I clearly remember my first editor sharing with me the best thing about being a journalist: the people you get to meet. I remember it clearly because he said it often and he was right. As a journalist you are afforded the opportunity to meet, and even ask questions of, people you otherwise might not encounter. It is a thrill and a privilege.
As a journalist on a business magazine I met and interviewed chief executives, entrepreneurs, managing partners, scientists, politicians and academics on a regular basis. Regardless of an individual’s area of particular expertise I was invariably struck by their success. In almost every case it was clear why they had succeeded. I became familiar with the mixture of talent, commitment and skill that high-achievers tend to employ and enjoy.
In my five months as the acting editor of Women’s Agenda I have come across this potent combination many times. These are just a few of the exceptional female leaders I have had the good fortune to encounter at Women’s Agenda. There are many more but I am highlighting these women in particular because even if you haven’t met them directly you will have – or you will in the future – benefit from the work they do.
Liz left behind a lucrative career as a partner in a commercial law firm to take up her position as the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner in 2007. She has used the role to pursue programs and initiatives to create change in almost every sphere of society to improve the circumstances of Australian women.
She’s dedicated to improving the lifetime economic security of women and is a fierce advocate for the prevention of violence against women. She’s enlisted executives running corporate giants to champion change in business. She is working with various police commissioners and community bodies to tackle domestic violence and sexual assault. She has worked with the defence force to improve the organisational culture and the treatment of women and she has worked extensively with indigenous communities. She is currently in the midst of an inquiry into the incidence of pregnancy discrimination.
Liz is smart, passionate and tireless. I have met her a few times and each time I leave feeling grateful that we have a person of her ability, aptitude and sheer drive in the role.
Helen is another woman who left behind a successful corporate career to instigate change in a public role. She was appointed the director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency in 2011 and took up the role after spending 30 years in the private sector, with ten of those spent as a lawyer. When she left her executive position at Caltex to take up the government job several of her male colleagues couldn’t believe she’d consider taking a pay cut and join the public service. Why didn’t she just chase a board career? In her mind it crystallised the reason it was so important to take up the job. If she took up a board seat, at best she might have changed the workplace culture in one company but she wanted to do more than that. She wanted to change the workplace culture more broadly and she’s worked assiduously towards that goal ever since.
Helen is sharp, funny and indefatigable. She is also another female leader to whom Australian women are greatly indebted.
Professor Marian Baird
Professor Marian Baird is a professor of employment relations and the director of the Women and Work Research Group at the University of Sydney Business School. She is one of the country’s leading researchers in women, work and family and is at least partly responsible for Australia’s paid parental leave scheme. She was honoured earlier this year as one of the most influential women in public policy.
I have read and enjoyed a lot of Professor Baird’s work but I only met her in person recently. She took to the stage at the Diversity Council’s annual debate and was frighteningly persuasive in arguing that . It is not surprising that her understanding of the issues at play regarding gender equality in the workplace was so compelling. She has dedicated her intellectual prowess to improving them.
Carol Schwartz AO
Surmising Carol Schwartz’s professional life in a sentence or two is a difficult task. She is the founding chair of the Women’s Leadership Institute and she holds multiple positions in the arts, in business and in the community. In 2006 the Melbourne-based Schwartz was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia. She is a business leader, a philanthropist and a long-time advocate for boosting the representation of women in leadership positions.
Her diary is understandably chaotic but after a few attempts we found a free slot when she was going to be in Sydney. It was a few hours before she was due to appear on ABC’s Q&A and as we started talking my excitement for her appearance grew. Female leaders who are as articulate, reasoned and incisive as Schwartz about the implications for gender inequality need to stay on the public stage and in the public eye. Because as Schwartz pointed out on Q&A, decision-making groups, like Federal cabinet, that don’t broadly reflect the composition of society cannot make the best decisions – for business, for the economy or for the community.
To these four women I would like to extend a warm and sincere thank you for the wonderful work you do. I wish each of you a very merry Christmas and hope you have a relaxing break. Because, as you all know, there is plenty of work to do in the new year!
Who is on your Christmas thank-you list? If you know of a female leader who is doing terrific work, or a male who is championing diversity, who deserves to be recognised and celebrated we want to know about them. Or perhaps you are a person who deserves recognition. The NAB Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards are an opportunity to acknowledge emerging and established female leaders and the nominations are now open.