I acknowledge that we meet today on the traditional land of the Ngunnawal people and pay my respect to their elders past, present and emerging.
It is a pleasure to be with you this morning to discuss a topic that is close to my heart - women’s leadership – particularly at a time when our community both at home and globally is looking for certainty, for direction. Now, perhaps more than ever we are craving clear brave leadership.
I want to start however with a little about myself and then to share a few of my reflections on leadership.
As a feminist, I recognise that nobody gets here alone.
I wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t for the fight of those came before me to see women represented in Parliament.
The first woman, Millicent Preston-Stanely was elected to the NSW lower house in 1925.
Yet despite 100 years of women being lawfully able to run for election I am only the 58th woman to be elected.
I was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly as the member for Summer Hill in 2015 at the age of 33, after serving as the Mayor of Marrickville, which is in Sydney’s inner west.
I am also a Mum. I had my first child before my first election and had twins just before my last.
I have recently been appointed as the Shadow Minister for Active Transport, Seniors and Volunteers and Cost of Living and I’m incredibly proud to be a part of the new Shadow Cabinet comprising of 50% women - led by powerhouses Jodi McKay and her deputy Yasmin Catley.
An all-female leadership team is still an unusual sight but one that I hope my daughter and all girls grows up to see as common place.
For women in politics there is no accepted standard, no mould made to fit into or rule book to follow.
And today I’m not going to set out a vision for the ideal way of being a female leader – I think that’s nonsense.
Something I’m sure is familiar to all of you as public policy professionals is that very few things in life are straight-forward or tidy.
We all know that life is full of ambiguity, shades of grey and contradictions and successful leadership is about navigating your way through that uncertainty, and finding your own way of doing it.
I grapple with those contradictions on a regular basis because while I’m a proud feminist, and will always call out sexism, at the end of long day I love nothing more than putting on my uggs and settling in for an episode of The Batchelor.
Now for a few statistics.
In NSW women account for the majority of government sector employees at 65% but only 36% hold senior leadership roles.
On a federal level a recent Lowy Institute study found a severe gender imbalance across department agencies within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Australia has never had a female ambassador or high commissioner to Jakarta, Tokyo, London or Washington DC - some of our countries most crucial allies.
A woman has never been selected to head any major foreign policy, defence, intelligence, or trade white paper or independent review.
In politics, only 3 countries have 50 percent or more female representation in the lower house. Rwanda, Cuba and Bolivia.
In the parliament where I sit of the 135 members, only 45 are women. That’s 33 percent.
So why aren’t we at 50 percent?
As always there is no single answer. The position we find ourselves in today is a results of a multitude of factors that have compounded over generations.
As I see it, one explanation is that women in leadership positions have to deal with a series of tensions about how they conduct themselves when they have seniority and are leading people.
Generally these are tensions that do not keep our male counterparts up at night.
Research recently published in the Harvard Business Review identifies four paradoxes – the catch 22’s - women in power are culturally subjected to in the workplace.
I find these useful to consider and I’m sure some or all of them are going to be immediately familiar to you.
1. Be demanding yet caring - Women in power are expected to demand high quality work while equally caring about those executing it. It’s the requirement to be demanding while projecting the maternal caring role society expects of us.
2. Be assertive but not too assertive - Women leaders are expected to be both authoritative and collaborative, to model their assertive style after male tropes, prove their competency and ‘toughen up’ – all while skirting the issue of being too aggressive. Women instead must ensure that their asks are participatory and collaborative while ensuring their authority is listened to and respected.
3. Advocating for themselves yet serving others - Women leaders must manager their own goals while being a team player. This can be seen in the way women often skill up and knowledge share but this often goes unreciprocated or can see men get credit for women’s work.
4. Be approachable but maintain distance - Studies have found that women often isolate themselves in office settings to give the appearance of authority. To generate respect women, tend to distance themselves from others, to mark themselves as serious, professional and objective. Tactics such as these often results in perpetuating cultural norms of women in power as being rigid, stiff and ego centric.
The tensions which this research describes exist because as we know the world of work hasn’t been designed for women by women.
The cultural norms of leadership remain more aligned with the male view of the world and male behaviours.
Men have had the legacy of time.
They see themselves reflected is every aspect of our day to day lives.
The roadmap of how they should act in positions of power is built into them from a young age.
There is not criticism of aggression or drive, no need for them to consider the paradoxes of power that women face.
When women break through the glass ceiling, there is an expectation that they engage in transformational leadership, seeking to inspire and build up those around them.
Unlike men, the expectation for women to grow and foster new talent especially young women is often an added expectation.
And while this can be an extra burden it can also be one of the most rewarding features of female leadership.
This is a role I choose to take on with great enthusiasm in helping young women navigate and progress through my own political party.
I encourage women to take chances, put themselves forward at every opportunity.
Be this the young women who have come through my office just starting out their careers, or supporting and mentoring up and coming women in the party to fulfil their political and personal ambitions.
I have been the beneficiary this type of support over the years and continue to call on the important women in my professional life for advice, to test ideas or just check in.
I got to see up close how incredibly hard and isolating it can be at the top when I worked as a director in the office of our first female Prime Minister. I will be forever thankful to Julia Gillard, for the sacrifices she made for our country and for the path she made for women.
She always made time. Even on the very crappiest of days. To check in.
Politics is not always an inclusive space, the hours are long, the political fights lengthy and heated. In the wake of social media and the treatment of women in politics by the conservative press I fear that women might see this current political climate and choose not to engage, not to lean in and choose to not fight for their beliefs.
