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Is life easier for the second woman in a leadership position?

/ Apr 05, 2013 8:51AM / Print / ()

Julia Gillard addresses Foreign Correspondents Association

A man in a suit: that's what many Australians still expect the leader of the country to look like, according to Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Yep, after three and half years of seeing a woman in the top job, Gillard believes the country is still getting used to the idea of a female prime minister. She told an audience in Sydney yesterday that she's faced plenty of "awkward moments" being a woman in her role, and that it'll be easier for our second and third female PM.

This is always the hope with trailblazing. It's the idea that once one woman achieves a position all these new possibilities open up for the rest of us. Not only does she take the job for the first time, but she also forces those she leads or manages to confront their own expectations of a leader.

It may be the hope, but it's not always the reality, especially when attempting to break years of tradition and blaze a path already littered with hostilities. If Gillard's right in her belief that even after so many years Australians are still not ready for a female PM (and they'll be plenty of debate on whether she's simply playing "the gender card"), then our second and third PM may find life just as difficult.

But that's the PM's job – where there's only one job available. What about elsewhere? Is it ever easier for the second woman who takes on a leadership position?

It certainly makes it easier for the rest of us to aspire to such positions and believe such opportunities exist, thereby potentially widening the pool of talent available. As recent research from Chief Executive Women found, women need to see other women in leadership positions in order to believe they're working with supportive employers.

Women in top jobs not only adjust the idea of what's expected of such leaders, but can use their diverse style and leadership to encourage more change from within and clear the path for more women to come up the ranks behind them.

But when witnessing a woman facing a difficult time in a top job – or requiring seemingly impossible attributes in order to cope – achieving such a first could also backfire.

As such, we need more than just one woman. We need a diverse range of women to make the difference -- women with kids, women without kids, women with a unique range of leadership traits, women of different ages, cultures and experience.

Often we discuss a "tipping point" when considering the current state of women on boards. One woman on a board is a step forward -- and there are still 47 boards in the ASX 200 that have still not even taken that step –-- but two, three and four women will really drive change. We saw some recognition of this from the Australian Olympic Commission yesterday, which appointed three women to its 12-person board. The new additions join two women on the existing board, bringing its female ratio to something closer to 50%.

One woman may break the mould. But multiple women will shift the balance and our expectations on what we perceive as a "normal" leader, while also truly ensuring more diversity of thought in decision-making. The Gillard government currently holds the record for the largest proportion of women on the frontbench following a parade of recent resignations – a swing that's likely to shift back the other way should the Coalition be elected later this year.

We could be waiting a long time before seeing if our second female PM enjoys an easier time and if, as Gillard suggested yesterday, everyone really does "get over it and forget about it".

What do you think? Is life easier for the second and third woman in a leadership position?

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