Surprising Lessons From 4 Kick-Arse Women

Here are the best insights we took from All About Women 2016

To mark International Women’s Day, here are the best things four female authors and thought leaders had to say at the Sydney Opera House for this year’s All About Women festival.


Anne-Marie SlaughterWe need to prepare for male caregivers

After leaving a position at the US State Department to spend more time caring for her teenage sons, Anne-Marie penned The Atlantic article ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.’ With more than 2.7 million views online it became one of the titles’ most popular articles ever written and now the former academic is adamant that women won’t be able to achieve equality without focusing on men first.

“Along the way we devalued care so now if you’re in a profesion and you step back to care for your children, your elders, your spouse, your friend, your community members and you suddenly say ‘I’m at home caring for somebody’ watch how fast you sink in the social estimation of the person you are talking to,” says Anne-Marie.

“If I could change one single thing, it is that when we talk about our children we don’t talk about women, we talk about parents, we talk about men, we talk about single parents. This reflexive assumption that care is a woman’s job is locking us into permanent inequality. Care is a woman’s job, it is equally a man’s job.

“You can’t have a halfway revolution. You once had women as caregivers and men as breadwinners then you said, ‘Okay women can be breadwinners too.’ So women get to do both but for men we still completely expect that their primary role is bread winning.’

“The only way to get to equality is to value care when men do it just as much as when women do it. We need to expect them to it. We raise our daughters and we assume they will have caregiving obligations at some point. What women like me have done forever in talking to younger women is to say, ‘Have you thought about how you’re going to fit together work and family?’ Why aren’t we asking our sons exactly the same question? Why aren’t we saying to our sons and all the young men we mentor, ‘Well, if you are planning to have a family, have you thought about how you’re going to fit together whatever you’re doing professionally and the care of your children or your parents or anybody else?’”


Jennifer Whelan: Mindfulness can dim unconscious bias

The founding director of Psynapse Psychometrics, it’s Jennifer’s job to help companies overcome issues of diversity and inclusion so it’s no surprise unconscious bias – those thought patterns and assumptions we unknowingly make about others – is top of her list to discuss.

Your unconscious bias happens without you even realising and basically stacks the deck by the time you have a chance to think consciously about something. Take for instance the way men and women lead.

“[People say] women are good at being empathic, relationship building, nurturing, emotional intelligence stuff – what we call transformational leadership,” says Jennifer. “Men are much better at striking a deal and bossing people around, asserting themselves and cracking the whip, so called transactional leadership. This is what people believe, that women lead that way and men lead this way.

“When you actually measure men and women on transactional and transformational leadership you get no difference. Gender explains less than four per cent of the difference. Yet, I think almost every executive I deal with has this article of faith that men and women lead differently in this way.
“So the stereotype goggle combined with this unconscious pattern-seeking brain might have the effect of magnifying our perception of differences that aren’t really there.”
But this problem doesn’t just exist when evaluating senior execs, unconscious bias plays a part in everything from hiring to promotions and for that reason big technology companies have begun giving their staff unconscious bias training in an effort to make the unconscious conscious, in the hope that the conscious brain wouldn’t have the same bias but the “brain is like a muscle – the neuronal connections don’t just disappear.” Instead, mindfulness seems the way to go.
“We know that, amongst the myriad other things that mindfulness does for you, mindfulness is a dimmer switch for unconscious bias it actually turns it down. And it does that because it strengthens your conscious sensor. It enables you to have more control and awareness of what you’re thinking, while you’re thinking in the moment – reflection in the moment.
“We teach a lot of mindfulness-based techniques that are aimed at what organisations are increasingly starting to call, and maybe it’s the arrival of another corporate buzzword, meta-thinking skills. That teach you how to understand and exert more conscious, mindful control over how you think.”


Margie Orford: Take time for yourself

It was in 1999 when Margie, a mother of three young girls, landed a Fulbright Scholarship in New York City – half a world away from her young family in Namibia.

“That idea of ambition and power and place in the world belongs as much to mothers of children as it does to their fathers. It’s something men stole from us, its something patriarchy takes from us and we need to take back,” says Margie, who ended up spending a year away from her three daughters.

“The best thing that [my middle daughter] learned with me being away that year was if I died it would be fine,” laughs Margie. “Because before that she’d always been afraid of if I died there would be no one to look after her. But because she’d been looked after by my extended family she said ‘I would be sad mum, don’t worry’ but she felt secure in the world.”

And it wasn’t the only time off Margie took. After once getting a large royalty check, she knew it was time to invest in herself and took six months off.

“All I have is my intellectual capital and resolve, so I thought ‘I’m going to take this, I’m not going to have a facelift, I’m not going to buy a new car, I’m going to invest it in myself. Because if you are a creative person, if that’s how you generate things, you are your own factory.”

Take her Margie’s mum’s advice: If you don’t do it, you will burden yourself for the rest of your life by asking ‘What if?’


Ann Sherry: Discard perfect, be brave

Named Australia’s most influential women in 2015, former prison social worker and now Carnival Australia CEO Ann Sherry is passionate about women in leadership – but not the way you’ve seen it done before.

“Real leadership is about pushing the boundaries. Sometimes it’s about breaking the rules, because the rules were made at a time that’s irrelevant or by someone who is now irrelevant. Or someone who’s an idiot. Rather than trying to fit into those boundaries I think real leadership – and whether it’s loud or not – is about challenging norms, challenging things that are wrong, trying new things, being prepared to fail, taking risk,” says the former CEO of Westpac New Zealand and Bank of Melbourne.

“That translates in lots of different ways – it’s the risk of trying to do something with your business that’s different, it’s the risk of trying a new job itself, it’s the risk of bringing up your kids differently, it’s all sorts of risks. But taking risks needs to be better embedded in our conversation because without it we’ll stay within the current system; unless you take risks the status quo doesn’t change because you’re constantly trying to manoeuvre yourself inside it rather than take it on.

“I think one of the challenges for all of us is that we need to focus on being brave, not perfect. What we know is that change comes from trying something, and if it doesn’t work you try something else and if that doesn’t work you try something else. Change comes from a series of failures and trying to do better each time. It doesn’t come from trying to be perfect and staying in the boundaries of the status quo.”

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