Setting the record straight on women’s leadership

Volume 8 Number 1 January 9 - February 12 2012

At a national conference held at Old Parliament House over two days in early December, an international expert on women’s leadership set the record straight about the profound, pervasive yet consistently unacknowledged contribution of Australian women to public and community life. Gabrielle Murphy reports.

Just over a year after Australia’s first female prime minister was sworn in by its first female governor-general, Nicola Roxon’s appointment as attorney-general marked another significant achievement in the role of women in Australia’s leadership.

Speaking to the media on the day of her appointment, Ms Roxon proclaimed her pride in becoming the country’s first female attorney-general and expressed her hope that it would be a signal for Australian girls that, with passion and commitment, any job is open to them.

“I look forward to the time my daughter, who’s six, will live in a country where there won’t be many things that will be the ‘first’ that a woman will be,” she says.

Amanda Sinclair is an international expert on women’s leadership and Foundation Professor of Management, Diversity and Change at the Melbourne Business School at the University of Melbourne. In early December she joined a host of researchers, activists, politicians, and community, business and civic leaders to discuss the history and future of women’s leadership in Australia.

The national conference on Women, Leadership and Democracy in Australia was hosted by the University of Melbourne and the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House in Canberra, and officially opened by the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce.

In the paper she presented to the conference, Professor Sinclair joined other participants in setting the record straight about Australian women’s contribution to public and community life.

“There is no doubt that this contribution constitutes leadership,” says Professor Sinclair. “But it has rarely been acknowledged as such.”

“While we can hope that connecting a record of women’s achievement with the term ‘leadership’ will bring increased recognition, I am doubtful.”

Professor Sinclair believes that being part of a conference such as this, which showcased the diversity of research on women’s leadership since 1900, provided her with a unique opportunity to test her doubts.

“It not only provided me with an opportunity to explore why increased recognition will not necessarily eventuate from a recording of women’s achievements but the chance to explore the options open to women leaders. And I explored three in the conference paper,” says Professor Sinclair.

The first option floated by Professor Sinclair relates to women performing against pre-existing criteria of leadership, an approach she describes as the ‘add women and stir’ remedy. “In this approach, leadership is treated as a good and is not subject to any critique,” she says.

“The second option is to seek to change or expand the criteria of leadership to include qualities that women often have an interest in mobilising in leadership, for example, an ethic of care and nurturance, of more lateral and decentralised structures in ‘women’s ways of organising’. Of course, the very real risk with this approach is that all women will be expected to deliver this – and only this – a simplified, stereotyped, second order kind of leadership.”

The third option is one paraphrased from Bella Abzug, the bold warrior of the women’s movement and a feisty, lifelong defender of women’s rights, who also famously said ‘This woman’s place is in the house, the House of Representatives’. And it is this option that Professor Sinclair advocates – ‘Leadership will not change the nature of women, but women will change the nature of leadership’.

“Where women are freer to create their own organisational and leadership culture, they will often do so differently,” says Professor Sinclair.

“In these cases, leadership will generally be more collaborative and less hierarchical, power will be more devolved and structures more participative, and there will be greater interest in the whole person.

“Many of the papers presented at this conference are fantastic examples of how women use new and powerful ways of exploring leadership phenomena through narratives, observation and participant observation, and story-telling,” says Professor Sinclair.

“I don’t think the importance and value of this process can be understated. In documenting more fully women’s leadership, we should aim to change understandings of what is recognised as leadership.”

“Not just ‘adding women in’ but shifting public imagination, understanding and images of what good leadership is.”

Along with Nicola Roxon’s appointment as Australia’s first female attorney-general, the Prime Minister’s December 2011 reshuffle saw a record five women in cabinet. The extent to which this historic situation will contribute to a shifting in public opinion about the role of women leaders in the Australian context will be interesting to see.

The Women, Leadership and Democracy in Australia conference was conducted as part of an Australian Research Linkage project. The conference proceedings will be available online in March 2012, and negotiations are currently under way for an international publication.