Text size: A A A

‘Change is what keeps me alive’: Erma Ranieri’s award-winning turn

South Australia’s public service employment commissioner Erma Ranieri (pictured) has accepted a top award for women in business, declaring women make great leaders because of their ability to adapt and keep ahead of change.

Recognised for her achievements in guiding reform and change in the state’s public service, Ranieri said she was humbled to be named the 2014 Telstra Business Woman of the Year, the peak award, in addition to the community and government category.

“Change is the only constant that we’ll have, and I strongly believe women are good at this,” Ranieri told the audience last night in Adelaide.

“I, like many of you, was juggling a career with children … it’s not easy. The places I picked to work were ones that had great leaders, and allowed me to devote my life to both work and life in a meaningful way … I’ve spent a lot of time with other women, through mentoring and hearing their successes. But I’ve learned the most when we’ve shared our challenges and failures.”

As an advocate for women in the workplace, Ranieri said women needed to have courage to accept vulnerability and take risks. Good leaders need to put themselves on the line, she said, but not compromise their personal values.

“I believe these are the true leaders and even greater leaders,” she said.

“The reform work I’ve taken across the public service has taken real courage. There was a high chance that I would have failed in the reform that I was doing, and that was a risk I was prepared to take. I chose it precisely because if I did fail, I would have learnt a lot.

“It’s never easy, nor simple, but I’m more determined and courageous to reach for what might seem impossible right now.”

“Change is what keeps me alive. We know that it’s what’s always happening. It’s never easy, nor simple, but I’m more determined and courageous to reach for what might seem impossible right now.”

Ranieri has brought her change and reform agenda with her to the office of public sector employment, since taking over as commissioner in July. She told The Mandarin that she was taking the role in a different direction. In addition to making 90-day projects a cultural core of the public service mentality, the commissioner also has big plans to upgrade oversight capability of the sector, linking workforce statistics, employee wellbeing data and payroll. Ranieri says “if we do all these things to build the public sector then I think we’ll improve the performance at all levels”.

Not one to take the easy road, Ranieri returned to the public service after starting a family and raising two children, and working as a business consultant. But it’s worked out for her, she said: “The places I picked to work were ones that had great leaders, and allowed me to devote my life to both work and life in a meaningful way.”

However, Ranieri is one of only a handful of women in chief executive roles in public sector bodies at the Commonwealth or state level. Fewer still head the large public service departments. The public service still lags behind the private sector in recognising the value women bring to leadership, as shown in the final Australian Census of Women in Leadership in 2012, which found 9.2% of ASX 500 companies had a female CEO.

Only five of the 18 federal department heads are women. SA, Victoria, Northern Territory and Queensland each have only one women leading a department. New South Wales has three of nine departments headed by women; ACT has five of its seven directorates.

The lack of gender diversity in public sector leadership roles has been one of the criticisms from recent inquiries by the Productivity Commission and the Australian Human Rights Commission into the barriers of women returning to work. They did find the public sector doing well in some areas though, such as job sharing in more junior positions.

More at The Mandarin: Erma Ranieri on changing South Australia 90 days at a time

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.