Meaning

In their own words - Women in leadership

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Linda Kristjanson

 


If 50% of our workforce is not able to contribute all of their talents optimally, then the whole nation suffers.

1. Could you tell us about your current role and how you got to where you are?

I am the Vice-Chancellor at Swinburne University and the President of the University. I report to the University Council, responsible for all aspects of the strategic direction and operation of the University. It is a complex business and we are focussed on delivering outcomes in higher education, vocational education, training, and research. We have seven campuses, six of them in Melbourne, and one in Malaysia. We educate around 60,000 students, with programs that range from certificates all the way through to PhDs. We are primarily focused in the science, technology, business, design and innovation space, with world-class expertise in social sciences and public policy. We are recognised as one of the top 400 Universities in the world. And just to give you some perspective on this statistic, there are approximately 15,000 universities in the world, so that puts us in the top 3%. I’ve been in this role for 18 months. I came to this through a 30 year career, primarily in health science education and research.

2. Is this the career path that you envisaged for yourself?

No it wasn’t. People have often asked me, how did you chart your career and your path? Looking back, it looks as if there was a plan. I think the phrase I use most often, is “I simply followed the onward journey”. I think I knew I’d find myself in some kind of leadership role, in whatever I did. It’s been part of my personality and part of the way I like to work. I like to be in roles that allow me to make things happen, and to create innovative solutions, but I didn’t have this specific role in mind.

My grandparents emigrated from Iceland to Canada, so they were first generation Canadians. My father couldn’t speak English when he went to school, but the message was always, ‘get an education and make a difference. The goal was always to undertake a career and work that was going to make a contribution. My mother was deeply committed to social causes and reinforced through her own actions that we should contribute to the well-being of others.

3. Have there been any compromises along the way that you’ve had to make?

I don’t think I’ve thought of my pathway as including a lot of compromise. I think that we are all living in choice. I have always had choices I’ve had to make about the pathways available to me. I think I’ve always chosen the path that would stretch me; one that would invite me to the next opportunity; one that was exciting, one that was challenging.

A defining choice I had to make was how to combine family with career. One of the reasons I was able to do it as effectively as I could, was because I lived in a country that had paid maternity-leave 25 years ago. Quality childcare was also accessible. I was therefore able to maintain my employment and incorporate my family life with my work aspirations.

Having said this, life was chock-full and I had to make choices about how I used my energies and my time. At one stage when the children were little, chances are, if you didn’t live or work with me you wouldn’t have seen me for a while. That was because I was so busy doing what I had to do – with family and work as my two top priorities.

My husband has been a full co-parent and we have taken a “team approach’ to our roles as parents and our professional roles. You learn to multi-task, let go of perfection, let go of gender-stereotypes in terms of who does what, and ask for help to make things happen. I look back at that period of early child-rearing while working as a very enjoyable time in my life. And although life was very full – I think blending both parts strengthened me in many ways.

My children are young adults now – both accomplished, kind and creative people who have enriched my life. I am indeed fortunate.

4. How would you define success?

I’ve never shaped my life based upon a need to be successful. Frankly, it is a word I haven’t used very much at all. For me, I have focused on having a life that is significant. I want to make sure I’m not sleep-walking through my life - I’ve only got one go at it. I know success is not about how much money you make or how thin you are. Success is when you feel the work you do and that the life you lead is congruent with your values; that you are able to make a contribution that is important. I always say - when you die, you are not going to be remembered for how many awards you received, or the length of your resume, you will be remembered for the way you treated people along the way.

5. What inspires and drives you day to day?

For me it is a privilege to have work that I find relevant and inspiring. Having the opportunity to participate in the number one export industry in this state - education, is also inspiring. And to know that education has the power to transform lives.

Let me give you an example. One of my university students was a midwife from Malawi pursuing her PhD. Malawi has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world and one of the highest instances of HIV. This student was completing her PhD, while caring for her two children, and making financial and personal sacrifices in order to complete her studies. She knew when she went back to her country with her PhD, she would be in a senior position in the health department, able to influence policy, practices, and standards of health care that would contribute to decreased infant mortality rates. These are the ways in which education makes a difference, these are the stories that inspire me, as well as bringing out the best in me.

6. What role have mentors played in your life?

I‘ve been fortunate to have a number of mentors throughout my life. People whose I admired because of their values and the ways they act in the world; people who were generous with their wisdom and experience, career leaders in my field, people in higher education, industry, government - both men and women.

I also take inspiration from younger women. We often think of mentors as people from the older generation or those who have gone before us. However, I’m very inspired by a generation of young women who are in their teen years and twenties, who have a confidence that I think is wonderful, who have a sense of possibility. We need to live up to their expectations of what women can be.

