IPAA Victoria celebrates women in emergency management for International Women’s Day

By Shannon Jenkins

March 9, 2020

Virginia Trioli, Sharon Houlihan, Debra Abbott, and Dr Bethany Roberts.

Women in emergency management, gender discrimination in the workplace, and the art of leadership took the focus at IPAA Victoria’s International Women’s Day dinner event on Thursday.

Hosted by Victoria Police’s Bonnie Cavanagh and attended by more than 1200 guests, the event allowed women’s achievements to be “unequivocally celebrated on their own terms”, the peak body for Victoria’s public servants said.

In light of the devestating bushfires that ravaged the state over summer, the event was dedicated to the women who worked to keep communities safe. Three of the women who led Victoria’s bushfire response, relief, and recovery efforts spoke at the event: deputy commissioner of capability and risk at Emergency Management Victoria, Debra Abbott; deputy chief fire officer at Forest Fire Management Victoria, Dr Bethany Roberts; and general manager of community and culture at Wellington Shire Council, Sharon Houlihan.

Journalist Virginia Trioli moderated the panel of speakers.

On leadership during a crisis

The women recounted their experiences over the last summer.

Abbott noted that there were points in time where all she could do was hope that all the preparation in the lead up and during the disaster would get her team through the worst days.

“People think that when you talk about command, control and coordination, that it’s just a leadership style. But it’s actually the framework in which we work,” she said. “Certainly at that time, you’re relying heavily on what you’ve put in place beforehand, because at the time of crisis, it could only have been changed by your actions before.”

Roberts described how the fires escalated for Gippsland over New Years Eve, to the point where in some areas it was too late for residents to leave. She recounted what it was like to realise that some townships may no longer be there once the fires passed.

“As a leader, there is nothing more difficult than that. Knowing your communities have suffered really terrible destruction overnight. The days wore on and we really started to get a grip on what happened, people losing homes and stock and infrastructure, including our own staff, and people losing their lives,” she said, before she choked up in a powerful display of vulnerability.

She noted that one of the things she learned is that everybody has a different idea of leadership.

“Some people want real command control, some people want emotion, some people want their leader to be there and to be speaking, some people want their leader just to be in the background … I’ve spent an enormous amount of energy trying to be that for everyone,” she said.

Despite this, “just being authentic” is all a leader can do in the toughest moments, Roberts said.

Houlihan, on the other hand, said leaders must know what it is that their team needs to understand about a community, in order to be able to effectively talk to that community.

Abbott argued that sometimes leadership means “removing the ego” and letting other leaders who have established trust with a community take over.

“[Sometimes] leadership is to let others shine,” she said, noting that people are more likely to listen to important messages if they feel safe.

“The community was definitely listening to our messages and that was so important because otherwise when you tell somebody, ‘hey, you’re going to have to leave your home and you’ve got to trust us here’, then you want them to act. It’s not enough to just pass the message if you want them to do something.”

On structural gender discrimination

Abbott argued continuity of service is incredibly important.

“I think one of the only reasons I’m here is because I only took five months leave for my first child, and that’s a sad thing,” she noted.

Roberts said often discrimination in the workplace isn’t conscious, but it restricts upon career pathways. For example, having protective equipment that’s not made for women.

“Having a one-piece suit. Can you imagine walking around and thinking, how am I going to go to the toilet discreetly on this fire ground, let alone change a tampon?” she said.

Australia has fallen from a rank of 15th to 44th on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index in the last 14 years, Trioli noted. She asked the panel if there is one thing they would like to see introduced or a change they could make to help stop that decline.

While Houlihan said targets are important because they give you something to report against, Abbott argued that there is no single solution.

“I don’t think there’s just one thing. It requires enormous effort and I think if we’ve done anything that is perhaps not effective it’s because we’ve thought there’s one single answer. There’s not,” she said.

Roberts said the change starts with women embracing the fear of the unknown. She said women should be attempting to break down the barriers for the generations to come.

She recounted how she had appeared on breakfast radio, and decided to take her 11-year-old daughter along. After discussing a controversial topic with the broadcaster, Roberts nervously asked her daughter what she had thought about the experience.

Her reply?

“Do you know what mum? You’re a total badass.”

“You know, if the next generation thinks that we are badass women, then we’re doing something right,” Roberts said.

On work-life balance

“Work-life balance. What a sham that is,” Abbott said.

“It came in at a time where those who were mostly working in paid roles were men, and so whenever I’ve rolled out the work-life balance [discussion] at various forums, I’ve seen men respond to me like, ‘well aren’t you lucky, we’re doing the work part while you do the life part’.”

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