Ed’s note: Over the years we’ve interviewed thousands of women, and heard some of their best tips for having a brilliant career.
They’ve shared their challenges, mistakes, achievements, ambitions and proudest movements.
They’ve opened up about what they’d do differently and the key moments and turning points that put them on the course they’re on today.
Below’s an edited version of a piece we published at the end of 2013. We’ve pulled it from the archives today because we know these tips are still as relevant as ever going into 2018.
The women below shared these tips a number of years ago, and have each gone on to do different things.
They’ve shared all these things in an effort to give back: in the hope that the lessons they’ve learned over the years can benefit and make things a little easier for the women behind them.
Elizabeth Proust: Start by not ‘doing it all’ before thinking about ‘having it all’. Company director and chairman Elizabeth Proust proudly doesn’t cook – a fact she uses to demonstrate why women should strive to “not do it all”.
Sick of the “have it all” debate, she said we should get picky about the tasks that are really required and ask for help, pay for help, or get your partner to learn new domestic chores.
It’s advice she shared because, as plenty of us know, certain attitudes prevail in society that suggest women will manage the bulk of the domestic duties no matter how many hours she’s putting in at work.
Nicola Roxon: High intensity careers don’t have to be constant
Our first female attorney general Nicola Roxon resigned from parliament in 2013, announcing a desire to spend more time with her family, leading some to speculate why she’d leave the job with still so much to offer.
But as Roxon said during her address at our 2013 Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards, what she’s achieved shows women can have high-profile, high-intensity jobs and be extremely good at them. But that doesn’t mean we have to do them forever. “It’s a trap for women and a trap for politicians to think so,” she said.
We can readjust our lives to suits our circumstances and scale our careers up and down as needed. “Feminism was supposed to deliver opportunity and choice. I took that opportunity and gave it 200% — now I’m exercising my choice to do something else, to contribute in a different way,” she said.
Ann Sherry: Take risks to get to the top. Carnival CEO Ann Sherry’s made a number of significant career moves over the years – from public sector to private, corporate to corporate, Australia to New Zealand and now to Carnival Australia – and has come to believe that taking a risk pays dividends.
“At every point people were saying, ‘Why would you do that? You have a great job. You stay here and the prize is yours’, which may have been true. The question is: do you really want that prize or do you want to try something different?”
She said she’s frequently questioned on why she’d make such moves, especially to a business like Carnival which, when she was appointed in 2007, was suffering some major reputation damage. It comes down to enjoying the huge task at hand. “I understand that resuscitating businesses that are in bad shape is a really energising task.”
And taking on such a huge project successfully shows just what you can do.
Helen Conway: Don’t accept the status quo
While former director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency Helen Conway would never want to be accused of telling women how they can ‘fix’ the lack of women in leadership problem, she did share with Women’s Agenda six things she believes women can do to personally help themselves get ahead.
In short, these covered a need to understand and articulate your value, develop key competency skills (such as negotiation), seize opportunities that arise, find a sponsor and be robust and resilient. But the most fitting for Conway and her work was telling women to not accept the status quo– that is, don’t believe the issue of workplace gender equality has been “solved” or is “too difficult” to solve. She believes we should all continually remind ourselves of the extent of the problem and just what we can personally do to help. “We can’t throw our hands up and say, ‘There’s nothing we women can do!’.”
Imelda Roche: Remember, ‘If it’s to be, it’s up to me’.Leading entrepreneur Imelda Roche offered these eight words of motivation at an entrepreneur roundtable with EY and Women’s Agenda back in 2013 – advice she picked up off her grandma whom she lived with from the age of two to five, the best mentor she had.
For Roche, they’re words that leave no room for excuses, nor for settling on society’s expectations of what a woman can do. And she knows from personal experience just how powerful following such a mantra can be having gone into business with her husband to form the local arm of Nutrimetics in 1968 at a time when women were, “always the secretaries or the tea ladies” and becoming a leading business decision-maker.
The “it’s up to me” comes down to personal responsibility. We may have to work harder for our careers, businesses and overall success which isn’t necessarily fair, but that doesn’t mean we should simply give up. “It’s not for somebody else to do it for you,” Roche said. “You’re in charge of your own life.”
Janine Shepherd: The harder the challenge, the tougher you get
Janine Shepherd once had plans to go to the Olympics, but a major accident while training changed all that.
