by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

Appearance still matters in politics

 “The apparel oft proclaims the man.”

Written over 400 years ago, these lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, about appearance and ambitions, are still pertinent for men and women aspiring to a higher role either in public office or the workplace.

How you look undeniably matters. Candidates running for election to either local, state or federal office must realise that their ‘dress code’ provides a subtle message to potential voters in a culture where ‘the clothes make the man’ (and woman!). Idealistic political candidates may think that their message is the main thing and eschew paying attention to appearance in order to avoid being seen as ‘vain’. However, the reality is that the public notice details about a candidate’s appearance long before a candidate even starts to voice the ‘vote-for-me’ pitch..

 Assumptions and judgments about appearance influence how citizens vote. Ignore this reality and a campaign is lost before it even begins.

 Why it matters

Personally, I wish it didn’t matter what people wore on the campaign trail. The message should matter more than looks, right? However, research into human nature shows it does. Studies clearly show that people make assumptions about others, based on what a speaker is wearing. Researchers have found that

 “your appearance strongly influences other people’s perception of your financial success, authority, trustworthiness, intelligence, and suitability for hire or promotion” Business Insider,

The upshot is, that if what you’re wearing on the campaign trail, overshadows your message, you run the risk that people may take one look at you and decide not to vote for you. Appearance must be a priority in order to send the right message to voters.

Other studies have found that clothes don’t just influence others’ perceptions of us, they can also change the way we think by improving our abstract cognitive processing skills.

Dress professionally and you not only look better, you also think smarter.   

How clothes proclaim the woman too

While men may be mocked for their sartorial choices, unfortunately, it’s still women that attract greater scrutiny for their appearance. A woman in politics is still unusual. As a result, the press and voters will notice her clothes, shoes, hair and makeup.

Australia has some notorious examples of fascination about the appearance of women politicians such as discussion on Senator Michaelia Cash’s ‘power coif’ hairdo, former senator Natasha Stott Despoja Dr Marten shoes, past Victorian Premier Joan Kirner’s ‘spotty dress’, or the cut of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s jacket.

But there’s often a double standard in place

As a woman Mayor recently said to me “I have to dress-up and do my hair and makeup every day for not only council events but even to just do the grocery shopping. I can’t risk being caught in my jeans or gym gear, because then I am seen as ‘sloppy and dressing down’. But, on the other hand, the male councillors; they can show up in shorts and a t-shirt and people say ‘isn’t he great, he’s one of us’. Women are held to a higher standard of grooming”

There’s no doubt that people expect a woman running for office, or an elected politician to look good. For women, this means working on their appearance virtually all the time. When Hillary Clinton was in Australia recently, she said she had calculated that she had spent about six hundred hours on the campaign trail on grooming. That’s equivalent to 26 days!

What to wear

For a female politician this often equates to wearing  ‘power-suits’ such as those favoured by female politicians on the world stage; think Angela Merkel’s blazer, Theresa May’s skirt-suit and Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit. These women leaders project that they can ‘play the game’ in the male dominated world of politics.

Women want to be seen as attractive to voters without being judged as ‘too sexy’ ‘fussy’ or ‘soft’. That’s why the ‘professional business-woman’ style works.

Male candidates are advised to avoid the ‘scruffy’ look if they want to be taken seriously. Again, although there may be eight dress styles for men in politics,  a professional look is recommended with a simple and well fitted suit in muted colours. Or, take the advice of Barack Obama who basically had one look and stuck to it saying “You’ll see I wear only grey or blue suits – I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Keep it real

If fashion style is not your thing, but you need to look good on the campaign trail, you can always seek some professional stylist advice. The big department stores have experts who can guide you through fashion choices from clothes, suits to accessories.

Look good, but in order to be authentic, you still need to feel comfortable and about what you are wearing.

That might mean comfortable shoes when door knocking and canvassing voters for support. It means not faking it. Beware of the ‘Bourke street bushie’ image. For example, if you’re out on the campaign trail in the ‘bush’ and you decide to wear an Akubra hat, a checked shirt, moleskins and RM Williams boots for the first time in your life, don’t do it. The voters can tell when you’re faking it.

In summary, as a candidate, you need to dress professionally in order to look the part of a politician-to-be while remaining genuine about your message for change. I hope this helps you to get elected!

Ruth McGowan OAM is a consultant, trainer and coach in local government where she also advocates for gender equality and more women in local government. Ruth is currently writing a book to assist candidates to get elected to public office

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P.I – The essential skill every Local Government CEO must have

It’s a high-profile role, with plenty of perks, prestige and power. As a Chief Executive Officer of a local council, you will manage hundreds of staff, 100 services across a municipality, multi-million-dollar budgets and make a positive difference in the local community. Plus, the pay isn’t bad either with salaries ranging from $250,000 – $460,000+. Interested?

If you aspire to ‘step-up’ to council’s top leadership role it can be a rewarding job. However, aspiring candidates need more than an exceptional record of high-level competency in organizational and leadership skills. To succeed in one of the toughest, most complex and challenging jobs in the public service there is one additional skill candidates need to help them not only survive but to thrive in the role. Its to do with working with the Councillors.

A successful local government CEO also needs to be exceptional at handling the politics; they need to be ‘politically savvy’ with a high PI.

