Feisty women are judged harshly in our society. But given that the Macquarie dictionary defines feisty as "showing courage and independence; high-spirited" I will go out on a limb here and suggest that those are essential qualities for leadership. The ability to say what you think, ask for what you want, stand up for what you believe in is paramount – and it has certainly served me well in my career trajectory.
So it’s hard to believe that in the 21st century we prefer our female leaders were not feisty and determined. Consider the treatment of our first female prime minister, who apparently came across as being too hard-edged and cold. Broadcaster Alan Jones famously remarked in August 2012 that “women are destroying the joint,” following the Prime Minister’s announcement that her government would be allocating 320 million dollars to increase the numbers of women in leadership in the Pacific region in order to improve opportunities, access to financial services and protect women against violence.
Gillard’s boldness was clearly an issue for many. How dare she even consider investing in women? But it’s a double-edged sword for women. The opposite of bold is fraught with difficulty too. When you are operating at a leadership level in a man’s world, there is a certain expectation of what you won’t be.
As Chair of the Wests Tigers there is an expectation from many of the old guard that I should toe the line that keeps things comfortably as they have been for decades. “Welcome to rugby league,” is what I am told when articulating my incredulity for aspects of governance of the game. I have been accused of being “too soft” for the sport and told to get out because “What would (she) know about the game?” Someone on Twitter, wound up by certain ill-informed footy columnists, once told me to “stick to magazines” in the same manner that historically women would have been asked to stick to our knitting. In other words: keep your mouth shut and go with the flow. Not in my DNA.
I have watched strong, bright women go underground when attacked for their views or actions. I have also experienced radio silence from other usually feisty women when I have been publicly condemned. When Alan Jones called for my sacking in September 2015 it was primarily men who contacted me privately to offer me their support, and also male journalists like the Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter FitzSimons who stood up for me in the public forum. Male Twitter followers on my behalf shouted down the ensuing circus and slammed the journalists who participated in the campaign of articles celebrating Jones’s misogynistic stance.
But the women were mostly quiet. And I understand this completely. I don’t blame them for not wanting to stick up their heads. It’s dangerous and rough for those of us who have extended our necks into target range. I would never ask another woman to do this on my behalf, and I am quite capable of handling the firing range by myself.
Feisty women risk the personal status they have fought hard to achieve. Feisty men, largely, do not. It can be precarious for a feisty woman to stand up for another woman. However, there is momentum in numbers and volume.
Ahead of the 2015 Women In League round, my first year as the chair of the Wests Tigers, I was contacted by a Sydney Morning Herald rugby league journalist who had noted that I had previously spoken on the record about my strong views on gender quotas for boards. He asked me if I would be prepared to speak on the record about my views on quotas for National Rugby League boards. I explained that it would be hypocritical of me not to and so on the Sunday morning of the Women In League round, those in the sport who are yet to embrace gender diversity would likely have been throwing up their cornflakes while reading my call for more than one woman on every club board.
I realised going into the interview that it would make me more of a target with some elements of the game but cultural change doesn’t occur without feisty leaders making a bold stand. As a female chair I was in the best possible position to challenge and disrupt the status quo. And my desire for positive change has always been greater than my need to be popular.
As a leader, regardless of gender, you need to be thick-skinned to remain focused on change. I must have been born with the skin of a rhinoceros because fighting for the best outcome has always been more important to me than the opinions of others.
I have always been proudly feisty and I believe its one of the ways that I have been able to navigate the landscape of a career in an industry that has always been top heavy with men. The trick is to pick your battles because as a wise woman once said to me: “There is no point winning the battle but losing the war.”
My advice to women who are angry about an unfair situation is to call it out, but do so strategically and having slept on the issue for 24 hours. Book a meeting with your manager and address it.
Don’t be afraid to take on a situation on behalf of your team either. They will respect you for it. And believe it or not, so too will the person that you are standing up to.
Women who are brave enough to tell anyone who will listen exactly what they hope to achieve are generally considered to be feisty, and depending on the contextual attitude towards feisty that can be a positive or negative connotation. I have been telling people what I hope to achieve for my entire career. Doing so is one of the most common pieces of advice that I offer to women regarding career progression.
It takes courage to reach out to someone who may be in a position to help you and ask for that help. Instead of putting people on the spot – there is an art to this – I engage the person of influence in a conversation and share my dreams and aspirations with them. I am always pleasantly surprised by the willingness of complete strangers to try to assist by either offering me advice on what to do next, pointing me in the right direction or even offering an introduction to someone who could directly impact my next career move.
Many women have told me they shy away from being too vocal about their career desires because they fear appearing too forward or overly feisty – as if that’s a bad thing! In order to affect real and permanent change we need more women to charge the mountain more often. And that requires more women to own the label “feisty” and use it to their advantage. Go for it.
This is an edited extract from Marina Go's new book, Break Through: 20 Success Strategies for Female Leaders.
Marina Go is Chair of the Wests Tigers NRL Club, a non-executive director of Autosports Group and author of the business book for women, Break Through: 20 Success Strategies for Female Leaders. She was previously GM of Hearst Australia at Bauer Media. Boss magazine named her as one of 20 True Leaders of 2016. Marina has over 25 years of leadership experience in the media industry, having started her career as a journalist. She was appointed Editor of Dolly magazine at the age of 23, before spending the next decade editing a number of leading women's magazines. She has held senior leadership roles at Fairfax, Pacific, Emap, Bauer and Private Media, where she was CEO and founder of the career website Women’s Agenda.
She is a director of digital startup Daily Siren, and also a member of the Advisory Boards of the Walkley Foundation, The Australian Republican Movement and Women’s Agenda. She is a former director of Netball Australia, Odyssey House, Sydney Symphony Vanguard and The Apparel Group. She lectures on digital media at the University of Technology, Sydney, is a Mentor with the Women In Media and NRL Women programs and a UNSW Alumni Leader and Ambassador. She has an MBA from The Australian Graduate School of Management, a BA (Mass Communications) from Macquarie University and is a member of the AICD. She is a mother of two young men and passionate about diversity and equality.
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