Having the opportunity to meet and hear from some of Australia’s most accomplished female leaders is, without any doubt, the best aspect of working for Women’s Agenda. Julie Bishop, Helen Coonan, Natasha Stott Despoja and Jennifer Robinson are just a few of the standouts in recent weeks.
On Wednesday night Alison Watkins, the CEO of Coca Cola Amatil, joined the long list of women who I feel extremely fortunate to have encountered even peripherally. I sat among a group of 800 men and women from business and politics, entirely engrossed in the humour, candour and wisdom of this “tomboy” from a Tasmanian farm.
Watkins began with what I soon recognised to be characteristic humility. “I can’t believe I am standing here tonight,” she said recalling how awe struck she was when she was first invited to join Chief Executive Women, the event’s host, 13 years ago. It is probably safe to assume she now invokes that same reaction among the many men and women with whom she works. She is one of just four women in Australia to run an ASX Top 50 company. Listening to her explain how she has achieved what she has, it was not difficult to ascertain how this came to be but Watkins was quite frank about how it might not have.
She went to all-girls boarding school in Tasmania, where she thrived. Despite doing well academically she hadn’t thought “big” about her career. “I knew I wanted to live on a farm, preferably married to a tall dark handsome farmer with moleskins and a ute with a bull bar,” Watkins explained. “So I figured I’d go to ag college on the “mainland” and learn something useful and probably run across Mr Right in the process.”
She was all set for the Farm Secretarial course at Orange Ag College in NSW until her mother stepped in. “I clearly remember my mother suggesting I consider Commerce at Uni instead, saying “why don’t you keep your options open dear”.” She did and it was while she was studying at the University of Tasmania that she met her future husband Rod. His plans to do an MBA in Sydney derailed Watkins plans to live on a farm in Tasmania.
“Rod’s family are medical and after getting over the disappointment of him not becoming a doctor they felt Economics and then an MBA on the “mainland” would be an acceptable second best,” Watkins explained.
She turned down a good job offer to become a cost accountant at the local Cadbury plant and they moved to Sydney. She ended up sitting the MBA entrance exam too and after doing well Rod encouraged her to apply for a job at McKinsey, which she did. She still regards it as one of company’s worst hiring decisions but given her ascent there and beyond, that seems implausible.
After ten years at McKinsey Watkins took her first line role with ANZ. By this stage they had three kids and Rod was working as an investment banker with Malcolm Turnbull’s Turnbull and Partners which was more family friendly. It was hectic and after their fourth child arrived in 2001, Rod stepped back from work altogether. “Rod has kept everything together on the home front since then, “Watkins said. “We are very fortunate to be able to make that choice and there’s no doubt it’s made our family life work very well. Rod doesn’t regret his decision, in fact he rather seems to have enjoyed it.”
Watkins said that Rod’s mother was the only one who had a bit of difficulty with the arrangement. “The concept of me going back to work after children was uncomfortable enough for her let alone her eldest son actually giving up work in favour of his wife’s career. “What will I say when the bridge ladies ask what Rod is doing?” she asked me.”
At this point in Watkins speech Rod earned every bit as much of my admiration as Watkins already had. Many will argue, quite rightly, that what Rod did is no different to what thousands and thousands of women have been doing for decades. It’s true. Why should we celebrate a man for forgoing his career to keep things running on the family front when that’s what wives have done, and continue to do, without fanfare? The answer is quite simply because of that.
Until we reach a point in our society where an equal number of men keep things running on the home front whilst their wives and partners run companies and countries as vice versa, we have to highlight and celebrate those people who break the mould. And not just for the sake of those individuals but for the sake of the next generation of men and women. To make it clear that there are more options. That men need not merely be breadwinners and women need not merely be caregivers; there are a myriad of options in between.
Breaking the mould and resisting the temptation to succumb to expectations about what men and women do, takes a seed of courage. Watkins’ mother-in-law’s concerns about her son being a stay at home dad are proof of that. Despite the fact he came from a family with robust expectations, Rod was evidently unfazed by any pressure to fulfil a role other than what worked best for him and his family. That takes a degree of strength. He was willing to walk away from his own career to support his wife’s, a situation that remains rare.
Is it a coincidence that his wife – the beneficiary of a rare role reversal at home – has been able to turn the tables at work and succesfully scale the heights of Australia’s corporate ladder? Two unrelated statistical aberrations under one roof? It seems unlikely.
The fact is the more fathers who stay at home or take on the dominant role at home, the more women will be free to take on dominant roles in the workplace. Alison Watkins and her husband are proof of it.
Right now, when the vast majority of parents who stay at home are mothers, there is enormous merit in highlighting men like Rod. In exactly the same way that there is tremendous merit in highlighting women like Alison Watkins and Jennifer Robinson and Julie Bishop. Because it gives men and women a different paradigm; it broadens the realm of possibilities for men and women.
That will be the case until the day that Watkins hopes for when the phrase “female CEO” invokes no particular perception at all. My guess is that day will coincide with the day when “stay at home dad” is equally immaterial. Until then, it will be worth talking about the men and women who are actively working towards that day by breaking down the old moulds.