'Time to be a bit more vulgar'? The feisty & defiant spirit of women leaders

‘Time to be a bit more vulgar’? The feisty & defiant spirit of women leaders

On Friday October 6, 2017, more than 350 leaders from across politics, media the public and private sector gathered at Doltone House Hyde Park in Sydney to celebrate the 34 finalists and 8 winners.

Women’s Agenda Publisher Angela Priestley set the scene in her opening remarks, observing that we are living in very different times compared to those of the first Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards five years ago, when we had a female Prime Minister and a female Governor General.  Those awards, she observed, were marked by a feeling of optimism that things were finally changing.

Flash forward five years, and the 2017 Awards unfolded in a year when a man who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy was elected President of the United States, and on a day when the New York Times published allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein going back decades.

You could forgive those gathered for the 2017 Awards for feeling somewhat defeated. But one after another, they took to the stage and came out roaring, with one defiant rallying cry after another.

Dr. Kirstin Ferguson, Chairman of the 2017 judging panel, reminded the audience that we all, men and women, have a responsibility to help women whenever we can. “Forget the old saying that if you are successful be sure to throw down the ladder so you can bring up another woman behind you,” she said. “Forget the bloody ladder. A ladder will only ever help up one person at a time…throw down a fishing net and bring many, many women along with us.”

The theme of pushing back and making no apologies for being who you are or standing up for what you believe in also dominated the panel discussion, moderated by Kate Mills, CEO  of Professional Mums and featuring Tanya Plibersek, Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Pip Marlow, CEO Strategic Innovation Suncorp, and Emma Alberici, ABC Lateline Presenter.

When asked about the age old “pipeline” question, a number of the panellists made their support for quotas very, very clear.

“In politics, it is pretty easy,” said Plibersek. “You set targets. It means we are going to go and look for you. We now set targets for 50 percent. We will get there. When you nail your colours to the mast, you have to.”

Emma Alberici picked up on the idea of quotas, telling the audience about her experience as a European Correspondent who reported on the changes they helped bring about in Norway. “We need mandated quotas, and I will not apologise for having that opinion,” said Alberici to cheers.

When asked about the characteristics women need as leaders, Pip Marlow noted her concerns about a growing backlash as women make progress. “Equality can feel like oppression if you are used to privilege,” she said. “More than ever, we need courage. We have to be more courageous as the backlash grows.”

Tanya Plibersek urged women to remain true to themselves, rather than to try and fit a mould. “I hate all those books at airports about the qualities of effective leadership. All of that is bullshit,” she said. “Women need to be authentically themselves and make the structures around them change.”

Later, when Plibersek was asked about the most “disruptive” thing she had ever done in politics, she further elaborated on the idea of authenticity. “Just trying to be the human being I actually am, rather than fit into an organisation that didn’t suit who I was.”

The high-water mark of the afternoon came as Professor Gillian Triggs took to the stage to be inducted into the Women’s Agenda Hall of Fame.

Professor Triggs talked about her experience coming of age in the 1960’s, and her previous belief that if you gave women an education, you would unlock many doors for them.

She noted that while Australian women top the international league tables for educational attainment, Australia has slipped from 15-46 in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report in just a decade.

“What has happened to all that optimism?”, asked Professor Triggs. “Clearly, something is happening here.”

Professor Triggs drew on her own experience “playing the game”, getting her hair done, wearing some unfortunate oversized shoulder pads. But now that she is no longer employed by the government, she wants to ask this question of herself and others:

“Are we too measured? Too databased? Too calm under fire? Perhaps it’s time to be a bit more vulgar?”, asked Professor Triggs. “Let’s stand up for what we believe in.”

With a possible new slogan in hand – can’t wait for the Vulgar Woman T-shirt – the final award for the day, Agenda Setter of the Year, was presented to Anne-Marie Elias, who describes herself as a “Chief Disruptor” for her work connecting communities, business, academia and the Government to empower disadvantaged communities — a title very much befitting the themes of the 2017 Awards.

“It’s up to us now,” Elias said.  No doubt, many left inspired to turn those words into action in 2018.

Pictured above: The leadership awards panel, featuring Tanya Plibersek, Pip Marlow & Emma Alberici. 

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