Julia Gillard has said women are being dissuaded from pursuing a career in politics because of abuse and threats online.
The former Australian prime gave the keynote address at the #MoreInCommon event discussing women in politics and public life, held at the Royal Society for the encouragement of arts, manufactures and commerce in London on Tuesday.
The event was held in honour of the Labour MP Jo Cox, who was killed in her West Yorkshire constituency in June.
Other speakers were John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, and the MP Yvette Cooper, who founded the cross-party Reclaim the Internet campaign after Cox’s death.
Gillard said news of Cox’s death left her “saddened, stricken and shuddering about what this said about our world”.
She said that she believed politics to be a “noble calling, not a grubby, necessary evil”, and called on more women to pursue a career in public life.
“But ... understand that you will encounter sexism and misogyny and prepare yourself to face it and ultimately to eradicate it.”
Asked to give “an honest account of the reality of being in politics”, Gillard detailed the gender discrimination she had encountered as prime minister, including criticism over her clothing and the fact she was not a mother.
She said that on several occasions she had been the only woman in a boardroom, “apart perhaps from a woman serving coffee or food”.
Gillard said it was “galling” to read a description of her outfit in a October 2010 report in Fairfax of her meeting the leader of Nato to discuss the strategy for the war in Afghanistan.
“The article was written by a female journalist. It apparently went without saying that [Nato header Anders] Mr Rasmussen was wearing a suit.”
Gillard singled out another Fairfax report of her meeting with Hillary Clinton, then-US secretary of state, that had seven paragraphs about their hairstyles.
That was at the “very benign end” of the spectrum of hostility she, Clinton and now the British prime minister, Theresa May, faced as a result of their pursuing a career in public life, Gillard said.
“Beyond sexism, there are other very real risks that women in public life must face, and I fear those are much greater than they were when I commenced my own journey into public life.”
She said abuse and violent threats online had become more common since she was prime minister, with women in public view receiving them “almost daily”.
“Our community would not consider it acceptable to yell violent, sexually-charged abuse at a female politician walking down the street. Why is it okay to let these voices ring so loudly in our online worlds?
“We don’t yet know to what extent online abuse translates into physical violence. But I am certain the connection is real, that women feel and fear it, and that it is preventing women from standing up and serving in public life.”
A Guardian Australia analysis in June found that Gillard received about twice as much abuse on Twitter as Kevin Rudd, who she deposed as prime minister.
Gillard believed politics to be a “noble calling, not a grubby, necessary evil”. But she said the volume of online abuse deterred other women from pursuing a career in public life.
She encouraged women contemplating politics to “go for it … But as you forge ahead, understand that you will encounter sexism and misogyny and prepare yourself to face it and ultimately to eradicate it.”