Never mind the men, will mums take to Gillard

Australia's new Prime Minister is used to male sexism, but the 'soccer moms' could be a problem

Julia Gillard is tough, engaging, talented and driven. But will she appeal to "soccer mums"? That is one of the questions being asked this weekend as Australians get used to their first female prime minister.

Propelled into the top job after Kevin Rudd was ousted by his own Labor Party, Ms Gillard must win an election later this year if she wishes to avoid being a historical footnote. And while she is popular, particularly among women, there is one constituency that worries some Labor figures: the mothers of Middle Australia.

The thing is, Ms Gillard, 48, is childless. What is more, she is unmarried. She lives with her boyfriend, a former hairdresser. By her own admission, she cannot cook. She is suspected of being an atheist – possibly even a feminist. All these attributes, so the argument goes, could harm the party's prospects in key marginal seats.

The girl from the Welsh valleys shrugs that off. She has already encountered plenty of sexism, within her own party as well as from political opponents. Twice rejected as a Labor candidate, she has been on the receiving end of chauvinist jibes – as well as much scrutiny of her private life and appearance – since entering parliament in 1998.

A conservative backbencher, Bill Heffernan, dismissed her as "deliberately barren", and thus unfit for leadership, while the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, claimed she lacks "broader lifetime experience".

Ms Gillard, whose family migrated from Wales when she was four, cheerfully admits that her culinary repertoire consists of "toast, and cheese on toast". She has answered her critics by being charming and unflappable, and by excelling in the political arena.

"She has been very clever," says Pru Goward, a former sex discrimination commissioner, now a state conservative MP. "Where other women [politicians] have got caught up in debates about what they look like, Julia has always been able to demonstrate by her management of political issues, and the way she has conducted herself, that it's irrelevant. She has avoided being defined by her femaleness."

At the election, which Ms Gillard has promised to call "within months", Australians will face an intriguing choice: between a left-wing, socially progressive woman and – in Tony Abbott – a right-wing, staunchly Catholic man who opposes abortion.

Considering that it was the second country (after New Zealand) to give white women the vote, Australia has waited a long time for a female leader, although most of the states have had at least one woman at the helm. Over 30 per cent of state and federal MPs are female. But they are under-represented in the higher echelons of business, the military and the public service.

Australia is ranked number 20 in the World Economic Forum's gender equality index, behind Sri Lanka, Lesotho and the Philippines. "We're an incredibly sexist country. We have a very blokey culture," says Anne Summers, a leading feminist academic. However, Ms Summers believes significant progress has been made. "I can't imagine even 10 years ago it would have been remotely possible for someone 'living in sin' to become leader of the country."

Astonishingly, Australia still has no paid maternity leave. A scheme is due to be introduced next year, thanks partly to Ms Gillard's intervention.

Commentators say voters should expect few changes to Canberra politics. As Ms Gillard said: "[There used to be a view that], if only there were more women in politics, it would be a more caring environment. I always thought that was bloody nonsense. One of the things I have always wanted to show is that it doesn't matter whether you are a man or a woman; you can thrive in an adversarial environment."

Pru Goward says: "We all dream of the day when we have a woman prime minister who has been able to have children as well as a career. But this is not a bad start."

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