Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Processing power through partnership and collaboration

Feb 3, 2021 | Politics, Commentary, Democracy, Leadership, Feature

The contrasting models of demagoguery and democracy flared spectacularly over the Australian summer as the world witnessed the frenzied dying days of the Trump Presidency as it gave way to an orderly transition to a new administration delivered by a system working exactly as designed – checked and balanced by a separation of powers diffusing authority and blocking dictatorial rule.

But the demagogic turmoil of the previous four years perhaps impressed upon the new incumbents President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and their fellow Americans the need to exercise power differently, that its personal exercise requires inclusion, collaboration, separation and constraint too.

With Australia and the US culturally and constitutionally allied there are relevant local insights to be drawn from the cauldron of the Trump interregnum and its aftermath that we would do well to reflect on. Take for example Rabbi Shoshana Cohen’s flash of rabbinic wisdom ascribing one of the biggest assets of the new Presidency to Biden’s lack of ego and charisma. Rather than projecting himself as new saviour to lift everyone up, as may have been the case with Clinton and Obama’s respective styles, Biden’s personality allows for a new form of leadership through partnership and collaboration.  His choice of Kamala Harris as Vice President underlines this sharing of power and openness to fresh approaches and perspectives. This is reinforced further by the Biden-Harris cabinet, an unprecedented mix of women, people of colour and individuals of varied backgrounds and life experiences all bringing a richer picture of power being exercised by a variety of people, collectively.

Biden’s personality allows for a new form of leadership through partnership and collaboration.

In addition to the importance of varied experiences informing public policy design, so too are the ways in which people exercise their power; the way they treat their colleagues.  This is central to a more equal and inclusive working environment where all people feel listened to and free to contribute.

Australia can learn from Joe Biden’s inclusive approach.

Caroline Criado Perez writes in Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, that the unpalatable truth is that it is still considered “unladylike” for women to exhibit ambition to power, to be a political, or a corporate leader.  A powerful woman is experienced as a “norm violation” due to the history of under-representation of women in visible leadership roles across education, media, activism, the arts as well as in politics and in the board room.  The people we see lauded as great leaders are predominantly men, with a particular singular representation of leadership as power through one great leader.

Even the charming, easy and urbane Obama recognised too late in the piece that female staffers often withdrew into silence while senior male staff batted out their strong opinions. And members of his Cabinet too often felt unheeded and under-appreciated.  His Vice President may now have discovered the antidote.

It has been widely reported that when Biden delivered a video conference address to his staff after his inauguration, he stated “If you’re ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot.”  He also acknowledged that he was going to make mistakes and “when I make them, I’ll acknowledge them and I’ll tell you and I’ll need your help to help me correct them. We’re not going to walk away; we’re going to take responsibility.”

Biden’s words disclose a trickle-down leadership model.

Biden’s words disclose a trickle-down leadership model. Institutions ripple with the values and norms of those who lead them and how they conceive of their leadership.  Their leadership style flows down to the people who report to them, and as their delegates, implement and effect the decisions. Ultimately, we then see it in each of us, in how we treat one another in our workplaces and in our homes – for ultimately power in every sphere is relational – and our relationships are central to who we are as human beings.

Julie Payette, Canada’s Governor General, has been accused of bullying.

Bullying and harassment in workplaces, whether it be in government or in the private sector often reflects unhealthy power imbalances.  While over-represented in men, bullying behaviour is not their sole preserve – as seen recently with Canadian Governor General Julie Payette and her secretary, Assunta di Lorenzo, resigning after an outside workplace review found they presided over a toxic work environment.  It is in systems that set up clear hierarchies of power without accountability that the potential for such abuse can occur – but representations of shared power, and shared responsibility amongst different styles of leadership and life experience is one way of addressing these issues.

It is in systems that set up clear hierarchies of power without accountability that the potential for abuse can occur

The image of power and who is exercising it is fundamental, of course, but it is also critically about the consequences of power flowing from people of diverse backgrounds making and influencing key decisions.  A notable US example happened when a Democratic and Republican legislator drafted from their joint experience new measures for female combat wear.  Senator Tammy Duckworth, a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel and helicopter pilot who served in Afghanistan, co-authored with Senator Joni Ernst, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard, provisions requiring the military to provide properly fitting body armour for female service members, and to develop centralised reporting on the injuries caused by years of requiring women to wear ill-fitting ballistic protection.  In similar vein, our colleague at the University of Canberra, Dr Celeste Coltman, is currently working with Australia’s defence to determine the need for female specific body armour systems.  This is a metaphor for all aspects of our world, designed by and for men, and how we need to work towards a more inclusive environment that takes into account not only varying body shapes, but lived experiences based on our gendered environments.

Just a few months ago a debate simmered here in Canberra about the new statue of Andrew Inglis Clark, one of the framers of the Australian Constitution, now standing proudly outside the recently completed Constitution Place complex. Clark is known to those who study the Australian constitution as a framer who drew upon the United States’ constitution’s experiences in our Constitution’s drafting.

Senator Tammy Duckworth co-authored a report on body armour for women.

Our community, however, is less aware of Catherine Helen Spence, the first woman to run for an elected position in Australia, when she sought to represent South Australia at the People’s Conventions of the 1890s, charged with drafting the Constitution. If elected she may well have voiced similar proposals to those of Clark. Spence was an enthusiast for electoral reform after reading J. S. Mill’s review of Thomas Hare’s system of proportional representation. In 1861 she wrote, printed (at her brother’s expense) and distributed A Plea for Pure Democracy. Mr. Hare’s Reform Bill Applied to South Australia and in 1892 she propounded the modified Hare-Spence system as the only way of attaining truly proportionate representation of political parties.  Perhaps Clark read her pamphlet for as attorney-general in Tasmania in 1896, he succeeded in amending the Electoral Act by extending the franchise and introducing in Hobart and Launceston proportional representation under what became known, in his honour, as the Hare-Clark system.

The debate around Clark’s statue centres around the fact that only 4% of statues honour women around the country – perhaps Catherine Helen Spence’ statue could be placed by Clark’s side to impress on us that contributions are necessarily collaborative and often rely on inspiration of many people’s stories who are presently less well known.

Australians should again reflect, like Clark, about what is positive to take from the US experience.  This attention to the variety of perspectives and contributions for a vision of collaborative leadership in the US is seen too in the newly announced White House Gender Policy Council, an effort said to be aimed at advancing the country toward gender equality as the administration works to build the “nation back better.” In the spirt of leadership as partnership, the council will be co-chaired by Jennifer Klein, chief strategy and policy officer at TIME’S UP, and Julissa Reynoso, the incoming assistant to the president and chief of staff to Dr Jill Biden, who also previously served as the U.S. ambassador to Uruguay under former President Obama. Co-chairing or shared leadership is a mission that we, as Co-Directors of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra, are committed to amplifying and promoting. Projecting leadership as partnership and collaboration is central to making equality, and the sharing of power in all aspects of all people’s lives, real and not just an ideal.

Professor Kim Rubenstein and Trish Bergin are Co-Directors of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation in the Faculty of Business, Government and Law at the University of Canberra. This article first appeared in the Canberra Times.

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Kim Rubenstein is a Professor in the Faculty of Business Government and Law at the University of Canberra, which has supported the production of the new podcast series It’s not just the vibe, It’s the Constitution. She is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law and the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

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