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Advisory Board: It’s not about snapping back to pre-pandemic norms

The months since the pandemic hit Australia have seen women’s workforce participation shrink for the first time in years. Concerted action and a gender lens are needed in policy and practice to stem the erosion and build a fairer future, according to discussion at the latest WLA Advisory Board meeting. The crisis has led many organisations to cut their diversity and women’s leadership efforts. At the same time, recent cases of sexual harassment in blue chip companies show many workplaces remain dangerous environments for women. Mobilising evidence and using the strength of collaboration – across government, academia, business, and in communities – is now crucial to addressing the crisis for women in this country, the board agreed. Planning how WLA can provide that information and support most effectively in the future was another core topic at the meeting. With job losses, domestic violence and mental health issues rising dramatically, safety and support have also emerged as key themes at the WLA symposiums this year.At a macro level, the impact of the last few months has been very slowly gaining government recognition of the need for a gender lens on programs and social infrastructure.Board members pointed out that talking to government about reform and developing new policy settings is a priority.It’s not about snapping back to pre-pandemic norms but snapping forward - and the Snap Forward Feminist Policy Network has been established to ensure a coalition works on these steps, the board added.There’s a lack of women at the table and we’re paying the price for that with programs and policies that fail to take women’s needs into account. More examples were needed of the difference women’s leadership makes.With some attention being paid to women world leaders such as Angela Merkel and Jacinda Adern, there is an opportunity to develop a strong rationale for women’s leadership which now needs to be clearly seen and its value articulated, the board agreed. Another broad area ripe for a major overhaul is childcare.  As one board member pointed out, paradoxically there has been no gender lens applied to the current system, which is not working or supporting women.  Looking at ways to drive policy around it is essential.On a day to day basis, there was clear evidence of areas that are crying out to be addressed in such tough times. The pressure of caring for and schooling children at home is forcing women to cut their hours to cope. One board member noted that in her organisation, the majority of employees asking for reduced hours were women.There’s evidence the pressure to work differently and more from home potentially has a big downside for women. More women have less choice about returning to the workplace and can end up finding themselves further excluded from dynamics and opportunities.Domestic violence issues are also impacting women, and mental health issues are taking a toll on many. For most women attending WLA events this year, the grind of coping with daily casual sexism and discrimination remains a problem. There were often reported problems with meetings and interruptions, or failing to have their input recognised or rewarded. Participants were revealing much more vulnerability and sharing stories because they were in a psychologically ‘safe space’ Suzi Finkelstein said. Casual sexism is clearly still a big problem, with tactics and advice in demand from attendees.Particular challenges in the current environment include online meetings and communications. While the board heard that even a CEO has less cut through in Zoom meetings, it was also clear that women at the symposiums felt online can be a fairer forum in other ways.The discussion also covered how the crisis was affecting marginalized groups. According to one member, it has been a mixed bag for Indigenous employees: some entrepreneurs and women accessing micro financing are not faring too badly. Some of this has to do with congregating in certain sectors, mainly mining, construction and infrastructure where there have not been as many job losses, and some of these sectors are scaling up, for example domestic tourism.Another board member noticed that there is still an appetite for networking and further education. Demand for online events and mentoring has been consistent and some members are looking at upgrading their skills or studying to improve their employment prospects.Particular areas to target include providing more information about superannuation as early access is a topical issue for women. Social media platforms can be utilised too – and help in providing information on sexual harassment from experts like Kate Eastman QC and Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins. Some key suggested actions following the board meeting include: Targeting every State Minister responsible for women and equip them with the facts, and ask them what they are doing in these key areas. Men in related government roles should also be included and accountable in this.Further collaboration between WLA and other industry, government and not for profit organisations with aligned values and remits. Sharing of expertise is critical at this time. Correcting misinformation and challenging assumptions and expectations around traditional gender roles. Finding ways to highlight the efficacy and extraordinary benefits of women leaders, at times like this and also in more general settings.  A quick note: Advisory Board member Adam Fennessy has been appointed the Victorian Public Sector Commissioner and took up his new role in July. Adam spent 2 decades in the Victorian public sector before joining EY as a partner in 2017. He is a Male Champion of Change and a strong advocate for diversity and fairer workplace practices.  Adam joined the AB late last year and provided valuable insights and practical advice on the work that can be done to transform workplaces. Unfortunately his new position means he will no longer be able to sit on the Advisory Board but he continues to support the work of WLA.​

