Resilience in a Woman's World

By Niamh Cremins

“Be yourself and be authentic”
Sage advice from Australian retailer and FBE alumna Sally Macdonald speaking to the theme of resilience: forging ahead in life and work at the 2017 alumni women’s lunch at Zinc, Federation Square on Thursday 23 March.

The annual event saw women at all stages of their career share engaging conversation and some scrumptious food before a five woman panel took the stage. Chaired by Sally Capp, Victorian Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia and a member of the Business and Economics Board, the panel reflected the breadth of executive management experience among FBE’s female alumni community.

Women's lunch table chatter
Sharing professional stories as the Alumni Women's Lunch kicks off

Comprised of past and present Business and Economics Alumni of Distinction Award recipients, the panel included; Yasmin Allen, Non-Executive Director, ASX Limited; Wesa Chau, Director of Cultural Intelligence and Co-founder of Poliversity; Paula Dwyer, Chairman, Tabcorp Holdings and Healthscope Limited; and Sally Macdonald, CEO, Antipodean Group.

Work-life balance, a common thread in discussions of women and the workplace, was defined broadly by our panel as; the courage to demand a career while also feeling legitimate in making choices in your families best interest, the strength not to have to fit into a man’s world, and the confidence to be agile and adaptable in non-traditional ways. These are all valued professional attributes, which, as women, we are required to practice daily without reward. That alone is a strength which women in business quietly share and was greeted by a sea of nodding approval around the room.

A Woman’s Responsibility

Research shows that women assume more responsibility for household chores and child care. In fact, the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research found that, even among very highly trained individuals – in this instance general practice doctors – women with children aged 0 to 4 are more likely than men to work part time. 79 per cent of female GPs with children work part time compared to 16 per cent of their male counterparts. Female GPs also face an earnings penalty of up to $30 000 while male GPs experience an earnings bonus of up to $45 000 after having children. More women than ever before are studying medicine but a high proportion choose general practice as a career because it is associated with more flexible conditions.

While many industries advocate for flexible, family friendly workplaces, the reality, particularly within the ranks of senior management, is far from the utopian ideal.

Yasmin Allen (BCom 1985) openly shared what she called her biggest career failure and, in that, demonstrated the unique responsibility of women in society.

Yasmin
Yasmin Allen inspires with her honest and open career journey account

With extensive financial services, strategy and corporate governance experience under her belt and a string of senior titles and accolades to her name, Allen was returning to work after her second child. Like many mothers, she decided to return four days a week. Despite Allen’s confidence to deliver on all her existing responsibilities within a reduced time frame the offer on the table was disappointing. Allen could continue to do the same job but without the same level of seniority and at a reduced wage. She left, started a new career and very successfully worked her way up again. To many of us sitting in the room this was a success story but to Allen it was her great failure.

“I shouldn’t have said ‘this is what I want’,” she explained. “I should have changed my language to ‘this is what it’s going to be and this is how I’m going to manage it.’”

Her advice was to build a strong network of mentors, supporters and advocates within the organisation early and, most importantly, to believe in yourself.

Double Glazing

Looking at the panel, most would agree that these outstanding business women have broken right through the glass ceiling but despite their impressive CVs, they are facing unique challenges where resilience is more important than ever before.

Sally
Sally Macdonald mentors with a little bit of humour

Sally Macdonald (BCom 1990) says her mantra is courage before confidence – jumping before you find your wings.

“I needed personal strength when I had children,” Macdonald explained. “I believed I had the right to work but I was constantly faced with questions like ‘what does your hubby do?’ and ‘who’s minding the children?’ I essentially had to start all over again; what I had done before didn’t seem to matter. That was only the early 2000s.”

Macdonald went on to be known as the turnaround CEO with high profile, leadership roles in Oroton, Woolworths and Big W.

“Resilience sounds like we have to put up with a lot of crap,” she said, “but we shouldn’t have to. Fitting into a male dominated world shouldn’t be part of our vocabulary. You have to be your authentic self in the face of any challenges you encounter.”

The panel were in agreement: women, still in the minority in high profile leadership roles, may face increased scrutiny, but many men also share concerns around how they present themselves and lack the confidence to put themselves forward.

Back Yourself

At the mention of ‘imposter syndrome’ the sea of heads begin their nodding once again but Paula Dwyer (BCom 1982) said that this is not necessarily a female problem.

Larisa and Alexandra
Larisa Moran, Chair of the Business and Economics Alumni Council catches up with Alexandra Amalfi, Financial Analyst at Evans Dixon Group

“Overcoming feelings of being an imposter – whether in your personal or professional life – comes from knowing yourself,” she said. “You need to have strategies to talk yourself back into your legitimacy, your value and why you’re there. Everyone has these doubts at all points throughout their career.”

Sally Macdonald’s strategy is being ready for those moments of doubt.

“When self-doubt creeps in, tell yourself five things you’re doing great. Repeat them aloud and believe them.”

The concept of backing yourself resounded throughout the speakers’ words and stories. According to Paula Dwyer if you don’t put yourself forward no one else will; it’s up to each of us to navigate our own course.

“Don’t be afraid to show your ambition,” Dwyer said. “Put yourself forward even for the long shot opportunities. You will build contacts, gain experience and, more than likely, you will be front of mind when the next opportunity arises.”

Sally Macdonald added that when you’re pushing yourself toward professional advancement it’s vital to remember that business is a team sport.

“You can be an amazing colleague,” she said. Help people out and remember it’s not all about me, me, me…”

Wesa Chau (BE(SoftEng)(Hons) 2004/ BCom 2004) took this a step further with her advice to gain political skills to progress your career. Build relationships with the right people and add value on the issues that are important to them.

That All Important Balance

Chau is a firm advocate for balance, drawing on the important concept in Chinese philosophy. Questions from the audience highlighted the shared concern within the room that stress and pressure have become synonymous with business leadership.

Q&A
Questions from the floor inspire some thought provoking discussion

Chau describes herself as a spiritual person, fortunate enough to have found balance in her everyday life. She surrounds herself with people who compliment her and practices sound meditation to help centre herself and de-stress.

“It’s so important to find the things that make you happy and help you de-stress,” Chau said. “I often allow myself to be a child again. I’ll play dress-up, go to the park and take pictures. That makes me happy.”

Balance also enables Chau to cope with challenging workplace situations.

“Balance is so important to the resilience of the organisation,” Chau explained.

“I am often the minority in business situations – a woman from a different cultural background and I look quite young.

“I try to find a different perspective depending on the audience and that is where I can add value. For example look at how feminism can mean so many different things in different cultures.”

These women are not in business to be advocates for women in business, but in their strength and authentic, hard-working attitudes, they are paving the way for more women and men to take control of their own destinies; to pave their own career paths in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Yasmin Allen, Wesa Chau, Paula Dwyer and Sally Macdonald are among the many outstanding Business and Economics Alumni who have been honoured for their contributions through the Alumni of Distinction Awards.

Banner Image: Sally Macdonald, Paula Dwyer, Wesa Chau, Yasmin Allen and Sally Capp take questions from the floor.

View all images from the event here courtesy of Ryuhei Tsukamoto Photography.