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Women in Leadership – International Women’s Day 2021

Women in Leadership

Women in Leadership – International Women’s Day 2021

This year, the global UN Women theme for International Women’s Day (IWD) 2021 is ‘Women in Leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world’. This theme celebrates the tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in shaping a more equal future. Across the globe, women are leading nations, organisations and institutions carrying out effective and inclusive COVID-19 responses, from the highest levels of decision-making through to frontline service delivery, and yet:

  • Women are significantly under-represented in parliaments, holding only one-quarter of parliamentary seats worldwide.¹ In Australia, we fare only slightly better, and still fall short of the 50/50 goal: 30.46% of MPs are women.²
  • In Australian companies, women represent just 17.1% of CEOs and 14.1% of board chairs.³

To help celebrate female leadership, we have gathered their ‘top tips for aspiring leaders’ from our interviews with women holding leadership positions throughout a wide range of industries across Australia.

Barbara Yeoh – Former Chair at Monash Health

First of all, self-reflection. It’s terribly important and I think you need to build your self-awareness. I’d say that was something that I’ve really come to later in my career, rather than very early. When you’re very enthusiastic and see things with a bright future. But I think self-reflection is so important, and I personally benefit a lot from self-reflection after a board meeting about what went right, what went wrong, what have I learned from that and what can I learn from that.

The other couple of tips I’d give is don’t leave kindness and generosity outside the door, it does matter. You need to have courage, and you need courage for two reasons. If you’re really going to grow and develop both personally and professionally, you need to step outside your comfort zone. You need courage to take risks with your career, but more importantly, you need moral courage to make decisions as a leader. When you’re a leader you don’t have perfect information, if you’re a leader and making decisions based on perfect information, then you shouldn’t be making those decisions, you should be delegating them.

I think the one for the future is to have an open and agile mind. I don’t think any of us could say we know what the future’s going to look like at this point in time. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we don’t even know whether we’re really going to come out of it, how we’re really going to come out of it, and what transition really looks like. So, that is going to be a strength that we’re going to need more and more of in our leaders. So that they are very open in their thinking, they’re very agile in the way they process information and make decisions.

Christine Kilpatrick- CEO at Melbourne Health

First of all, don’t be in a rush, sometimes you meet young people and they are always worrying about leadership and how do I become a leader. They tend to focus on that upward progression before really getting the basics right. So I think don’t be in a rush, that depends on what stage of your career you are in of course. But take your time.

The second tip is if you’re a clinician, to be a clinician leader and go into management as I have, you don’t need as much clinical work as I did. But to have a very good base of clinical work before you go into a management role is a good thing. I think you get credibility that way. It’s important that you genuinely understand the challenges that healthcare workers have and the complexity of working in health. Some frontline work is excellent, a substantial amount is good.

Then the next tip is to be brave and take that next step when it’s the time. I contemplated doing an MBA and contemplated going to management for quite a while before I ever did. I said what if I fail, that wouldn’t be any good. I should have been braver and wish I had got going somewhat earlier. That’s a regret, would life be different, I don’t know. But in retrospect, I think I left that too late. So there can be two extremes in that sense.

Take on a role that maybe sometimes you might think of like a rollercoaster. You might say I really want to do that one, but it might be the one that’s being offered to you. That’s what that was my first step, I took the role no one else wanted and then went on from there.

So, don’t be in a rush. Having said that, be brave and take the next step when it’s time. Get some clinical work under your belt, if that’s what you have as a background. Finally, don’t be afraid to take on the role that no one else wants, because you may well do very well and it’ll be a big stepping stone.”

Debra Graves – CEO of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia

I think they need to take life very seriously, from the point of view of what they can do and what they can achieve. I think they need to be tenacious and don’t result from difficult positions, because there are always difficult decisions in healthcare. They need to get a good grounding in management practices, law, finance, economics and epidemiology. They need to get some good practical experience, being mentored is a good way of doing it. Keep working and always keep in mind particularly if you’re a medical person in healthcare, you’re there for the patient and that is the critical issue that you’re there to make sure that patients get the best possible care and the system works as well as possible. I’d recommend a medical administration career to anybody.

Faye McMillan – Director of the Djirruwang Program at Charles Sturt University

Believe in yourself. Surround yourself with those that you know, have your best interests at heart. That your success isn’t going to frighten them and try and change your trajectory. Know the people around you and put those systems in place. Know your own value proposition too. I suppose one of the things over the last five to ten years that I really learned is, what’s your elevator pitch. What’s your two-minute pitch that if you were able to stand in an elevator with one person that you think could truly contribute to your journey, what would that sound like and practice it.

Georgia Hinton – Former Director of Operations and Business Development at Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute

Travel – meet different people, have different experiences, build networks and take some risks.  Keep doing this throughout your career – don’t let work stop you.  It’s such an important part of developing you as a person and makes you a more well-rounded leader. Goals are always great, but to be honest I have never had really visionary goals.  I sometimes feel they can be restrictive for people. Don’t get stale in one role or one organisation, move around because that’s how you keep learning, stay refreshed and energised and that’s what makes organisations dynamic and innovative.