Wellbeing tips for leaders

Wellbeing was already a big challenge for leaders before 2020. And when a pandemic hit, every industry and workplace was thrown into disarray, causing chaos and uncertainty for every employee in Australia. Now, work has become a push and pull issue between economists, epidemiologists and politicians, as they try to find a compromise between safety, economic security and ensuring that as many people as possible have a job. The pressures on leaders have been magnified 1000x times and seeking help is more complicated than ever. The feedback we are getting from our programs is that there is pressure from employees, bottom lines and industry groups and all are calling on leaders to give input, advice, security and assurance. It’s exhausting, frankly. These wellbeing tips are designed to be a bridging solution for until things settle down.1. Establish a sleep routine. We know this seems basic, but in the midst of a pandemic, all sense of time and place seems to have more or less gone out the window. If you have slipped into some unhelpful sleeping patterns, or simply disposed of routine all together, try your hand at getting into a good one. According to sleep experts, adults should aim for 7-8 hours of sleep every night. Things like limiting screen time before bed, turning the lights down and reading something that isn’t backlit or work related is a good way to encourage your body to start producing melatonin. 2. Speaking of tech, turn off your emails We all have that one client or colleague who thinks they can email at all hours of the night and expects a response asap. Update your email signature with your work hours and once those have passed, turn off your work email notifications and screen parent calls. You aren’t getting paid to mediate issues, give advice or contribute to workplace projects at 8 pm at night, so don’t. 3. During the day, reconnect with your purpose We all know that one of the rewards of being a leader is seeing great outcomes- not just for the bottom line, but for your team and clients as well. Try to find an opportunity each day to connect with an employee or staff member who is getting great results and take a moment to celebrate that with them. 4. Connect with your peers It can be hard to explain to someone who isn’t a leader, the challenges that come with it. Find 20 minutes one night a week to jump on a zoom with a few peers from other organisations or industry sectors. Share your best and worst of the week, toss around some ideas and have a general chat. Not only is this connection good for you socially, but it can be comforting to know that other people are having similar challenges to you. Plus, you get the benefit of being able to help and support other leaders as well.5. Build up your emotional resilienceBeing proactive about looking after your physical and mental health can increase your resilience in tough times. Free yoga classes and meditation programs are rife at the moment. If you are in Victoria, you can also access up to 20 sessions with a registered counsellor or psychologist under temporary changes to the mental health care plans. Putting aside time on the weekend to do something you really enjoy is a good way to make sure you have something to look forward to. Sometimes, it’s the little things that help. ​


A couple of weeks ago, over two days, over 300 Victorian women joined us from their home offices, living rooms, bedrooms, and kids rooms.Together, we committed to two days of learning, developing, sharing and connecting with one another in a city where we can’t even meet friends for a takeaway coffee and a walk. We came in bruised, fatigued and vulnerable with a certain ennui born from being in the midst of some of the toughest restrictions in the country and more or less thought ‘okay I’ll give it a go.’ And what a go we gave it. We smiled, we laughed, we cried. We learnt, shared and questioned. We opened up our homes and hearts to women around the corner and across the state that we had never met and gave our warmth, wisdom and encouragement generously. The chat filled with robust, warm, informative conversation, replete with thank you’s and other offerings of immense gratitude.Someone commented that she felt like the speakers were her new best friends and we all heartily agreed. One of our delegates, Steph Gaddin, commented; “The intimacy and connection with the delegates and people who were speaking were incredible. It really did feel like you were having a conversation with them, one on one. That feeling was amplified by the chat, which became such a safe space.“If we were in a big room somewhere, we would have ended up talking to people we know. That’s what happens; people gravitate to people they know. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there is so much more value in these random connections, particularly the ones we got to make in the break out rooms. I think where it really worked was that the chat became a safe space. You held space for people I a way that I don’t think you would get at a real-world event.”Olivia, another delegate, commented; “I think [the lockdown] makes people appreciate things more. It’s great to see that people really were contributing, and in some ways, I actually think you got to know them better. You see the same names pop up in the chat and you take interest and think ‘where do they work’ and it creates this amazing connection. I think when you are in the room you end up hanging around with the people from your company or people you already know. “I loved the comment from someone who said ‘wow, my son just came into the room and was impressed because I am having a zoom conversation with Lee Lin Chin!’ It felt like they were in your lounge room, these famous people, because they were in your lounge room. I speak to my boss, my team, my friends and family on Zoom now, and it just felt no different.”One particular theme that came through was the vulnerability that both participants and speakers were nursing throughout the two days. Steph said; “I think it couldn’t have come at a better time. It was just meant to be that it happened during our stage four lockdown. It became a very bright spot in a very tough six weeks. It was this moment of honesty and vulnerability and truth and warmness from a lot of the speakers and participants. “You don’t get that level of intimacy and warmness in a big conference room. There was a definite quietness and authenticity to the whole thing that we wouldn’t get in a real-world event. That feeling of vulnerability for everyone, that feeling of intimacy, a lot of that is coming from the fact that we are in lockdown, we are in COVID, we are stuck at home and will be stuck at home for many months.”Olivia mentioned that it was nice to be able to see how people were feeling and coping at the moment and know that we were all in it together; “It got quite emotional and it was kind of nice to see that people felt that they could be emotional, a lot of people were so vulnerable. The speakers were so comfortable to present in a vulnerable way. Even the moment when Daisy had issues with her IT, there was no one to come and rescue her. She was just like one of us. I loved that. It made me feel like I was on her level and really connected to her.”Barriers break down during a shared experience, particularly when those who engage in that experience are authentically themselves. They need to be authentic to create that connection, and if we are vulnerable enough to do that with other people then we create a safe space.Having that commonality and shared understanding lends itself to a need to discuss, learn and share with others. And while the Melbourne may be feeling a bit of zoom fatigue, there is certainly an argument that a willingness to embrace this technology for what it is may, in fact, create more meaningful connections with our fellow locked down citizens. There’s something about being able to glimpse a bookshelf, or a lounge room, in the background of someone’s screen that makes you feel a touch more connected to them. So, to everyone who beamed in from their lounge rooms to ours, thank you. Thank you for the wisdom, the connection, the authenticity, the vulnerability, the laughs and the tears. May we all continue to encourage connection, growth and a bit of physically distant warmth during these *unprecedented* times.​


Last month, Julia Gillard, along with her co-author, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, released their new book; Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons. We were delighted to sit down with Julia on launch day and have a chat to her about the book, women in leadership and why gender really does make a difference to how women are allowed to lead.Dr Janet Smith: Perhaps we could begin, Julia, with you telling us a little about why you've chosen this particular genre which I so admire.Julia Gillard: What we wanted to do with this book was really drill down into the psychological research which is increasingly available about how women leaders are seen. That psychological research is strong but it's inevitably done under laboratory-style conditions. Those great universities, they come up with experiments, they might get groups of students or other people and test their reaction to women leaders in contrived situations, ones that have been modelled for the experiment.We wanted to take what came out of that and see whether or not it lived in the real world and in the lives of women leaders, hence really the marrying, in the book, the academic scholars and research and the storytelling that you point to. And wanting to achieve all of that we had to think really carefully about how are we going to structure it? Where are we going to tell each woman's story chapter-by-chapter but if we did that then I don't think we would have been able to waive the research in.So we went instead for a kind of style where each time we came up with a hypothesis based on our own lived experience or the researcher, a combination of both, and then tested it in the lives of the women's leaders through their words. And so that's the structure of the book. And then we wanted to make sure that people left it feeling energized, ready to go, wanting to make a difference in the world and that's why the last chapter is our standout lessons. And we've been very careful to make them not just for women because we think the work of achieving gender equality has to be for everyone.Dr Janet Smith: Thank you. You suggest in the book that conversations with women leaders should typically begin with why it's wonderful to be a leader. And I enjoyed reading about your mentor, Joan Kirner, who always reinforced the why. And we also reinforce the why about leadership in all of our WLA courses. What's your current answer to that question, Julia, why do you find it wonderful to be a leader?Julia Gillard: Thank you for starting with the positive side because one of the traps I think we can easily fall into and we point this out in the book is we do want people to understand what's still different for women. And we do want to correct that difference, and we do want to strive for gender equality, but in doing all of that it means that we're pointing to the negative not the positive. And for me, the why, the positive is really if you got a sense of purpose if you're motivated by a change of gender, if you've got a passion to create a better world, then really there's no better way of making that come true than being a leader.Leadership has got it stresses and strains but the impact you can have whether it's in politics, business, law, civil society, news media, technology, is heightened by that leadership platform. You too can make a real difference for the lives of others around you. Leadership means role modelling, it means you get the ability to bring a team together and get the best out of them, to coach, to mentor, to create the next generation. For me at this stage of my life, there's a particular delight in that. One of the things that I most like to do is spend time in the company of young women, and I walk away from the exchange much more enriched than anything that I've given out when we've talked. That keeps you thinking, keeps you learning, and that gives you more energy for the