Political nous = PI

There’s a variant of Emotional Intelligence known as PI; Political Intelligence. This is defined as “a distinct set of skills and behaviours that are needed by people working in organisations … in order to manage effectively the political landscape”.

In local government, if a CEO lacks the skills of political awareness or ‘political nous’, even experienced CEOs with strong qualifications and skills, can fail spectacularly in this ‘small p’ political environment.

One thing I know for sure from my own experience in local government and as a coach to Mayors, combined with years of observation in the local government sector: highly developed PI is a critical skill for every CEO.

The unique role of a Council CEO

Council is not a ‘typical’ work environment. Under the State legislation, a CEO is required to take direction on the strategic action of the council. This will come not from a skills-based board (like with an ASX 200 company), but from a collection of elected officials. Direction comes from Councillors – all with different views, skills, backgrounds – and opinions (some very strongly held).

In a typical local council, politics may not be on the scale of a State or Federal level, however, there are many Councillors who are drawn to a faction in their local council. Many (but not all) Councillors have political and other affiliations as elected officials as reflects the communities they serve. The workplace can become a highly charged, political environment.

Some council chambers can be a labyrinth of connections, obligations, duties and paybacks. A politically savvy CEO will know how to navigate the challenges and not only survive but thrive.

In this workplace, Councillors only have one staff member to direct and performance manage; ‘their’ CEO. It’s a workplace where a common key performance indicator is the ability to ‘get along with the Mayor’. This is a KPI which is difficult to put metrics around, but failure to demonstrate Political Intelligence can be disastrous for a CEO as Councillors have the power to sack him/her at will (and often do).

The leadership challenge of the ‘Three Edges’

In this highly charged, political environment, a competent CEO must provide leadership at ‘three edges’. Management expert, Henry Mintzberg, suggests that managers in the public sector need to provide leadership at three intersections where “each edge has considerable demands in its own right”. Extrapolating this research to a local council, I suggest a municipal CEO would need to cover these three edges:

  1. The ‘operating edge’, where a CEO would connect with their managers and staff to bring about action from within the organisation
  2. The ‘stakeholder edge’ where a CEO needs to connect with all the ‘outside players that bring tangible pressures to bear’ especially on them
  3. And importantly, the ‘political edge’ where a CEO needs to connect with the local Councillors, who are the politicians that direct the organisation and its operation, (and perhaps also the state and federal politicians in their municipality for grants etc).

Can we expect a CEO candidate for a local council to have the skills and experiences to simultaneously manage and provide effective leadership at each of the edges?

Boosting a CEOs PI

Can an aspiring (or existing) CEO be taught how to better understand and manage the political landscape; can they boost their PI? The answer is a resounding YES.

Just like Emotional Intelligence can be taught, I believe Political Intelligence is a skill that can be learnt. This can occur through coaching, mentoring, astute observations and training. And there’s always the option to watch re-runs of British sitcom Yes Minister and observe the diplomatic language of Private Secretary Bernard and practice the poker face of Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey as they respond to every harebrained scheme and idea of their Minister, Jim Hacker MP.

Over the past decade of working in the local government sector, I have seen some very savvy CEOs in action; men and women who can manage the three edges. I’d like to share some of my observations for their characteristics.

Ten tactics of a politically savvy council CEO

Council CEOs with high IP are:

  1. Good at maths: The CEO clearly understand where the power lies; in the Councillors who have ‘the numbers’ and so control the voting bloc. They can count!
  2. Fair: they treat all Councillors fairly, with no ‘favourites’ – even those with the numbers now (as everything can change next election).
  3. Respectful: they listen and consider different views (with no eye rolling, interrupting, ‘mansplaining’ or patronising comment) and respond with a willingness to genuinely seek a way forward to address Councillors’ concerns
  4. ‘Street smart’: As an experienced executive they would have seen their fair share of ‘brawls’ at various boards or committees and at an organisational level. This gives them a sense when trouble may be brewing, and they can take pre-emptive action to manoeuvre around potential traps or ‘political shit-storms’.
  5. Loyal: They never, ever, disparage or gossip about ‘their Councillors’ to anyone, especially other Councillors or staff. This builds trust.
  6. Calm in a storm: They show an ability to analyse the situation and keep a close eye on ‘the politics’. They provide coaching advice and support when asked or needed, but don’t take sides in order to keep conflict to a minimum.
  7. Good collaborators: Can build partnerships and alliances.
  8. Impartial but not weak: Respects different and diverse opinions but will stand up for what is ethical, legal, and required such as issues of workplace safety and respecting others. They are not a push-over and can offer a forthright opinion when it is needed.
  9. Accountable: they are transparent and honest about organisational failures and work with Councillors to approve plans to address failures. They know the (operational) buck stops with them.
  10. Present: They exhibit a certain ‘stage presence’ which comes from earnt respect (from councillors, staff, peers and the sector) and expertise. This gives them an authority to ‘adjudicate’ if needed, in disputes.

Ready to apply?

Have you got a high IP? Do you have the diplomatic skills to ‘Lead up’ and work in a politically charged environment? Could you work with a diverse (and sometimes divided) group of Councillors to further the interests of your municipality and the residents?