While women remain underrepresented in politics, fortunately we do have some wonderful recent role models to provide inspiration like Julia Gillard, Jacinda Arden, Julie Bishop, Jenny Macklin, Tanya Plibersek and others.
And those leaders demonstrate that there are many different ways to be a successful leader.
You can have the Julia Gillard’s of the world - The Negotiators.
Those who have a steely disposition, the prime minister who dug in against the onslaught of sexism and bile that the media threw at her and who legislated the most policy of any prime minister, all while operating from minority government.
While Julia received a lot of media criticism, on any measure she was an incredibly effective and productive Prime Minister.
Regularly I recall that when other Members thought all hope was lost on gaining the numbers for a particular piece of controversial legislation, she would be able to pull the polarised players into her office over a cuppa and find a way through. She was an incredible negotiator.
Her ability to instantly and naturally recall details, everything from the figures, the complex policy nuance and interaction, though to the personal - what was important for each player round the table - was incredible.
Time and time again I would see Members of the crossbench concede ground that others though would never be possible. They felt listen to, respected and brought into be a part of a change making vision that she was creating with them.
Julia was a trailblazer; I speak to women who constantly mention the inspiration that Julia was. Not only are these women able to quote the misogyny speech verbatim, but they talk of finally seeing themselves represented.
Like many great leaders Julia had many gears – a great negotiator, but when she needed to be she was one hell of a fighter.
Some comment that women shouldn’t have to play politics like the boys do in order to get ahead, to take on male traits of aggressive, argumentative tactics to get their voices heard. I agree with this.
But we should also never seek to denigrate those who do like to get in amongst the fray, who can aggressively argue and win.
Then you can have the Jacinda Ardern’s of the world - Empathetic and decisive.
Jacinda has been praised for bringing empathy back to politics, in a time of increasing polarisation in politics and a focus on difference rather than what people have in common.
Jacinda’s recent welfare budget sought to support the most vulnerable in society by providing increased funding to mental health services, tackling child poverty and domestic violence.
After Christchurch, the role she played was one of healer for her nation. I remember watching and hearing her as gave such a simple yet caring message. They are us. Her language was about inclusion and connectedness, not fear and division.
Some have tried to equate Jacinda’s empathetic approach to politics as innate to her gender, but I think here we encounter another one of the tensions of female leadership.
Jacinda Ardern is an expert political operator on a global and domestic scale. Her abilities and her success are not a function merely of her gender. They reflect a great deal of skill and experience.
Further, empathy should never be a quality we only assign to women in a maternalistic fashion, it should be an expectation we place on all leaders.
But the truth is that it is female leaders are doing the most to role model leading with empathy.
When women see themselves reflected, their issues represented, we can begin to diversify the narrowness with which female leadership has been categorised and break down gendered assumptions associated with it.
And if you ask me this is why its so important to have 50% women leaders in parliament and other areas of government.
My style of leadership is not the same as my colleagues, and the issues that I champion may be different.
There is no one kind of woman, so how can there be just one kind of woman leader?
This is gift that strong female representation offers, the gift to define your own leadership.
While the boys club that is politics is very much still here Labor women have been making strides through the establishment of quotas and networks like Emily’s list which have fundamentally shaped and changed the face of politics.
Such strides see that women are not only given a seat at the table, but that we lead those conversations.
I think of some of the historic achievements by recent Labor Governments that happened because women were pushing for reform – the NDIS, needs based funding for education, equal pay agreements for the community sector.
I recall the former Minister for Families Jenny Macklin saying as the number of women around the cabinet table increased making your arguments gets easier.
But more importantly as the number of women increases every policy discussion includes a perspective on how half our population will be affected.
Equality is clearly in our collective interests but how do we build women up together?
How do we take down the structural barriers that stifle our career trajectory?
I want to leave you with 6 thoughts.
1. Mentor and leave the ladder down - women in senior positions should take the time to mentor and support women around us and young women starting out their careers. Take them for coffee, ask them what their ambitions are, what their work-life, balance is like.
2. Create policies that aid women- Create and advocate for policies which allow for flexible work schedules, greater benefits for working parents, paid domestic violence leave and affirmative action plans. All these have a profound impact not only on women but on shaping an inclusive work culture for all.
3. Paid parental leave - doesn’t just apply to women - Currently only 1 in 20 of men take paid parental leave in Australia. The main government scheme, Dad and Partner Pay, provides two weeks at minimum wage. Over half of employers surveyed by the workplace gender equality agency, do not provide paid primary carer's leave in addition to the government's schemes. We need to have conversations both in the workplace and in society that result in men taking more time off work to raise their children.
4. Break down the assumptions that women don’t know what they are doing - both in yourself and in others. As women we know when to ask for help, we know when to take charge – we just need to do it. Yes, this is the ‘lean in’ reminder – but for me its always worth repeating.
5. Hire women - Being a woman and hiring woman can often result in criticism of favouring your own. I would ask men in senior positions if they have ever noticed how often they hire people that look just like them?
6. Women are your greatest allies not your greatest threats - In workplaces where women are the minority, competitiveness can sometimes get the best of us. Remember that women are your greatest allies. Build them up and support their ideas.
These are just my top six – but I know there will be many more ideas floated and discussed at this 13th Annual Public Sector Women’s leadership Conference – in the sessions and in corridor conversations.
Thank you for inviting me along today to share my thoughts and I wish you all the very best negotiating the ambiguities and finding your style of leadership.