in today’s world oblige us to recognise the overwhelming fact of our interdependence.



“… We must use what has been called ‘smart power’: the full range of tools at our disposal — diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural — picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation.

“ … With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy. This is not a radical idea. The ancient Roman poet Terence, who was born a slave and rose to become one of the great voices of his time, declared that ‘in every endeavour, the seemly course for wise men is to try persuasion first.’ The same truth binds wise women as well.

That Hillary Clinton chose a quote like that I think speaks to her emotional intelligence – that women try persuasion first – and that has given me quite an insight into her leadership style. She is proving a significant asset for the US as she travels the world as the number one diplomat.

And I have had the privilege of also meeting Secretary of State Clinton and discussing with her one of her passions, and that is the status of women worldwide. She argues that the status of women in a country is linked to that country’s economic fate. She has many examples to back up her thesis.

She has long argued that female participation in economies boosts the GDP, the competitiveness and the productivity of nations. She has been a champion of women’s rights as human rights. That she makes the economic case as well as the moral case for women’s rights speaks again of her emotional intelligence.

As Foreign Minister of Australia, I would seek to use the influence that comes with being Australia’s representative overseas, to help women in developing countries, to empower women particularly in our region and to build networks among the women leaders in our region so that we can work together to improve their communities and their societies through greater participation of women in every facet of their societies.

As Hillary’s husband Bill once said: “Women perform 66 per cent of the world’s work, produce 50 per cent of the food, yet earn only 10 per cent of the income, and own one per cent of the property.”

Next week I will be travelling to the Pacific – to the Solomon Islands,
Micronesia, Tuvalu and Samoa – to continue building networks with women in
those nations, nations where some of them have not had a female member of parliament at all in their history.

And I hope to encourage women to take on these challenges, to stand up and be counted, and take on a leadership role whether it be in their village, in their community or in their parliaments, just as Aung San Suu Kyi and others encouraged me to dedicate whatever energies and efforts I could muster to the betterment of my country by becoming a politician.

It is a challenge that still gets me out of bed every morning to get on with what political life has to offer each day with as much enthusiasm as I did when I rst entered federal politics.


1 Goman, CK 2011, ‘What men can learn from women about leadership in the 21st century’, The Washington Post, 10 August, accessible at:

www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-leadership/what-men-can-learn-from-women-about-leadership/2011/08/10/ gIQA4J9n6I_story.html