The job of a council CEO is challenging sure – but the work also comes with rewards of exceptional public service. Why not put the term ‘local government CEO’ in the LinkedIn search bar and give it a go!

Ruth McGowan is a consultant to local government and supports Councillors as an independent adviser in the recruitment of their CEO. She is a former Mayor, Councillor and has been appointed to numerous boards where she wishes she had known then, what she knows now about recruiting a politically aware CEO.

by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

5 things to learn from on-line dating to help you recruit your next CEO

Selecting an online dating app is a bit like picking an executive search firm.

These days, if you want a new partner you can just jump online and tap into the many dating apps, services and websites that promise to deliver you plenty of hot talent to choose from. If you’re a Board member, or a Councillor looking to appoint a CEO, you are also in the market for an ideal partner – all be it one who will successfully lead your organisation rather than provide lifelong romantic fulfilment.  Luckily for you, instead of having to do the dating equivalent of hoping you might ‘get lucky’ in the local bar, there are specialised search firms that, for a fee, will do the hard work of finding a match for you.

Just like dating apps are now a ‘normal’ way for many adults to meet others, so too recruitment agencies can assist Boards and Councillors find the ‘perfect match’ for their next CEO.

For decades, online dating services have been helping people find their perfect match. Specialised ‘Head Hunters’ have also been helping organisations place top executives. They are not cheap but represent good value when the risk of a ‘bad hire’ for your next CEO could be a lot more serious for your organisation than personally going on a bad date.

If you want to source high-quality candidates for your chief executive role it’s time to call in an exclusive headhunter. But at first, how do you recruit the right recruiting agent? If you don’t come from a HR background and you have never employed a CEO before how do you avoid the overwhelm of so much choice?

Agencies are modern matchmakers

In the past, singles looking for romance used to place a ‘lonely hearts’ advertisement in the local paper. Now, online dating agencies boast of algorithms that can link you into databases of hundreds of thousands of potential matches. Recruitment agencies are our modern-day matchmakers, skilled at identifying, attracting and assessing qualified candidates to be considered for the CEO role.

And, just as there are plenty of online dating sites – all with different pricing, client databases, and success rates -so too with recruitment agencies. As a consultant, I support councillors as an independent adviser through their CEO recruitment process. The first step is to select an executive recruitment agency that will deliver a good match for the organisation.

So how to select which recruitment agency is right for your organisation? It’s a lot like selecting a dating app!  

5 questions to ask when deciding which agency to hire

1.      What is your reputation?

How good are they at their job? In my work in the local government sector, councils have the choice of several top recruiting agencies to partner with for CEO recruitment. It is a relatively small sector so it’s simple to ask other councils about the pros and cons of the agencies they have previously worked with. Word of mouth is effective. A potential recruitment firm should also be able to provide references and testimonials from like organisations.

Check their success rates and placement statistics. For example, one Australian dating site boasts that it has ‘been responsible for over 11000 marriages’ which sounds impressive. What are the recent success stories of your potential agency?  How extensive and diverse is their own database of potential applicants, either existing CEOs or ‘step-ups’ from senior management?

2.    Tell me about your experience?

It is useful to understand the background of different agencies and their experience in your sector or profession. Do you want a firm that is well known for appointing successful placements over many years? Or are you willing to try a new company with an innovative niche approach?

3.    Can you explain your processes?

When deciding on who to hire as your recruitment firm, their processes make all the difference. Ask about:

  • How do they source talent – how they find and reach talent; both through passive advertising (e.g. newspaper, LinkedIn, SEEK etc) and active means (such as ‘tapping people on the shoulder’ to apply or their own database?)
  • Psychometric testing – just as a ‘personality test’ is key to setting up an online dating profile, similarly, most recruitment agencies offer to test as part of their assessment processes. But not all psychological tests are useful. Check that the agency applies tests that are relevant to the skills (soft and hard), character and aptitude which is specific to the role.
  • Their guarantee – If the placement doesn’t work out, for whatever reason in the first 12 months, do they have a guarantee to refill the position free of charge? And is their dispute resolution process quick and fair?
  • Manage confidentiality – how do they manage candidates that wish to be discrete with their application?
  • Dealing with Internal candidates – how do they sensitively and fairly manage internal candidates?
  • Diversity – how effective are they are putting forward diverse candidates for consideration?
  • Fraud – how do they check and vet potential applicants. Just as with on-line dating, not everyone out there is exactly who they say they are. Careful security vetting is a must.
  • Support – understand how they will keep you (or the CEO recruitment Panel) involved, informed of progress and build ownership of the process?

4.    Who is your personnel?

Who will be handling your search – the top talent or her/his junior associate? The musical, Fiddler on the Roof has a famous song about matchmaker Yente, the village woman who knew everyone’s business and was skilled in arranging traditional marriages. When selecting an agency, you want to get the top talent, someone who is as experienced as Yente! Does your agency personnel know who’s who in your sector? Do they have a good network and understanding of who could potentially be a great CEO for your organisation? Are they like the ‘village busybody’ with a great handle on what’s going on?

5.    Are you a FIT for us?

There’s a dating app out there for just about any niche group you could think of; from a racial background, LGBTI to vegetarian. You can easily find the right ‘fit’ for your potential dating interests if you care to search.