7. What do you see as some of the major barriers for women in regard to career progression?

I think there still are some systemic, invisible barriers that prevent women from fulfilling different roles in society. I am in the minority as a female Vice-Chancellor. We see women go so far in the field of academia and then their careers plateau when they have to step out for a while to raise their families. Re-entering the workforce is a challenge, and many women have to start again in many respects. So I think affordable, accessible, quality child care is still a barrier. I think meaningful paid maternity leave is still a barrier for many women. I think flexible working conditions for men and women are a barrier. I also think there are still some stereotypical ways that language is used. We talk about girls and men. We talk about ladies, instead of women; Chairman instead of the “Chair” of the board. Language is subtle, but it is also quite revealing and it reinforces stereotypes that create invisible barriers. We need to continue to make progress in those ways.

8. What do you think Australian organisations need to do better to attract, retain and promote women?

I think we need to frame the issue in terms of productivity. If 50% of our workforce is not able to contribute all of their talents optimally, then the whole nation suffers. So, as organisations we have to be alert to the talents we have and the working environments and policies we create to ensure that we have workplaces that allow people to contribute fully. I’m referring to flexibility in the workplace environment, attention to the language we use, being alert to unconscious bias that may make it difficult for women to succeed.

9. What is your view on the introduction of targets and quotas?

I am an advocate of both. Without clear goals it is too easy to be passive about change. When you have numbers that you are expected to deliver on, it prompts action. So to me it just becomes a re-enforcing strategy to re-dress the systematic bias that is out there.

  The views expressed in this article are the views of the author, not EY.
×
 

Julie McKay - Women in Leadership

 

Leah Armstrong - Women in Leadership

 

Melinda Cruz - Women in Leadership

Renata Singer

 


There has to be an absolute commitment to ensuring that women with skills, be they part time or on flexible work arrangements, have the opportunity to progress.

Could you tell us about your business and how you got started?

Renata (Singer) is a volunteer in a program in New York called the “Bottomless Closet” and on a visit to New York, we both started to think about starting a similar organisation in Melbourne and see how it resonated.

In March 2005, we pulled together a group of 50 women to see whether they thought the idea had some traction. We did a bit of research and discovered that there was a gap in the service deliveries to long-term unemployed women who were experiencing disadvantage.

Both Renata and I were committed to women’s issues and to find pathways to equality for women who have not had the same opportunities as ourselves. This was the first of its kind of service in Australia – a completely new way of working with women experiencing disadvantage.

In the beginning, the service was really only about providing the outfitting for women, but then we progressed to providing individual training and what we call, ‘conversations with purpose’. The clothing was a way to engage with the women and to then bring about sustainable employment for women experiencing disadvantage.

Our focus is not on making money. Our focus is on social capital.

What compromises have you had to make along the way?

It wasn’t so much compromises that we had to make along the way, it was tough decisions. Starting up a not-for-profit business with no capital is risky.

When we started the business, the social entrepreneurial sector was not as well understood as it is now and this added to the challenges.

One of the toughest decisions that we had to make along the way was when we decided to licence the original model of Fitted for Work. This turned out to be a disaster as we couldn’t maintain any quality control. We had to get rid of some of the licences in other locations and we moved to running a branch model. This was a critical shift in the whole running of the organisation. But it had to be done if we were to sustain the quality of our service under the model that we originally thought would work.

What is your definition of success and has it changed over time?

Our original definition of success was setting up a service that would assist some women in Melbourne. Our definition of success has definitely changed over time because we see the benefits of the service and so we want to reach more women and now our measure is 5,000 women a year.

The organisation’s success is in part due to our original vision and the energy and work that we put into making it happen.

What drives and inspires you?

The thing that drives and inspires us, particularly now, are the clients themselves. There is so much courage, perseverance and strength that we see in so many of the women that come into Fitted for Work. We see women from all ethnic backgrounds and of all ages, who have experienced terrible barriers in getting back to work.

The other thing that keeps us inspired is that the service resonates with people around the world. Once you tell the story, people are immediately engaged and find it easier to understand and they then inspire others.

What challenges do you think woman face in corporate life?

There seems to be no real commitment to include women who may want to have a life beyond a corporate life. There is a lot of talk about giving women time off etc., but then they don’t get promoted. I think there is a real cynicism about the reality of women in corporate life.

It is interesting to observe that many women feel that their life in the corporate world is totally lacking in terms of their ability to make a contribution, where they feel that they are making a difference and where they are valued. Many women we meet say, that if they could afford to, they would get out of the corporate life and work for a not-for-profit organisation.

