Gillard and Turnbull: a case study in gender bias in Australian media

A comparison of media coverage of Julia Gillard's and Malcolm Turnbull's ascent to Prime Minister reveals significant gender bias, according to research presented at UNSW on Wednesday. 

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Research found that 58 per cent of articles about Julia Gillard becoming Prime Minister discussed her gender, with 44 per cent insinuating her femininity was not prime ministerial. Photo: Flickr/Ed Dunens

Research presented at the Australian Political Studies Association (APSA) annual conference at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) on Wednesday has found significant gender bias in Australia’s political media.

The research from The Australian National University (ANU) involved a contextual analysis of media coverage relating to Julia Gillard’s and Malcolm Turnbull’s respective rises to the role of Prime Minister.

Researcher Blair Williams, a PhD candidate with the ANU School of Politics and International Studies, said 58 per cent of articles about Julia Gillard becoming Prime Minister discussed her gender, with 44 per cent insinuating her femininity was not prime ministerial.

“Gillard experienced an abundance of gendered criticism,” she said.

“Even some female journalists focused on her gender when they spoke about her positively, talking about her flawless skin or fashion.

“Whether it was negative or positive coverage it was always tied back to her gender, which is quite depressing.”

This was a stark contrast to Malcolm Turnbull’s rise to Prime Minister in similar circumstances.

“Turnbull didn’t experience nearly as much negativity as Gillard did,” Ms Williams said.

“Even negative stories about him didn’t mention his gender. Articles didn’t put him down because he is a man.

“With Turnbull, articles said he ‘claimed’ or ‘seized’ the role, whereas Gillard was portrayed as being a backstabber or as disloyal.

“Men are allowed to play the ‘Canberra Game’ of being ruthless, being aggressive, whereas women are reprimanded for doing so.”

Gillard had to work twice as hard to show that she belonged in that role, where Turnbull just automatically walked in there and was seen as the Prime Minister.

Ms Williams said her findings supported the theory that women are assumed to be naturally less competent than men.

“Gillard had to work twice as hard to show that she belonged in that role, where Turnbull just automatically walked in there and was seen as the Prime Minister,” she said.

Ms Williams has undertaken previous research that shows media coverage of Julia Gillard has led to young women feeling less inclined to enter politics or take on leadership positions.

The research analysed 380 articles from three prominent Australian newspapers.