When you are paying good money to hire an executive search firm to come and partner with you for several months in the search for a new CEO, you need a firm that understands you.

One that ‘gets’ your challenges, opportunities and your culture. For instance, in the local government sector, it is important that the recruitment agent understands the rare skills mix that is required to be a successful Council CEO in what can be a highly charged, political environment.

Swipe right and commence the search

Next time you need to select an executive recruitment agent to land your ‘perfect match CEO’, draw on these tips to ‘swipe right’ and select your ace recruiter. With a bit of luck, there will be plenty of fish to select from, including top talent that RSVPs ‘yes’ to your advertisement, ultimately producing a CEO that matches all your expectations so that you can work together in harmony for happily ever after!

Ruth McGowan is a consultant to local government and supports councillors as an independent adviser in the recruitment of their CEO. She is a former Mayor and has been appointed to numerous boards where she wishes she had known then, what she knows now about recruiting a CEO. 

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Diversity in disaster

Every year many thousands of people and communities across the world are impacted by natural or man-made emergencies and disasters.

In 2017 the global cost of disasters resulted in the third-most expensive year for insured losses, costing US$ 337 billion dollars. Also, the UN reported 11,000 people dead or missing as a result of disasters across the globe, reflecting a devastating hurricane season and many destructive wildfires.

What can we learn about reducing the social and economic costs? What has diversity got to do with helping people prepare for, respond to and recover from disaster?

Quite a lot as it turns out.

Disasters discriminate

This week I attended a 2-day Diversity in Disaster conference in Melbourne, where speakers explored a range of strategies that organisations can employ to reduce inequalities and help build resilient communities at risk of disasters.

Emergency management agencies, organisations and communities presented on what they have learnt about being more inclusive of diversity their planning and response to disasters and emergencies. Their discussions would interest to any organisation wanting to better engage with diverse customers or clients around managing risk.

Powerful stories were told about how disasters do discriminate. Research shows that vulnerable and minority communities bear the brunt of the impact – in monetary and health terms and often sadly with their lives. A theme was that:

The sad fact is that diverse communities face a disproportionate risk during disasters. Research shows you are more likely to die from a disaster if you are from a poor or vulnerable community or identify with a minority group.

Many people from diverse, marginalised or underrepresented communities experience disasters differently, facing unique challenges that affect their ability to respond and recover.

Diversity matters

Increasingly the lens of Diversity and Inclusion is helping to improve the way programs are delivered around disaster planning and response. This is ultimately helping people from minority groups and diverse communities become better prepared for, cope with and recover from disasters. It’s even saving lives.

It is always powerful when you hear the stories of people with lived experiences of the importance of being included in decision making that affect their lives. At the Diversity in Disasters conference, people from diverse communities told their stories about empowering programs that were helping them be more resilient in the face of inevitable disaster risks.  We heard:

  •  About the power of art therapy in assisting community recovery following the devastating Australian bushfires in February 2009,
  • Reports on how agencies can partner with children to build resilience in emergencies.
  • From Sharon who shared her heart-breaking story about the impact a major bushfire had on her marriage as she and her husband struggled to recover from the trauma in the months of recovery. This was sadly backed up by research that that domestic violence reports triple following a disaster.
  • From Leroy, a young transgendered man, who spoke about how his fire brigade focussed on building an inclusive environment for volunteer firefighters by deliberately making their fire station environment feel safer and welcoming for LGBTI members such as unisex bathrooms.
  • From Ross, a blind man, who spoke about his unique contribution to a local council’s emergency planning committee as he had experience of someone with a physical disability who had survived a previous disaster.

Not easy but worth it

Incorporating diversity in disaster planning, response efforts and recovery programs is not easy, but it is worth it.

By asking the question ‘how can we be more inclusive?’ organisations can deliver a more robust program on the ground that is, in turn, more effective, saving lives and dignity.

Sometimes it may be far less challenging to roll out a ‘one size fits all’ approach. However, increasingly research is finding that treating ‘the community’ as one homogeneous blob, results in ineffective support and, at worse, additional loss of life.

The challenge for government agencies and organisations is to work with diverse groups, not as problems and ‘victims’ that need charity. The better-practices discussed at the conference, are working to prepare communities at risk with tailored support through respectful engagement. The result is programs that empower people to support them to bounce back and thrive when disaster hits. The launch of the National Gender in Emergency Guidelines include practical checklists for agencies with a genuine desire to improve diversity considerations in their planning for disasters.

The approaches taken by emergency response agencies to be inclusive of diversity can be adapted by organisations wanting to develop robust Risk Management Plans in a world where disasters are are becoming more frequent.

Minority communities can often be overlooked in risk management planning. The reality is they have unique viewpoints and experiences that can significantly add to organisational and community contributions to disaster planning. With the global trend to more and more disasters, it is high time to include a consideration of diversity in disaster planning.

Ruth McGowan OAM is a gender equity advocate, volunteer firefighter and consultant to local government. In 2014 she was recognised for her outstanding community leadership  with an Order of Australia  honour

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How’s your G-spot?