For many women the reality is that if they feel unappreciated in their work and they don’t feel committed to their work.

Change has to be driven from the top. Attitudes have to be changed at the board level and at the CEO level. There has to be an absolute commitment to ensuring that women with skills, be they part time and be they on flexible work arrangements, have the opportunity to progress.

What should organisations be doing to attract, retain and promote women?

There are lessons that can be learned from the public sector. The not-for-profit sector operates effective and efficient services with very limited resources. There is not a cent wasted in a good not-for-profit organisation. If you look at the model of employment practices across the not-for-profit sector, they are value driven organisations, they actually value and appreciate the staff they have.

Do you have a view on targets and quotas?

They are a good way to get started. It gives an organisation something to aim at. There are so many women out there under-utilised – a huge pool of talent that is not being tapped. Targets will force companies to consider women for much higher positions. Once they consider women for these roles, they might notice just how capable the women are.

Do you think women sometimes lack confidence in their abilities?

There seems to be a lack of confidence that many women have that stops them from doing things. The other thing that is interesting is that women wanting to start their own business often have difficulty in accessing capital. Men seem to know how to go about it better. This lack of confidence that many women experience often stops them asking people to invest in them.

What advice would you give to women starting their own business?

Make sure that you have a vision and you’re very clear about your vision and hold true to it. Particularly in the early stages, you have to be opportunistic and grab what comes along. It is also vitally important to get good people around you who you absolutely trust and who understand what you are trying to achieve.

  The views expressed in this article are the views of the author, not EY.
×

Marion Webster

 


There has to be an absolute commitment to ensuring that women with skills, be they part time or on flexible work arrangements, have the opportunity to progress.

Could you tell us about your business and how you got started?

Renata (Singer) is a volunteer in a program in New York called the “Bottomless Closet” and on a visit to New York, we both started to think about starting a similar organisation in Melbourne and see how it resonated.

In March 2005, we pulled together a group of 50 women to see whether they thought the idea had some traction. We did a bit of research and discovered that there was a gap in the service deliveries to long-term unemployed women who were experiencing disadvantage.

Both Renata and I were committed to women’s issues and to find pathways to equality for women who have not had the same opportunities as ourselves. This was the first of its kind of service in Australia – a completely new way of working with women experiencing disadvantage.

In the beginning, the service was really only about providing the outfitting for women, but then we progressed to providing individual training and what we call, ‘conversations with purpose’. The clothing was a way to engage with the women and to then bring about sustainable employment for women experiencing disadvantage.

Our focus is not on making money. Our focus is on social capital.

What compromises have you had to make along the way?

It wasn’t so much compromises that we had to make along the way, it was tough decisions. Starting up a not-for-profit business with no capital is risky.

When we started the business, the social entrepreneurial sector was not as well understood as it is now and this added to the challenges.

One of the toughest decisions that we had to make along the way was when we decided to licence the original model of Fitted for Work. This turned out to be a disaster as we couldn’t maintain any quality control. We had to get rid of some of the licences in other locations and we moved to running a branch model. This was a critical shift in the whole running of the organisation. But it had to be done if we were to sustain the quality of our service under the model that we originally thought would work.

What is your definition of success and has it changed over time?

Our original definition of success was setting up a service that would assist some women in Melbourne. Our definition of success has definitely changed over time because we see the benefits of the service and so we want to reach more women and now our measure is 5,000 women a year.

The organisation’s success is in part due to our original vision and the energy and work that we put into making it happen.

What drives and inspires you?

The thing that drives and inspires us, particularly now, are the clients themselves. There is so much courage, perseverance and strength that we see in so many of the women that come into Fitted for Work. We see women from all ethnic backgrounds and of all ages, who have experienced terrible barriers in getting back to work.

The other thing that keeps us inspired is that the service resonates with people around the world. Once you tell the story, people are immediately engaged and find it easier to understand and they then inspire others.

What challenges do you think woman face in corporate life?

There seems to be no real commitment to include women who may want to have a life beyond a corporate life. There is a lot of talk about giving women time off etc., but then they don’t get promoted. I think there is a real cynicism about the reality of women in corporate life.

It is interesting to observe that many women feel that their life in the corporate world is totally lacking in terms of their ability to make a contribution, where they feel that they are making a difference and where they are valued. Many women we meet say, that if they could afford to, they would get out of the corporate life and work for a not-for-profit organisation.

For many women the reality is that if they feel unappreciated in their work and they don’t feel committed to their work.

Change has to be driven from the top. Attitudes have to be changed at the board level and at the CEO level. There has to be an absolute commitment to ensuring that women with skills, be they part time and be they on flexible work arrangements, have the opportunity to progress.

