Six Essential Lessons for female leaders

In a rich conversation full of practical insights, former Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard and former Finance Minister of Nigeria Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala reflect on their experiences as women leaders in positions of global power — and share six standout lessons on what it takes to lead and build solidarity in the face of gender bias and stereotypes.

This talk was presented at an official TED conference and here is the link to the TED talk as well as the transcript. Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: 6 essential lessons for women leaders | TED Talk


Julia Gillard · 27th Prime Minister of Australia

An advocate for women’s leadership, the Honourable Julia Gillard was 27th Prime Minister of Australia.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala · Economist, international development expert

A respected global economist, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s parents instilled in her the value of service to others.


Julia Gillard: Ngozi, 10 years ago when I became prime minister of Australia, I assumed that at the start, there would be a strong reaction to me being the first woman, but it would abide over time and then I would be treated the same as every other Prime Minister had been. I was so wrong. That didn’t happen. The longer I governed, the more visible the sexism became. I don’t want any other woman to be blindsided like that. That’s why I’m so excited about working with you to help women get ready to lead in what is still a sexist world.

00:39 Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: I share that sense of excitement. After I was finance minister of Nigeria, I was overwhelmed by the number of women who wanted me to be their mentor. It is terrific that aspiring, young women are keen to learn from those who have gone before, but there are still too few female role models, especially women of colour. Now as a result of the work we have done together, I can offer everyone clear, standout lessons that are based not just on my own experience, but on the global research on women and leadership and the candid insights of leading women.

01:16 JG: One of the things to share is that there’s joy in being a leader — in having the opportunity to put your values into action. Emphasizing the positive makes a real difference to the power of role modelling. If we only focus on the sexist and negative experiences, women may decide that being a leader sounds so grim they don’t want to do it. On the other hand, if we pretend it’s all rosy and easy, women and girls can be put off because they decide leadership is only for superwomen who never have any problems. We all have to get the balance right, but Ngozi, it’s impossible to talk about role models right now without asking you: how does it make you feel to see Kamala Harris elected as vice president?

02:04 NOI: I’m delighted. It’s important to the aspiration of girls and women that they see role models they can relate to. Vice President-elect Harris is exactly that kind of role model, particularly for girls and women of colour. And every woman who steps forward makes more space for the women who come next.

02:25 JG: Of course both of us know from our own experiences that even when women get to the top, unfortunately, too much time and attention will be spent on what they look like rather than what they do and say. Ngozi, for women, is it still all about the hair?

02:43 NOI: Certainly, Julia. I laughed when Hillary Clinton said she envied my dress style, and particularly my signature scarf, so I don’t need to worry about my hair. Like many of our women leaders, I’ve effectively adopted a uniform. It’s a colourful one, it’s African, it’s me. I have developed my own style that I wear every day and I don’t vary from it. That has helped protect me from endless discussion of my appearance. It’s helped me to get people to listen to my words, not look at my clothes.

03:15 JG: Hillary told us she lost the equivalent of 24 full days of campaign time in the 2016 election getting her hair and makeup done every day. But actually, contemporary problems for women leaders go far deeper than anything to do with looks. I’d better warn you now, I’m about to use a word many people would find rude. My favourite funny moment in our travels was discussing “resting bitch face” with Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway. The global research shows that if a man comes across as strong, ambitious, even self-seeking, that’s fine, but if a woman does it, then the reactions against her can be as visceral as revulsion or contempt. They’re pretty mind-bogglingly strong words, aren’t they?

04:08 NOI: They certainly are, and women leaders talk about it intuitively, understanding that to be viewed as acceptable as a leader, they have to stay balanced on a tightrope between strength and empathy. If they come across as too tough, they’re viewed as hard and unlikeable. But if they come across as too soft, they seem to be lacking the backbone needed to lead.

04:31 JG: The problem is we still all have sexist stereotypes whirring in the back of our brains. I was portrayed as out of touch because I don’t have children. I was even compared to a barren cow in the bush, destined to be killed for hamburger mince.

04:47 NOI: That’s horrible that you faced that stereotype. While I was worried that people would think I couldn’t do my job when my family was young, I enjoyed talking to New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern about her experience as the second woman ever to have a child while being a national leader. I was very taken by her saying she doesn’t think she gets the work-life balance right, in the sense that she doesn’t like the word “balance,” and there’s always guilt. She just makes it work.

05:18 JG: Ngozi, where are men in this?

05:21 NOI: Hopefully, manning up. Men can more equitably share domestic and care work. They can point out sexism when they see it. They can make space for women and mentor and sponsor them. Given that men disproportionately still have the power, we won’t see change unless they work with us to create a world that will be better for men and women.

05:43 JG: Let’s talk about the “glass cliff” phenomenon. If a business or an organization is going well, then they’re likely to appoint a new leader who looks a lot like the old one — that is, a man. But if they are in difficulties, they decide it’s time to get someone quite different, and often reach for a woman. To take one example, Christine Lagarde became the first woman to lead the International Monetary Fund when it was in crisis after its former head was arrested for sexual assault. Ngozi, while not as dramatic as that, you know a bit about glass cliffs too.

06:20 NOI: I certainly do. I remember clearly being chosen, as a young woman, to lead a very problematic World Bank project in Rwanda. No one else wanted to lead it, lest they fail. So there was this attitude of “if she pulls it off, it’s OK. If she fails, then, well, she’s just a young African woman whose career doesn’t matter that much.” From that experience, I learned things about myself and leadership, and the biggest lesson we can share is this: if you have a sense of purpose that drives you, then aim high — become a leader. And make room as you go. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is fond of saying that there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support women. In this world, we need to be there for each other.

07:10 JG: There’s a bit of good news and bad news here. Certainly the research shows that the stereotype about the businesswoman who makes it to the top and then stops other women coming through isn’t borne out by the facts. The constraint seems to be that organizations think once they’ve got a woman or two, they don’t need to worry about gender anymore. But we do have to be frank — women do get pitted against other women for the limited number of seats at the table. We have to be wary of having our solidarity with each other eroded by these politics of scarcity. Instead, we should work together to change the rules that keep us at the margins.

07:54 NOI: So to summarize, our standout lessons are … Number one, there’s no right way to be a woman leader. Be true to yourself.

08:02 JG: Number two, we know that women leaders face sexism and stereotyping, so sit down with your mentors, sponsors, best supporters and friends and war-game. How are you going to deal with the gendered moments, with being judged on your appearance, with being assumed to be a bit of a bitch or with your family choices questioned? Forewarned is forearmed.

08:25 NOI: Number three, let everyone you know talking about gender stereotypes and debunking them: these false assumptions can’t survive being held up to the light of day.

08:36 JG: Number four, there are structural barriers too. Don’t wait until you need help balancing work and family life or to be fairly evaluated for promotion. Be a supporter of systems and changes that aid gender equality even if you don’t personally need them immediately.

08:55 NOI: Number five, don’t take a backwards step. Don’t shy away from taking up space in the world. Don’t assume you’re too junior or people are too busy. Reach out, network.

09:09 JG: That’s great advice, and leads us to the most important lesson of all — go for it. This is Number 6.

09:15 NOI: Yes, go for it.

09:18 JG: (Laughs) Thank you.

09:20 NOI: Thank you.