Julie Squires – CEO at Ability Options

The key thing is to be clear on what the nature of the job is. Is it to fill a gap and keep things in the direction that they are already going? Is it a turn-around? What needs to be done? Then you work to that. The second thing is to make sure that you have a good exit strategy so that the incoming CEO (or other role) can seamlessly step in and do the things that they need to be doing for the longer term. This is very beneficial for the organisation. It is important not to create a sense of dependency or reliance.

Michele Smith – CEO at North Eastern Community Hospital

You’ve got to have the fire in your belly. If someone wants a job with me and they don’t have the authenticity to show me or don’t have the fire in their belly, regardless of merit and technical qualifications I’m just not even going to look at them. I’m going to look at the person who’s excited, who’s thinking outside of the square and would sit in the car wash with their laptop doing an email. I don’t care if I come in late so long as they are doing the work and helping us achieve the end game. These are the people I want to look at. I’m not going to look at your qualifications first unless it’s a clinical requirement.

Crystallise your end game, allow people to reach the endpoint in however way they want to reach it within the time frame that you set and don’t micromanage.

Michelle Wearing-Smith – Head of Marketing and Communications at Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI)

Play to your strengths. Work on developing other areas of strength. A human-first approach to inspire the best of people. Keep your knowledge and skills relevant. Learn to work under great leaders and not so great ones. The most powerful lessons in leadership I have learnt were from working with the most challenging of leaders.

Monica Trujillo – Chief Medical Officer and Chief Clinical Information Officer at Cerner Corporation

If they don’t see the type of role that they want here and now, don’t be discouraged because the payoff is there. There is a lot of changes coming. But truly go back to what your passion is because if you do find your passion you will find your sense of purpose that will help you really ride all those challenges that come your way. Because there will be challenges, one of the key things I say to my son, who’s about to enter into university, we’re only deciding your first step in your journey and you never know where the road might take you, you never know where you go. And don’t try to plan too much just, try to go with some of that flow and what’s coming to you as well.

Robyn Ward – Executive Dean at the Faculty of Medicine and Health at the University of Sydney

You know I would say. Just do it. I think. Because it’s a lot of people wait for. Permission or to be asked to be a leader. They sort of try to think it’s something that you that being leaders that you just go step up and do it. So if you want to change the world or even change your own environment or do something differently you’ve just gotten to it. Don’t wait to be asked. Don’t wait to get a tap on the shoulder or permission. Just put yourself out there and try and make a difference.

Ruth Vine – Deputy Chief Medical Officer at the Australian Government Department of Health

I’ve been very lucky, but I’ve also been very keen to say yes. When opportunities arise, say yes. When you’re asked to come and give a talk to someone, say yes. I think that then exposes you to a whole raft of experiences and that’s really what we want to do, isn’t it? We want to keep our minds open to different ideas, but also to how you can make a contribution.

Shelly Park – CEO at Australian Red Cross Lifeblood

Believe in yourself, have confidence in yourself, understand the environment that you’re going to be working in. Always have the confidence to surround yourself with people who are better than yourself, to me that is the core of diversity is you have different skillsets and different thought processes. Take the time to understand and learn about the environment. Sometimes take roles that might be a sideways role, but that will actually really grow your skill set to go forward. Find some really good mentors both within the industry and outside of it, I think getting that breadth of thinking is really important. Don’t underestimate the importance of education and make sure that you keep investing in yourself.

Today, every day I read, every day I learn, every day I learn of someone else. I think that’s a great thing to invest in yourself early in your career. I often reflect on the words of one of our previous governors here in Australia, Quentin Bryce, who said, you can have it all, but not all at the same time. So, be fair to yourself and work out what you have, and when you have it. You can blend some careers and family and everything that you want to do. But sometimes you just have to work out what you’re going to give. So you’ve got to look after yourself on the whole of your career because without you there is no career.”

Sue Channon – Former Group CEO of Virtus Health

Be authentic, always operate with the highest level of honesty and integrity and don’t compromise this. Don’t lose your passion for what you do. Develop good listening skills, always be ready to learn, you won’t always be right. Employ the right people.

Tracey Burton – Executive Director at Uniting NSW/ACT

I think the number one thing is to say yes. So even though you might doubt yourself and think, I could fail at that, I’ve never done that, how will I tackle that, do I have time. If you can say yes to those opportunities of being involved in a project, I think that’s a really important one. That’s where you get to stretch and where you get a reputation of being someone who is willing to go above and beyond and contribute as well.

I think making sure you’re making time for reflective practice is really important. Often leaders don’t realise the impact that they’re having on others. They might rush into something, and if they stopped and thought, and planned they would be in a better place. So making time for that reflective practice.

Another tip would be to actively seek feedback. Really making sure that people know that you genuinely are trying to learn and grow. Therefore, even though it might be tough love and it might be hard for you, you really want it because you are on an improvement and a journey.

The other is that someone really pushed me to do some postgraduate study when I was at a particular stage of my career. I was definitely in a senior position and was busy with kids and wasn’t sure how I would find time to do it. But I was given a bit of a push to do that and I ended up doing an MBA over several years. I took it as a journey rather than a destination. I’m forever grateful that someone really did give me that knowledge, because I think it’s really important to have that continued learning, formal or informal, as part of your offering and part of your own leadership growth.


  2. Inter-Parliamentary Union | Australia. (2021). Inter-Parliamentary Union.
  3. Women in leadership | WGEA. (2020). Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

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