‘A different kind of leadership’: how women can build influence in the public sector

By Shannon Jenkins

April 14, 2020

group of women looking upward
There is no such thing as the ‘universal woman’. (moodboard/Adobe)

Current and emerging public sector leaders have joined up to discuss the challenges women in face in the workforce, the ways they can overcome those challenges through building their visibility and influence, as well as the importance of supporting other women.

Last month Mandarin Live and Visibility Co. held the first of a series of masterclasses on how women in the public sector can maximise their influence, with the next event set to run online next week.

Roughly 20 attendees from across the Commonwealth and New South Wales governments were joined by NSW auditor-general Margaret Crawford and former Hurstville Mayor and political advisor Joanne Matthews.

Led by Visibility Co. directors Julia May and Sarah Anderson, the event provided attendees with simple but powerful strategic communications tools and techniques, and a framework for translating skills and strategies into an action plan.

The masterclass also involved a mixture of facilitator-led discussions, individual challenges and group work, which centred on three pillars: visibility to self, visibility to others, and collective visibility.

May noted that people often assume visibility is about being seen and heard by others, but the first step is actually “being visible to yourself”.

“If you don’t know yourself and you’re not clear on your values and your vision and how you get in your own way, you can’t really step forward into leadership and have as much impact as you might like to,” she told The Mandarin.

“So the masterclass is about both visibility to self and visibility to others.”

She said Visibility Co. treats leadership as a state of mind, rather than a job title.

“We believe very strongly that when you’ve got women operating at their best, you get a different kind of leadership and a different kind of outcome,” she said, noting the widely admired leadership style of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

“We’re really intent on supporting these women to become more visible in a way that feels right for them. So it’s not about becoming artificially dominant or being a loudmouth where you’re naturally quite shy, it’s about using the strengths that you have and amplifying them to have more impact, to have more influence.”

She noted that while research has shown women outperform men in most leadership capabilities, women are under-represented in leadership across nearly all levels of government.

However, the first masterclass heard two public sector leaders — Crawford and Matthews — talk openly and honestly about their career highs and lows, as well as their mistakes.

The panellists agreed that while visibility can be uncomfortable at times, it is necessary in order to be of service. They discussed a range of challenges for women in the workforce, including how the need to be liked and a fear of conflict can get in the way of advancement.

Crawford noted some aspects of leadership and visibility get easier with practice, like public speaking, while other aspects never stop being challenging.

A highlight for May was when Crawford opened up about how being championed by someone more senior can be “absolutely life changing”.

“What we know is that women tend to struggle to put their hands up for professional development much more than men… what we see is the power of how women being championed — by men or women — can be really life changing,” May said.

“Women at their best, they support other women.”

While the masterclasses were originally going to be held in various cities across Australia, they have now been shifted online in response to the restrictions brought about by COVID-19.

The Mandarin’s Claire Sullivan said the online format of the masterclass worked “almost better than an offsite face to face forum”.

Streaming the event from the comfort of their own homes allowed many attendees to feel more confident and relaxed because they could “be themselves”, May said, and offered other surprising opportunities.

For example, one attendee said she had benefitted from seeing herself on her computer screen, because it allowed her to see how she used non-verbal forms of communication — such as body language and facial expressions — which may have been holding her back.

The online format also allowed attendees to tackle communications challenges that have arisen during the coronavirus, such as leading remotely and online rather than in person.

Attendees have the option of staying connected with their peers via a private Facebook group, where they can continue to support each other through their careers and future leadership challenges.

The next masterclass will hear from director-general of the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries Dr Beth Woods, Queensland manager at Intelligent Risks Limited Eliza Thorn, CEO and circular economy strategist from Coreo Ashleigh Morris, and The Mandarin’s partnerships director Claire Sullivan.


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