What should organisations be doing to attract, retain and promote women?

There are lessons that can be learned from the public sector. The not-for-profit sector operates effective and efficient services with very limited resources. There is not a cent wasted in a good not-for-profit organisation. If you look at the model of employment practices across the not-for-profit sector, they are value driven organisations, they actually value and appreciate the staff they have.

Do you have a view on targets and quotas?

They are a good way to get started. It gives an organisation something to aim at. There are so many women out there under-utilised – a huge pool of talent that is not being tapped. Targets will force companies to consider women for much higher positions. Once they consider women for these roles, they might notice just how capable the women are.

Do you think women sometimes lack confidence in their abilities?

There seems to be a lack of confidence that many women have that stops them from doing things. The other thing that is interesting is that women wanting to start their own business often have difficulty in accessing capital. Men seem to know how to go about it better. This lack of confidence that many women experience often stops them asking people to invest in them.

What advice would you give to women starting their own business?

Make sure that you have a vision and you’re very clear about your vision and hold true to it. Particularly in the early stages, you have to be opportunistic and grab what comes along. It is also vitally important to get good people around you who you absolutely trust and who understand what you are trying to achieve.

  The views expressed in this article are the views of the author, not EY.
×

Our interviews revealed that many successful women are rarely motivated by power or money. Every single one of our interviewees spoke of success in terms of contributing, making a difference or leaving a legacy.

Linda Kristjanson, Vice-Chancellor of Swinburne University, says: “Success is not about how much money you make… it’s about making a contribution that is important.”

We need to understand that this is the lens through which many women see their work. It’s not only about getting the corner office.

For example, Julie McKay, started her career as a retail banking graduate, before admitting that she really wanted to engage in the social sector, rather than pursuing a ‘proper’ career. In 2007, aged just 23, she was appointed Executive Director of UN Women Australia. With a mandate to start up a team in Australia and with only six months of funding, five years later she has raised over $1 million and built a national organisation.

Women turn into influential leaders when they are passionate about their work.

Leah Armstrong, the CEO of Reconciliation Australia, started her career in a small, family business. She never dreamed she’d be a high profile leader, on several boards. But, when she began working with an Aboriginal cooperative, she realised the key to economic development lay in reconciliation. “If we wanted to overcome disadvantage and create a future for our children, we needed to engage with the Australian population.” In 2009, Boss Magazine recognised her as a ‘True Leader’.

Sometimes, the driver to succeed and to make a difference is intensely personal. Melinda Cruz, CEO and Founder of the Miracle Babies Foundation, started what is now a respected, national charity as a support group for mothers who, like her, had premature babies. With her group of mums, none of whom had any business experience, Melinda built an organisation that helps tens of thousands of families every year.

Social entrepreneurs Marion Webster and Renata Singer believe women often feel the corporate world prevents them from making this sort of contribution. “Many women don’t feel committed to their work. Women we meet say, if they could afford to, they’d get out of corporate life and work for a not-for-profit.”

To keep talented women, organisations need to articulate their values often and walk their talk. People managers need to have regular conversations with female employees to ensure policies and practice resonate with women and support, rather than hinder, productivity.

Otherwise, talented women will go somewhere they feel they can make a difference: setting up their own businesses, joining a not-for-profit, or working in the public sector.

Let us be clear: none of these are easy options for women. Women who walk away from the corporate pipeline often do so at the expense of financial security, social status and time with their families. Clearly, they will not stay in the corporate world unless they feel their work is worthwhile and, more importantly, valued.

Marion Webster and Renata Singer believe corporate Australia could learn from the not-for-profit sector. “Because these are value-driven organisations, they actually value and appreciate their staff. All the employment best practices corporates pay lip service to are actually operating.”

The public sector also offers lessons, with Australia ranking second only behind Canada in terms of public sector female leaders, contrasting starkly with the current level of senior female leaders in the private sector. What is it about the public sector which enables women to thrive and reach the upper echelons of influence?

According to the Worldwide Index, all the best performing countries have some form of gender equality legislation in place, which the public sector takes extremely seriously. Then female appointments create role models, sustaining the momentum. If we want to harness the productivity and innovation women are pouring into other sectors – to inspire and retain talented women – we need to take another look at what we’re selling them.

  • What are the organisational values? How are they articulated and communicated? How are they put into practice?
  • Can organisations embed these values and principles so that they become a part of the culture and the DNA of an organisation?
  • Can we define roles not only in terms of output but also in terms of its value to the organisation?
  • What can we learn from the public sector, not just in Australia, but across the world in terms of female engagement and development.