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Women at the top: author talks to leaders who broke glass ceiling

The Climb: Conversations with Australian Women in Power
The Climb: Conversations with Australian Women in Power

Leadership literature is excessively geared towards men, ABC presenter Geraldine Doogue declares, so she’s set about inspiring more women to show ambition.

Authoring a new book — The Climb: Conversations with Australian Women in Power — Doogue set out to find good stories of contemporary women who were up for the big fight. She interviewed 14 leaders who have gained legitimacy in politics, academia, law, business, armed forces and religion. She hopes they’ll be useful to young women in need of mentoring.

“Maybe there’d be more women in positions of power, far more, if women could identify more with acclaimed leaders’ stories. I strongly sense that young women need to approve broadly of the senior women around them before they will strive themselves. They need to believe that they’ll like themselves if success comes.”

Doogue interviewed several figures with government sector experience, including Reserve Bank board member Heather Ridout, broadcast executive Sandra Levy, Aboriginal justice leader Priscilla Collins and Major General Simone Wilkie.

Many assume the public service has more women in leadership positions than every other industry, except not-for-profits, but at the very top there’s not much difference. The final Australian Census of Women in Leadership in 2012 found 9.2% of ASX 500 companies had a female CEO. An equivalent role in the public sector, secretary or director general of a major department is no more likely to be filled by a woman.

Federally, only five of the 18 major department heads are women: Lisa Paul at Education, Renée Leon at Employment, Professor Jane Halton at Health, Kathryn Campbell at Human Services and Glenys Beauchamp at Industry.

It’s not much better at state level: Victoria has only Gill Callister running Human Services, South Australia has Joslene Mazel in charge of Communities and Social Inclusion, in Northern Territory Clare Gardiner-Barnes heads Transport, and Queensland has Sue Rickerby at Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts.

It’s a little better at NSW, where three of the nine department heads are women: Michele Bruniges is secretary of the Education and Communities, Dr Mary Foley heads NSW Health, and Carolyn McNally runs Planning and Environment.

The ACT, with the smallest public service, stands alone in having a majority of its primary bodies led by women. Of the seven ACT directorates, five are headed by women, including the head of service Kathy Leigh. Additionally, Diane Joseph runs Education and Training, Dr Peggy Brown at Health Directorate, Natalie Howson at Community Services and Megan Smithies at Commerce and Works.

Tell us your experience: have you found success or struggle in your path to public sector leadership? Let us know, we’d love to hear your story …

More at The Mandarin: Women in the APS: better than the ASX, still work to do

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.