Confidence v being the ‘ball-breaker’: female bosses speak up


Renee Leon, Secretary, Department of Employment

It’s unfair that confidence and assertiveness are often seen as negative traits when displayed by women, no question, but that’s no reason to give up on getting to the top, say Canberra’s most powerful women.

Lisa Paul
Lisa Paul

Be authentic to yourself, find and understand your own unique “kernel of confidence” and let it flourish, advises Department of Education secretary Lisa Paul. All leaders need a wide repertoire of behaviours, she says, even if women are interpreted more narrowly than men.

“I guess through my career I’ve tried to pitch myself to the situation to get the [desired] outcome,” Paul said. “Sometimes something will require aggression to get it done. Sometimes … it will require something else.”

Paul was speaking to a packed room of public administration professionals on Monday night, nearly all of them women, together with the four other female heads of federal departments.

“If the alternative,” said Employment boss Renee Leon (pictured top), “is to choose between being confident of your own abilities and being one of those people who [sounds like they are] kind of apologising for everything that you say and hoping that people will like you nonetheless, I know which risk I’d rather take.

“I’m not sort of some freak or oddity having caring responsibilities …”

“And I just say, believe in yourself. You don’t have to become some kind of ball-breaking, ass-kicking bastard … just be confident, calm, know your stuff and be prepared to get out there and do it. And just do not succumb to the stereotypes.”

A Treasury staff member in the audience said women in her department were often cast in a negative light when they are confident and try to seize opportunities, as the five successful women had just advised.

Earlier, Paul had suggested women avoid “using the rising inflection, because it comes across as quite unassertive and girly” and said women should find small ways to stand up for each other on a daily basis.

Her colleague Jane Halton, the Finance Department boss, said: “We need to be the change we want to see, the shoulders for those coming behind us to stand on.”

Glenys Beauchamp
Glenys Beauchamp

Paul says equality requires women to demonstrate and demand the fairness they expected on a “minute-to-minute, moment-to-moment, meeting-to-meeting, day-to-day” basis.

“You might talk over someone if you need to — and so what? You might make sure you acknowledge, pay credit to a woman’s contribution inside [a] meeting,” she said. “Let the women speak; call them out if you’re chairing [a meeting].”

According to Paul, men still often get credit for good ideas that were mostly ignored when originally put forward by women.

All the speakers observed that successful people are optimistic about their own abilities, and assume they can learn or acquire the other skills necessary for a new challenge. There was general agreement that women are more likely than men to worry about their weaknesses rather than focus on their strengths.

“You don’t have to become some kind of ball-breaking, ass-kicking bastard …”

Department of Industry, Innovation and Science head Glenys Beauchamp agreed with her colleagues’ sentiments, adding that women should be clear about their own expectations of inclusive behaviour in the workplace.

Beauchamp says diversity must be recognised as the “absolute business imperative” it is, especially in particular agencies and work areas like information technology that are low on female representation. Encouraging and welcoming more girls into careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields is vital to lifting national productivity, the Industry boss said.

Leon says her confidence came from studying at a girls’ school, where she was taught that women could do anything. Having “a member of the Whitlam family” as the principal also meant the students were taught that activism was often needed to bring positive social change.

“When things weren’t organised the way I thought they ought to be, around gender equality in the department I was in, I didn’t just take it lying down,” she said. “I got involved in forming a network, having a social movement, getting into activism and pressuring the department to do something about it.”

Renee Leon
Renee Leon

She recalled a male division head saying her job couldn’t be done part-time when she had young children, but another — Kathy Leigh, now the head of the ACT public service — was happy to make it work. “That’s how you get good people,” Leon said, to spontaneous applause.

“I’m not sort of some freak or oddity having caring responsibilities; actually probably half their workforce has caring responsibilities and it’s in the organisation’s interests to make it possible to use the talent of all of those people,” she added.

“So I’ve been uppity about expecting the organisations that I’ve worked with to recognise that and to make it possible — not just for me but for everyone — and that’s the kind of thing that I think makes the public service capable of being an employer of choice.”

She said her own rise to the top required both luck and self-confidence.

Different kinds of leadership

Human Services head Kathryn Campbell encouraged women aspiring to seniority to be willing to take on the hard jobs: those with short timeframes, or which involve running programs the public don’t like. She sees three essential qualities of leaders.

“The first is vision, being able to set the vision for what we’re trying to achieve and to be able to bring colleagues with you on that journey. The second is passion. I think you need to love the job you’re doing. The third is commitment to get the job done … you’ve got to be able to keep going and hang in there through the good days and the bad days.”

Kathryn Campbell
Kathryn Campbell

In the Department of Education, Paul’s senior executives are rated 50% on business outcomes and 50% on leadership. She only sees two main aspects of good leaders: they can articulate their team’s strategic direction in connection to the wider organisational and economic context, and they genuinely care about other people.

“In my view there’s no excuse for inconsistent, frightening, even discourteous, up-and-down, let alone bullying behaviour,” Paul said.

Monday’s event, hosted by the Institute for Public Administration Australia ACT division, celebrated 30 years since Helen Williams became the first woman to lead a federal department. Williams would then be demoted two years later after taking maternity leave, amid a major consolidation that reduced the number of departments by 10 on the same day she came back. After five years as an associate secretary, she went on to lead four more departments, punctuated by a stint as APS commissioner between 1998 and 2002.

While Williams first made it to the top in 1985, it was another 17 years before Halton became the second woman to lead in the APS. Halton recalled being told in the late 1980s that “men with families to feed” had priority for promotions in Finance, so she applied elsewhere.

Jane Halton
Jane Halton

In that decade, “the representation of women in senior ranks was growing with all the speed and urgency of a snail on Valium” but things are much better now, with women occupying 40% of SES jobs, she commented.

“In those days there was one type of leader, and he wore cufflinks and a tie,” Halton said in a recorded video, having been called away by her political master at short notice.

“So having positive female leadership role models is critical if young female leaders of tomorrow are going to have something concrete to which they can relate and aspire. As women we need to be prepared to step up and grasp leadership positions. We need to put ourselves forward and put in the hard yards to make it happen.”

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