next bit.Dr Janet Smith: I really enjoy listening to your podcast One's Own. I typically listen to it when I'm out walking, and each time I listen I'm struck afresh by your introductory words; 'I'm offended by the lack of women in positions of leadership and the way that those that do make it are treated.' Each time I listen to your introduction, Julia, I'm really struck by the strength of your word 'offended' and also just how personal it is. My question is, what is it that most offends you about the situations that women leaders face?Julia Gillard: To just give the snapshot statistic, we put a lot of statistics in the book but the big summary statistic is if we look around our world, 70% of nations have not been led by a woman. Only 13 nations have been led by more than one woman and only two have been led by three women, Iceland and of course, New Zealand with Jacinda Ardern. I think we should find that offensive because if you believe as I do, that merit is equally distributed between the sexes, then that must mean that time after time after time, there are women of great merit who aren't getting to come through and provide leadership.In this complex, contested, fragmented world in which we live, why wouldn't we want to have the best leaders out on the field doing the job for us? And then it really disheartens me when a woman gets there and she's doing, as all leaders do, a mix of good things and some things wrong and instead of actually dealing with all of that on its merits, you'll pick up media and it'll be about appearance or kids. Something that would only happen to a woman leader. A male leader would never have any of the oxygen, the time, the precious minutes of his leadership taken up with that sort of carrying on and so that offends me, too.I think we can't just let ourselves accept it as routine, or the way of the world, or answer it with a frustrated grunt, it has to be a more active emotion than that. Not striding around the world grim-faced, but feeling that sense that this is deeply wrong is what helps me to stay on course with that true north about a gender-equal world.Dr Janet Smith: One thing that I really noticed in reading the book was that you refer to many tight ropes that women must balance in their lives and their leadership. For example, I noticed you said that women leaders need to be seen to be man enough to do the job, in other words, take on those socially-constructed characteristics of male leaders, but they still need to be female enough to be likable. And they mustn't make things sound too easy because it turns other women off, yet they don't want to put too much emphasis on the difficulties because that will turn people off too. So both the superwoman and the super honest woman are both alienating role models as is the pseudo male or the super female woman leader.Reading all of this just reminded me how difficult it is for women to find that sweet spot. And I know that that's referred to as the Goldilocks principle which is sort of like trying to find baby bear's porridge, not too hot, not too cold, just right. I just had this sense of women trying to find this really hard place and I could see that it was really hard for you and Ngozi and the other women in the book to find it too. Apart from how difficult it is, it just takes so much energy, time and vigilance to be second-guessing yourself all the time. My question is, how do we find that sweet spot, Julia? And is there a way even that we can now expand that zone?Julia Gillard: I ultimately believe we need to enlarge the zone and in fact enlarge it so wide that women can be leaders in any mode. The psychological research at the moment certainly does tell us that people can have quite extreme reactions against women who are seen to be offending against gender stereotypes.I was quite startled when we looked at a piece of research from Yale University. They got two groups of voters, put them in two different rooms, got a man to address one room and a woman to address another room. They were pretending to be candidates for the Senate, in fact, they were both actors but pretending to be candidates for the Senate.But they used exactly the same script. And it had lines in it like, "I'm the kind of person who gets things done. I might step on other people's toes to do that but I do get things done." A line like that from a man, fine. A line like that from a woman, a reaction that the researchers use words like 'contempt' and 'disgust' to describe, that's how deep-seated it was. It's telling us that women can come forward as leaders, they need to not look too soft or people won't think they can do the job, but if they come on as too ambitious, too power-hungry, then revulsion will be the response.Women leaders have to have this dose of strong and caring the whole time. Each of the women leaders we spoke to, and they come from countries and cross-sections around the world, Liberia in Africa a poor country, faced the Ebola epidemic, Norway in the icy North, one of the richest countries in the world. The two women who led those nations who spoke to us said both of them were aware of this and self-limited behaviours because of it.For women who want to step forward for leadership right now, all I can say is, "Be aware that there is this conundrum and you need to think about how you're going to present as a leader." But I am optimistic that the more we have women lead, the wider space and terrain becomes. For example, Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand is very conscious that she's got a greater terrain than if she'd been the first woman. Theresa May says that about the United Kingdom as well.Whereas I think when Hillary went to be the first president of the United States it was still an incredibly narrow path for her to try and walk. Things to think about as an individual, but ultimately the solution is a collective one. We've got to change this all so we have more women leaders come through.Did you enjoy this interview? You can read the rest, and watch a live recording of the conversation, on WLA Connect. Join today.​


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