The annual She Leads Conference will see women come together in Canberra on 1 June for a day of discussion, networking and action on women’s leadership. Women’s Agenda is proud to support the event again this year as Media Partner, sharing insights, advice and stories from some of the wonderful women who are speaking at the Conference. To find out more, or to register to attend, visit the She Leads website.
Below, Eliza Hughes speaks with Alex Sloan, retired ABC journalist and Canberra’s 2017 Citizen of the Year.
Alex Sloan is certainly a remarkable woman, and a bit of a Canberra celebrity. I was nervous as I called her to begin this interview, but I needn’t have been. Her style is immediately warm, funny and endearing, and it is clear why her career as a journalist and public broadcaster has spanned 27 years, five countries and has even seen her named 2017 Canberra Citizen of the Year.
So how did a country girl become a stalwart of radio? We start talking about Sloan’s childhood, and her formative years growing up in the country listening to ABC radio. She says she knew from an early age that radio was what she wanted to do.
“(I grew up with) ABC radio everywhere in the house, and in the car, and I really loved the story telling that was coming through. I come from a family of story tellers as well, so I really loved the immediacy and intimacy of radio.”
Years later, Sloan began her career as a rural reporter for the ABC Tasmania, before moving on to ABC Sydney. She recalls some of the choices she felt she needed to make early in her career, and the direction she wanted to go.
“When I was in my early 30’s, I decided to push myself to go nationally, which meant moving from Hobart to Sydney and, kind of throwing my oar in there in the national thing. From there, I received a travel scholarship to Asia. I went to Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong and reported from there. I kind of dipped my toe into both national and international reporting.”
After returning from overseas, Sloan again chose to break out of her comfort zone, leaving rural journalism behind in favour of a producer-reporter position she was offered on the Radio National (RN) Breakfast Program.
“It was fantastic and really adrenaline inducing, really exciting. We were talking to key international figures…wherever conflicts or stories were going on around the world.”
On the subject of taking on challenges and stepping outside of your comfort zone, Sloan explains how sometimes making difficult decisions is simply part of being a journalist.
“That was kind of just the natural thing…you know, you decide to stay in your local patch, or you decide to push yourself.”
Her ultimate career decision came during her time at RN Breakfast; she knew many others had gone on from a similar position to become a foreign correspondent; a highly competitive and sought after role for many journalists.
When she was presented with the opportunity to take on a foreign correspondent position, Sloan explains how she sought the advice of her highly regarded female colleague, Sue Spencer, who she describes as one the ABC’s most esteemed journalists.
“I went and saw her and I said, ‘What do I do?’ The real pathway thing, like which one do I take, which door do I take?
“She said to me, and I thought this was a really brave question, she said ‘Do you want you want to get married and have kids?’
“I’m just so glad she asked the question, because I don’t know if a man would have asked it, and a lot of good feminists like me might not have asked it too. She (Sue Spencer) said, ‘If you want to get married and have kids, it’s going to be really hard as a foreign correspondent’.
“I had to weigh that up, and really I was choosing foreign correspondence, or coming to Canberra and doing local, essentially community radio. If you’re a really, really serious journalist you go, ‘Oh what are you doing that for?’, but that’s the choice I made.
“And then I did actually meet my husband, and I did have a child…so I haven’t regretted it at all, but it was a definite sliding door moment.”
Just like her own experience, Sloan encourages all women to have honest, candid conversations about motherhood, within the context of balancing complex choices about their careers.
She references Virginia Haussegger’s book, Wonder Woman, in which Virginia explains her frustrations with her feminist mother and mentors, who never asked her the same questions, and ultimately saw her unable to have children.
“She (Virginia) said she felt let down that those questions weren’t asked for her, or that situation wasn’t made clear earlier. Some people do go on to have children and partnerships and whatever. But that’s not important – at least you’ve been asked to think about it.”
Finally, Sloan talks about her most recent career change, one that she’s very pleased about; her retirement from ABC Canberra radio in December last year.
“The freedom! I just love it. I’ve reached an age where I can be pretty bolshie in my opinions. And of course, at the ABC you have to be balanced and take on board all points of view, as is the nature of public broadcasting. But I love that I can settle down into my opinions now.
“I’m really delighted with the choice. It’s been an absolute privilege that I’ve been able to do this.”
The She Leads Conference is on 1 June at QT Canberra. You can register to attend here.