How important is the very human characteristic of generosity to you? Do you have a ‘G-spot’ or a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to being kind to others or giving more than is expected? For me, this is a crucial quality in the people I work with and the leaders I admire. Imagine if we had workplaces where people ‘worked their G-spot’ instead of having a blind spot when it came to being generous. What would that look like?

I was recently struck by a story I heard about the funeral of the British actor, David Niven who died several years ago. It was reported that among the many messages from mourners, there was a huge wreath from the porters at Heathrow Airport. It came with a card that read:

To the finest gentleman who ever walked through these halls. He made a porter feel like a king.

David Niven was someone who, despite his fame, was known to be decent to everyone he met, no matter what job they had or how important they were. He was a generous person.

G for Generosity

Generous people are the people you know who have a collaborative rather than competitive mindset. They are happy to share information with others and provide their time and support as mentors or coaches. They give credit where credit is due. When teams are lead by leaders with a generous mindset or G-Spot, remarkable things happen in an environment where people thrive.

It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit Harry S Truman

Generous leaders are great leaders

Throughout my working life, I have been lucky to work with some inspiring leaders in a range of jobs and volunteering roles. Like most people who have spent a few decades in the workforce, I’ve experienced a variety of leadership styles; some good -some terrible.

Recently I have been assisting a board to employ their next CEO. Together, we got talking about the characteristics they wanted to see in their next leader. It got me thinking. What were the qualities of the good leaders that I’ve worked with? In reflection, it’s something quite simple and that is that they are generous people.

Generosity is about a whole lot more than being charitable or giving money to a worthy cause through philanthropy. Leaders with a ‘G-Spot’ are people who are naturally engaging and show compassion and fairness to everyone.  Leaders that ignore opportunities to be generous, display a Blind-Spot in their interactions with others.

G-spot vs Blind-spot

A unique human quality

Being a generous leader is that intrinsic quality that may be hard to put a finger on, but you know it when you see it, when you hear it and when you feel it. Having a generous spirit is a defining human characteristic. In the next 30 years, Artificial Intelligence is likely to drive automation of nearly every job in Australia. However, there is one quality that we will always seek in human leaders; the irreplaceable human trait of generosity. It’s difficult to imagine a machine being able to meet the definition of generosity of ‘being kind and doing or giving more than is usual or expected’.

Why we need to practice generosity

Writing in the Harvard Business Review about the value of generosity to your career, Jodi Glickman notes that when someone is being generous, “What comes across is a strong work ethic, great communication skills, and a willingness and ability to collaborate”. She goes on to explain the benefits are that “Leaders and managers who are generous engender trust, respect and goodwill from their colleagues and employees”. Show me a workplace that doesn’t need more of that!

Work your G-spot

What could you do to be more generous towards the people you work or volunteer with? It’s a uniquely human characteristic and one that people want to see in their leaders. By practising generosity in your workplace and community it will not only enrich your life but the also the well-being of others. Remembering the words of the great statesman who said:

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give Winston Churchill

Would people say you are a generous person?’ If not, it’s never too late to change. Find your G-spot and get going on being more generous.

Ruth McGowan OAM is a consultant, trainer and coach of leaders in local government and rural Australia. She also likes to practice the attitude and actions of a generous person 😉  

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Time for Bystanders to Buy-in

It could have been your wife or your sister telling this story, a friend or your daughter. Or maybe your local councillor.

“He was standing there yelling and screaming at me in a public place being really aggressive. But no-one said anything. It was humiliating”

“After she walked out of the tea room, he turned around and made a comment about her breasts. The rest of the blokes sniggered. What could I say? I wanted to fit in as one of the boys”

 “He continually harassed me, so I complained to the Mayor, but it didn’t stop. I eventually resigned from council, but he’s still there today as a Councillor. I worry for the women staff”

These stories come from women I’ve met in my work as a gender equity consultant and coach, in the local government sector. Many other women (and some men) have similar stories from their workplaces. It’s either happened to them, their girlfriends or a relative. Maybe you’ve heard stories like this too?

What are the observers doing?

When I hear these stories, the #MeToo moments, I can’t help thinking why is it always up to the victim to complain? What about the bystanders to this appalling behaviour? What support and tools can assist those observers to ‘call it out’ and take action? How can organisations build a culture where bystanders take up  General David Morrison’s challenge of ‘The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept’?

Local government has recently been in the spotlight following investigations of sexual harassment claims by former councillor Tessa Sullivan and councillor Cathy Oke against the Lord Mayor of the City of Melbourne Council, Robert Doyle (who has since resigned).  The stories told by these two brave women were shattering to hear. Cathy and Tessa are to be applauded for doing local government a service and bringing sexual harassment out of the chamber and into the spotlight. Councillor Cathy Oke has called for a change “in the way systems support women speaking out”. She noted that even though “I consider myself a very strong and an intelligent woman, why is it that those power structures within politics stop someone even like me speaking out?”

Sexism shouldn’t be ‘normal’

A recent survey by Our Watch, a national organisation aimed at preventing violence against women and children, found that:

“sexism, gender discrimination and gender inequality are widespread problems in Australia” Our Watch

This was particularly a concern in male-dominated workplaces. No wonder many women councillors experience sexism and harassment. Council chambers are dominated by men with surveys reporting that a typical councillor is an older white male in their late 50’s and 60s.  Certainly, the vast majority of councillors are decent men, doing great jobs as elected representatives. But, could they be doing more to be active rather than passive bystanders? Many of the women councillors I talk to, think so.

