“Not a very natural shot really,” Gillard deadpans.
There is nothing, we joke, “natural” about these virtual pandemic-era lunches.
Gillard has served her soup – she holds the bowl up to the camera – with a dollop of Greek yoghurt and chilli flakes “to give it a bit of a pop”.
“I’m very impressed with myself,” she quips. “If the truth is told I am not much of a cook.”
It is precisely this sort of admission that might have been seized upon during Gillard’s time in politics to extrapolate that she somehow lacked nurturing skills or was out of touch.
In 2005, a now-infamous photograph of Gillard in her spotless Altona kitchen with an empty “fruit bowl” became a national talking point and a metaphor for her childlessness. A News Limited article would later describe it as the first of 29 moments that led to her downfall: “Her empty fruit bowl translates in the public consciousness as symbolic of a single career woman.”
The furore felt ridiculous at the time, Gillard says, and “with the benefit of hindsight has become evermore comedic in my mind, just laugh out loud silly”.
“As I have constantly said since … it’s not a fruit bowl. It’s actually a decorative glass bowl with a sort of sea design at the base of it and it looks better if you can see that. Even so, history will record it for all time as a fruit bowl.”
It may have been ridiculous but the Great Fruit Bowl Scandal of 2005 is emblematic of the relentless sexism and misogyny that Gillard weathered throughout her political career.
There was the Liberal National Party fundraiser in 2013 when she was prime minister of the country. Menu: “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box”.
Gillard was “Bob Brown’s bitch” and a witch who should be ditched, according to placards at an anti-carbon tax rally in 2011.
Senator Bill Heffernan said she was “deliberately barren”.
Shock jock Alan Jones referred to her ad nauseam as Ju-liar, someone who made her father die of shame and should be put in a chaff bag and thrown out to sea.
Gillard was aware of just how gendered her treatment was at the time. “It was impossible to not be aware of it when people are holding up signs and shouting insults from the public gallery during question time.” But she always had the whisper of Paul Keating in her ear – “there is not a day to waste” – and her relentless focus was on driving the next policy reform.
It is only now, in her life post-politics, that Gillard has had the time to delve into the research of what she calls in a chapter of her memoir My Story “the curious question of gender”.
This research (or lack thereof) inspired Gillard to successfully pitch the idea of a Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College in London. (There is also now a sister institute at the Australian National University.)
It has also informed her latest book, Women in Leadership, which is co-written with former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. (The two leaders met at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2011, which Gillard chaired. In an amusing anecdote in the book, Okonjo-Iweala recounts having to explain to colleagues what it meant when Gillard’s biographical notes said she had a partner not a husband.)
The pair test their own experiences and those of eight female leaders – including Hillary Clinton, Theresa May and Jacinda Ardern – against academic research on leadership and gender.
“Ngozi and I are not gender studies academics but we have thoughtfully looked at the research … and we did want to see if it held true in women’s lives,” Gillard says.
This hypotheses testing is then distilled into standout lessons for all aspiring female leaders. Some of these are sobering.
Lesson one, for example, is that while leadership might not be “all about the hair”, sadly judgements about women are still based more on their appearance than is true for men.
Gillard recalls with frustration visiting a shopping plaza within days of becoming prime minister and all the media coverage focusing on her coat jacket, which one “fashion expert” sniffed resembled a “cheap motel bedspread”. She now wonders whether she should have called this sexism out earlier and asked the media pack, “Is it always going to be like this?” “Maybe we could have started the debate we needed to have.”
Just as Clinton developed a “uniform” of pantsuits, Gillard honed “a pretty standard look so people weren’t talking about the clothing”.
Even this didn’t always work.
In 2012 radical feminist Germaine Greer – author of the groundbreaking The Female Eunuch, which challenged a woman’s traditional role in society – commented on national TV that Gillard had a ‘‘big arse’’ and should ‘‘get rid of those bloody jackets’’.
“We talk about the Germaine Greer moment in the book, causing Ngozi to joke that in Nigeria I would be viewed as too skinny to marry her son, which is kind of cute,” Gillard says. “I am obviously someone who grew up admiring Germaine Greer, she was the leading Australian feminist, the one whose voice was heard around the world as I was coming up through the ranks, so I was frustrated by that comment. I thought it didn’t reflect well on her … it didn’t help me, it didn’t really help the cause of women in politics.”
The book also explores the hypothesis that having children and being a leader plays out differently for women than it does for men.
And it warns that a childless woman can be diminished as “out of touch”.
Theresa May – who was publicly candid about the fact she and her husband wanted children but were unable to have them – says in the book she was largely treated respectfully by the media about being childless.
On the other hand Gillard was criticised by Senator Bill Heffernan for choosing to remain “deliberately barren” and therefore having no idea what life is about.
“I think my treatment here was differential because it was seen not as a physical constraint but as a choice I had made,” Gillard says.
Gender politics expert Blair Williams notes that Women in Leadership “is, at times, a depressing reality check that feminism still has a long way to go”.
Did they worry about scaring women off?
“Yes, we did,” Gillard says. “We have a whole chapter in which we unpack the role modelling riddle, where the research shows if women leaders are crystal clear about the difficulties, that can put women off. At the same time if women leaders are like: ‘It’s all fine, nothing to see here … it has never deterred me’, then women looking at her can think: ‘She is superwoman, she is nothing like me’, and that puts them off.”
Ultimately, Gillard says, their message is “go for it!” “But forewarned is forearmed.”
No-one was more astonished than Gillard when her 2012 misogyny speech – “I will not be lectured to about sexism and misogyny by that man (Tony Abbott)” – went viral. It’s since been sung by award-winning choir The Australian Voices and led to the Macquarie Dictionary updating its definition of the word “misogynist” from “hatred of women” to “entrenched prejudice against women”.
“It does continue to get new life including an iteration on (video sharing app) TikTok,” Gillard says.
“I’m glad the speech still talks to them (young women) but more than anything else I am glad they are assertive about wanting to change that world.”
Julia Gillard is a guest at Melbourne Writers Festival, August 7-16, mwf.com.au.Women and Leadership, by Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Penguin), is available now.
Jewel Topsfield is Melbourne Editor of The Age.