While years of recovery followed, Shepherd developed a key mantra that enabled her to go on: a belief that we should always love taking the hills. She encourages all women to see upcoming hills as a challenge, to accept the test and learn something along the way. “Embrace them and see them for what they are. See the deeper purpose in what’s behind them.”
Now an author, commercial pilot and one of TedX’s most popular ever speakers, she believes the best tools of resilience are the challenges we face in life.
Michelle Tredenick: Ignore the selection criteria. We’ve heard it multiple time before: women will aim to tick all the selection criteria, while men will just hope they can cover off a couple.
For company director Michelle Tredenick, she’s learned to simply ignore such criteria. “It’s your CV more than selection criteria that matters. It’s the mechanism that gets you to see somebody, and it’s from there that the selection process begins.”
Does that mean telling a few white lies? No. “Use your experience instead,” added Tredenick. “I think you can certainly generalise your experience to be helpful to you. And you can also put a really strong case out for what you think you can offer regardless of ticking all the boxes.”
It all comes back to confidence: “If you can think through the role and you can see that you truly have a contribution to make and it doesn’t align with the selection criteria or it’s not even in the selection criteria, give it a go,” she said. Most men will give it a go, women tend not to. The best advice I can give is to be clear what you are of value for, be confident and put it across.”
Dr Cathy Foley: Ask for opportunities. Dr Cathy Foley sees many women in science with extraordinary potential who they don’t always take the opportunity to apply for leadership roles.
The Chief of the CSIRO’s Materials Science and Engineering Division, who’s responsible for a massive team of 870 people, raised six kids herself and picked up the 2013 NSW Women of the Year award, says it’s essential that women at least “put their hat in the ring” to let others know they’re interested in training or a promotion, or risk not being considered at all.
Given cultural norms that will see leaders continue to make assumptions about women – especially regarding what opportunities working mothers may want to pursue – Foley believes it’s essential women go out of their way to get their desires heard. “If you’re going to be a leader, you need to drive the agenda,” she says.
Ronni Kahn: Give your big ideas a go
OzHarvest founder Ronni Kahn isn’t one to ignore a great idea, or to think she’s not capable of executing one herself.
Remember thinking as a young child how wonderful it would be to give somebody the leftovers on your plate? Kahn had that idea too – only she put it into action. With a number of trucks around the country, Kahn’s ‘for purpose’ charity collects more than 135 tonnes of food a month in Sydney alone and repurposes it to create more than 380,000 meals.
“There are so many people I’ve met over the last seven years who say, ‘I thought of that’.” Kahn told Women’s Agenda. “A brilliant idea doesn’t have to be yours. What turns it into a brilliant idea is if you put it into action.”
And that means no waiting around: “There’s no such thing as tomorrow. There’s only today.”
Zoe Watson: Take a holiday
We all know we want to take a holiday, we just don’t always get around to it – or believe we have the time and cash to make it happen.
But for Zoe Watson taking a holiday was the catalyst for launching an incredible new business idea.
Watson launched her Bliss Sanctuary for Women in Bali in 2010 and has since been on a mission to establish 20 similar sanctuaries in 12 countries over the next 10 years.
The idea came to her after taking a holiday in Bali to rekindle her health following a nasty car accident, and knowing more years in the corporate sector would do little to help her body to properly heal.
“I’m pretty gung-ho, having worked in media and the rat race in Australia,” she told Women’s Agenda. “My whole lifestyle has completely changed now. If it wasn’t for the forced rest on my part, I don’t think things would have played out the way they have.”
And a bonus…
Julia Gillard: Have the guts and resilience to give it a go
Julia Gillard didn’t tell us this one personally, but in the final year of her prime ministership, it was difficult to ignore one of her greatest attributes: resilience.
Whatever you think of Gillard’s time in the top job, few can dispute her ability to stand tall in the face of a hostile media, relentless Opposition and offensive and sexist comments from various quarters – including deeply hurtful remarks about her late father by Alan Jones.
Despite all this, Gillard continued to push for reform throughout her term and graciously accepted her defeat in a Labor leadership spill – when she lost her job, the public backing of her allies and probably a few friends – without shedding a tear.
She showed women can compete in combative and adversarial environments, and smashed all stereotypes regarding what we believe about women in leadership. She offered some advice to her Labor colleagues during her final speech that could be relevant to us all: “Don’t lack the guts, don’t lack the fortitude, don’t lack the resilience to go out there.”