If harassment and aggressive behaviour is a pervasive part of women’s work experiences from politics to farming, manufacturing to the military, then what can be done? It’s time for bystanders to ‘buy in’ and stop bad behaviour.

In his book Every Day Ethics, ethicist Dr Simon Longstaff notes that “harassment can occur whenever a person behaves in a manner that another person finds inappropriate and disagreeable”. He adds that every person has a ‘right to register their discomfort and ask another to refrain from specific behaviours”. From an ethical perspective, Dr Longstaff notes that when it’s time to ‘call someone out’, that ‘ideally the complainant will not have to act alone but will be backed by a network of supporters who are ready to offer assistance”. He quotes Edmund Burke

“All it needs for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”

Tools to bring in the bystanders

Rather than doing tick-the-box, compulsory sexual harassment training, research shows that workplace training on ‘Bringing in the Bystander’ is more effective in addressing inappropriate behaviour in organisations. Training can address the phenomena of The Bystander Effect in which “individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present”. A recent article for the New York Times discussed the power of programs in American university colleges and the military that empower bystanders to act and ‘call it out’. The results were demonstratively better than compulsory sexual harassment training for employees.

It’s time to give bystanders and all those ‘good men’ the tools to feel more confident to challenge attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that normalise gender-based harassment.

Practical action

Here are some suggested tools can bystanders apply when they witness inappropriate behaviour:

  • Comment on the behaviour of the perpetrator and call it out to him/her as you hear or see it – “That joke wasn’t funny; it’s sexist” or “I found that the way you spoke to X was aggressive/condescending/patronising/sleazy and it made me feel uncomfortable”
  • Disrupt the situation, e.g. ask the victim if she wants to come get a coffee with you, or can read over your notes etc. Distract the harasser.
  • Take it up with the harasser later, by asking open questions such as “Are you aware of how you came across in that conversation?” Surprisingly, sometimes they are not!
  • Talk to your colleagues later to ‘de-normalise’ the situation by asking “Did anyone else notice that? Surely, I am not the only one that thinks that is sleazy?” (or aggressive or threatening etc)
  • Talk to the target of the harassment and let her know you saw what happened. Offer to support her if she wants to take it further.
  • Take it up with your People & Culture or HR department.
  • If you’re a leader in your organisation, check your code of conduct, policies and continually update them.

So . . .  back to those stories. What would you do? If your wife, sister, daughter or friend was harassed, would you feel confident to step up and take action to protect her? If no, perhaps organise some bystander training or try these suggestions. Buy in. Change it.

Ruth McGowan OAM is a gender equity advocate and champion for women in local government through her work as a consultant and coach.

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Let’s talk about sexism in politics

It’s loud, aggressive; a theatre of spin, insults and manufactured outrage, orchestrated by grown men who should know better. Yes, I’m talking about our Federal Parliament’s Question Time. On a visit to Federal Parliament in Canberra this week, I couldn’t help but wonder

Would politicians’ behaviour be improved if we had equal representation of women in politics?’

Alas, Australia still has a while to go until we reach gender equality in federal politics. Men currently outnumber women 4:1 in the House of Representatives and about 3:1 in the Senate. Here’s the latest stats as compiled recently by Women’s Agenda.

  • in the lower house, women occupy 44 of the 150 positions, almost 30% of seats.
  • In the Senate women now hold 32 seats out of 76, or roughly 42% of the chamber
  • women represent 48% of Labor MPs
  • women hold 19 of the 84 Liberal MPs and senators in parliament, around 22%,

It was 124 years ago when South Australia became the first polity in the world to grant equal political rights to both men and women, not only allowing them to vote but also to stand for parliament. All Australian states had followed by 1908. Since then, there have been 206 women in federal politics and 76 of them are in our ‘big house’ right now. Path-breaking women doing their best to represent their constituents in this masculine-dominated field of public service. But why is equality in representation taking so long?

Perhaps it’s because of entrenched sexism which is delivering a political system inherently biased against female politicians

 Sexism in politics

It’s a difficult fact of political life but most women who have been elected to public office will have stories to tell of when they have been directly or indirectly subjected to sexist comments and behaviour.

As an example, think of media reporting on politicians. Why is it only women who receive comments on their marital status, age, parenting situation, clothes, looks or even their voice? When was the last time you read or heard a comment about a male politician’s outfit? Apart from the ‘red or blue’ commentary on his tie choice, probably never. Unlike their male peers, women in politics inevitably experience sexist comments about their hairstyles, clothes, body shape and shoes. Remember the judgemental comments on Teresa Mays infamous leather pants and comments she was out of touch with the average voter because her trousers were ‘so expensive’. No such comments about her peers in their Saville Row, bespoke-suits which went quietly under the sartorial radar.

Wives and mothers first; pollies second

Over the past century community and media expectation has been that female politicians should be wives and mothers. However, history shows that even if a mother runs for office, she is inevitable questioned about how she will continue to care for her children. For example, the creepy comments recently asked of NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on 60 minutes about “Can you have a baby, be a mother and still do the job?” At least there was a collective groan when that interview was aired earlier this year.

 Sexism is everywhere

It’s not only parts of the media that push sexism in politics. Women politicians may also be put down by their opponents or even by their own colleagues. Recall the national cringe moment when former Prime Minister Tony Abbot said he was ‘complimenting’ the then federal MP Fiona Scott for her ‘sex appeal’ while on the campaign trail? She later said the comments were offensive and ‘sexually objectified’ her. Ms Scott also reported that the comments lead to a lack of credibility with some of her male colleagues when she was elected.

Sadly, women can also be subjected to even more severe threats from members of the public. Australia’s former Prime Minister Julia Gillard said that for women in public life the “threats of violent abuse, of rape, are far too common. A woman in public view may expect to receive them almost daily”.

 Women push on

Despite the widespread sexism that inevitably seems to come with the job of being a politician, women are pushing on; making a difference, representing their communities and advocating on issues they feel strongly about. Programs such as Melbourne University’s Pathway to Politics are aiming to improve diversity in representation. As a fellow of the 2017 program, I was privileged to hear a range of excellent speakers including many female politicians from a range of political views sharing their stories about what it is like to be a woman in politics. These inspiring politicians shared their achievements and reflections on how they made a difference – despite often harrowing tales of sexism and discrimination.

This week, while visiting Australia’s Parliament house I looked down and noticed millions of dents spreading across the wooden floors of the vast hallways.

Millions of grooves on the polished parquetry give me hope that one day we will have gender equality in our federal parliament

Because, if you look closely, every one of those marks was put there by a woman politician (or her female staffer) striding out in high heels and subtly leaving her mark on the corridors of power. And I am forever grateful to all those women in public office, making their mark, pulling free the grip of sexism on political power and making it easier for the women to come.

Ruth McGowan OAM is a gender equity advocate and champion for women in local government through her work as a consultant and coach. Ruth is currently writing a book to assist candidates to get elected to public office.

by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

Council collides with #MeToo

This week the global #MeToo movement of women speaking about their experiences of sexual harassment smashed into Australian local government. The fallout from this collision will forever change the way councils respond to sexist behaviour.

Across local government, CEOs, Councillors and governance staff are scrambling to see if their council Code of Conduct would pass ‘the Doyle test’ and peak bodies are calling for change.

As background, the former lord mayor of the City of Melbourne, Robert Doyle was one of the most well-known, and important councillors in Australia. Following an investigation into complaints about his conduct, investigators this week found that Doyle had indeed sexually harassed two councillors; Tessa Sullivan, who resigned after making a complaint in September, and current Councillor Cathy Oke.

My hope is that the courage of Tessa Sullivan and Cathy Oke speaking up, will result in real change for women in local government across Australia.

How bad is it for women councillors?

No records are kept on the levels of harassment experienced by women councillors in Australia however, the experience of the Melbourne councillors is not unique. As a Local Government coach, I support many women councillors in their demanding role as community leaders. As women describe the challenges of public office, inevitably stories of bullying and harassment surface. The offensive behaviour comes not only from fellow councillors but also from members of the community.

It’s a difficult fact of political life but most women in public office will have #MeToo stories of sexual harassment or sexist behaviour directed towards them.

In the past when women complained they were often told “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, toughen up!”, “it’s just a joke’, or “that’s the way he is, just ignore him.”  However, as a result of the report into harassment at the City of Melbourne, I think we’ve reached a tipping point where things must change.  Time is indeed up for sexism in politics.

 Councils need to be safer for women

The report on the sexual harassment allegations at the City of Melbourne has highlighted the need to make councils safer workplaces for women. This will mean changes to Councils’ Code of Conduct which are silent on sexual harassment. As Tessa Sullivan said this week on ABC Radio

Out of 79 councils, you would presume there would be harassment or sexual harassment of some kind. To completely lack a policy leaves women vulnerable and open to what happened to us and furthermore gives them absolutely no outlet for complaint”. Tessa Sullivan

Across the sector, there is recognition by the peak bodies that things need to change. The Municipal Association of Victoria said the City of Melbourne report “highlighted the need for better processes to deal with allegations of sexual harassment and maintain a safe workplace for all councillors and staff”. A call echoed by the Victorian Local Governance Association who want the state government to “include sexual harassment and discriminatory behaviour as grounds for serious misconduct by councillors”.

The organisation representing women councillors, the Australian Local Government Women’s Association (ALGWA) are also calling for fundamental changes to be made including a complaint handling process similar to the UK where a Local Government Commissioner receives and investigate complaints and then makes recommendations to an independent body.

“There needs to be an overhaul of the Code of Conduct complaints process and it needs to be independent of individual Councils.” ALGWA President Cr Coral Ross

The timing is right not only with the growing confidence and boldness women have to come forward with  #MeToo stories, but also with the review by the Victorian Government of the Local Government Act, which currently makes no specific mention of sexual harassment relating to misconduct.

The Doyle Test

Codes of conducts that seek to regulate Councillors’ behaviour have been put on notice that from now on they need to pass ‘The Doyle Test’. I encourage Councils to assess the efficacy of their code to deal with similar allegations by asking two questions:

  1. “If Robert Doyle was our Mayor and a female councillor made sexual harassment allegations against him, how would this have fairly and swiftly been handled by our code of conduct”? and
  2. “Where do we need to improve our code to make our workplace safe for all councillors?”

The courage of Tessa Sullivan and Cathy Oke must be acknowledged with lasting changes so that when harassment happens it can be confidentially reported, swiftly resolved and ultimately prevented. I hope their pain from speaking out, will not be in vain but leaves a legacy where:

  • From now on women councillors no longer have to put up with the “rough and tumble’ of politics which makes excuses for sexist behaviour and harassment,
  • The next Local Government Act addresses these types of behaviours and
  • Soon, every council code of conduct will pass the ‘Doyle Test’.

These brave women who called out the behaviour of the most powerful councillor in the state, deserve no less. #TimesUp in local government.

Ruth McGowan is a former Mayor and Councillor. She works as a consultant and coach in local government and runs training and programs to support women to stand for council. She was recently contracted by the Victorian Government to develop the Best Practice Guidelines on Gender Equality in Local Government.  

by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

Press Fast Forward for Gender Equality

Sometimes when I want to catch a movie that’s been scheduled to play on free-to-air TV, I will record it. Then, later on, I can watch it at my leisure and fast-forward the advertisements with my remote control in hand and skip to the good bits. I’ve been thinking about this as a strategy in the lead up to International Women’s Day.

Right now, I wish I had a great big remote control and could press a fast-forward button on advancing gender equality and skip the bad bits.

Because, despite advances, we still have a long way to go in terms of reaching equality for women. On many measurements, it is likely to take decades to reach parity. I want things to swing into fast-forward mode and to speed up legislation, systems, policies that deliver fairness and equality for women.

#IWD2018 a time for reflection

Thursday is International Women’s Day, #IWD2018. It’s a chance to celebrate women’s achievements and contributions. The day also provides an occasion to reflect on the barriers to equality and consider how far we still need to go to reach gender parity for women not just in Australia but all over the world.

Last year, the IWD theme was #BeBoldForChange. And boy did we see some sassy fem boldness in 2017! With movements like #ItsTime and #MeToo as well as the #WomensMarches we witnessed women all over the world standing up in their hundreds and thousands for equality, fairness and a better deal.

In 2018, the theme is #PressforProgress. But, with this theme, it’s not about just pressing the ‘play’ button – that’s basically a ‘business as usual’ approach. When it comes to seeking gender parity, I think it’s time to hit the fast-forward button!

The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates it will be 118 years before women around the world can expect equal pay. I’m not going to be alive in 2136. Neither will you. We can’t wait that long, for the sake of our daughters and granddaughters.

We can’t wait another 100 + years for gender equality.

Oh no – we’ve hit the Rewind button!

Sometimes it feels like we are making little progress on gender equality in this country – and on this, the statistics back me up.

Reflect on these trends:

  • Analysis of the Gender Pay Gap shows women still earn less than men, 15.3% in fact. However, in 2004 it was slightly better, at 14.9% according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. We’ve gone backwards on equality of pay.
  • In terms of political representation of women in our 45th Federal parliament, female politicians are around 28% of members, well short of the minimum 30% necessary to influence decision making and the political agenda. Further, the International Parliamentary Union ranks Australia as 49th in the world. We were previously ranked20th in the world in 2001. We’ve gone backwards on women’s representation.
  • Australia is now 35th on the Global Gender Gap report, an international measure of the relative gaps between women and men across four key areas: health, education, economy and politics. We’re definitely going backwards here. Only three years ago in 2014, we were 24th.
  • The progress of women on top ASX 200 boards is glacial. A report by KPMG found that“Among the top 100 companies, the percentage of women in CEO and COO/deputy CEO roles did not change between 2011 and 2016, while female representation at CFO level reduced’. Stalling here.

These statistics reflect the status of women across the board. I would guess they would be much worse for women with disabilities, for rural women and older women, women identifying as LGBTI or from culturally diverse backgrounds as well as Aboriginal women.

Forget press forward; it’s time to hit Fast Forward

 Five actions to fast forward fairness

 Last year, the Workplace Gender Equality highlighted actions that organisations can put in place to measure operational progress on gender equality. These actions can be measured. They can be reported.  They can assist an organisation to stay accountable for their policies on gender equity, diversity and inclusion.

  1. Conduct a gender pay gap analysis of your organisation
  2. Make managers responsible for KPIs related to gender equality
  3. Appoint women to manager roles (including promotions)
  4. Develop and promote flexible work policies
  5.  Appoint women directors on boards and governing bodies

How is your organisation going on implementing these measures? Or, is it just paying lip service to gender equality? Because if there are no specific actions pressing forward for progress, things will go backwards and HR may as well be pressing the rewind button.

This International Women’s day the focus will be on what we can to be active for equality. I hope we don’t have to wait a hundred years for a fair and equal world for women everywhere.

Will you join me in doing what you can in your sphere of influence to improve equality and fairness for women? Will you take action to press the Fast-Forward button on gender equality?

Ruth McGowan OAM is a gender equity advocate and champion for women in local government through her work as a consultant and coach. In 2014 she was recognised for her outstanding leadership in her community with an Order of Australia honour.