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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.

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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.  

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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.

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A long-term view of recruitment starts with girls

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” Chinese Proverb

Your organisation has a gender equity policy; TICK. A Diversity and Inclusion policy TICK. Yet – you can seem to get your numbers up the recruitment talent pool: CROSS.

So, what are you doing to build the equality pipeline for better gender balance in the future? To get to gender balance, a long-term view is needed. And that means focussing on girls as part of an organisational recruitment strategy.

Get the girls interested

As a teenager, I was not sure of what I would do post-school. I was interested in science and curious about how things worked but I wasn’t sure what I would do ‘when I grow up’. Luckily for me, when I was sixteen I was able to do a week’s work experience at a government agricultural research centre. I loved the opportunity to learn from scientists who patiently answered my questions and explained their projects to me in the areas of soil management and animal and plant production.

When I finished high-school I chose to study Agricultural Science. Several years later, I was recruited to the same agricultural organisation as part of a special intake for female graduates, under their equal opportunity program. I ended up working for that organisation for many years and enjoyed a successful career as an agricultural scientist in a male-dominated field.

Start early on addressing gender imbalance

Many organisations are working to address the gender imbalance in their senior management or STEM areas, but stumble in their goals when they fail to attract enough female applicants for the positions; particularly in male-dominated areas.

However, when there are small numbers of female applicants it’s not enough to just complain that ‘women don’t apply’.

There’s a step that comes before we urge potential female job applicants to ‘lean-in’ or ‘step-up’. It starts with the ‘expectation seeds’ we sow with girls. When we plant the idea in young girls of a ‘yes you can’ spirit, we help girls see what they can be. And that means encouraging girls to think about jobs that might have traditionally have been seen as ‘just for men’.

In theory, there’s absolutely no reason why girls can’t aspire to be scientists. Or engineers, truck drivers, firefighters, actors, plumbers or computer game designers.   But, currently, girls are missing out on opportunities for jobs in male-dominated fields that pay well, further widening the gender pay gap (around 15%).

Many organisations that have a traditional imbalance of male staff, want to see greater gender balance in their recruitment pipeline. But, to get there, more girls need to be engaged more often at primary, secondary and tertiary level.

A long-term view explores ways to feed into the recruitment pipeline well before jobs are even advertised.

Attract girls to turn on your talent pipeline

Organisations that focus on building a long-term female talent-pipeline, successfully work in collaboration with their local community, primary and secondary schools, adult education and tertiary institutions as well as other institutions that work with youth.

Many organisations have initiatives to build and nurture the interest of girls in what they do. Programs that teach girls to be MoneySmart help plant the seed of financial management and inspire confidence for girls to grow up and work in the finance sector. University programs that reach out to encourage Girls in Engineering make STEM fun. Helping Females in Trade can inspire women to consider becoming a trade apprentice.

Power up the programs

A recruitment strategy with a focus on gender equity can foster programs that sow the seed of interest in girls, female students and women graduates to consider that one day they might work for your organisation. These programs could be:

  • An annual Industry Placement Program with the local university
  • Host work experience students with targets for female students particularly if you have STEM areas in your organisation.
  • Traineeships and/or apprentices.
  • Vacation employment
  • Implement a 50:50 gender quotas for each intake of these programs

Other supportive steps include avoiding traditionally ‘masculine’ language in job adverts as described here by SEEK. Or, celebrating the women that work for your organisation in your media and communication outputs, promoting events such as Women in Industry networking dinners, hosting an International Women’s Day celebration and sponsoring female students to attend, Bring your Daughter to Work Day or acknowledging star women employees in local media.

How’s your organisation, profession or sector going in taking a long-term focus on improving gender balance? Without a sustainable approach to your recruitment pool, its no use blaming women when hasn’t done the work to build that pipeline. And the best time to plant those seeds is now!

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


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Seeking authentic leadership?

What is authentic leadership? It may be hard to describe, but you can sure smell it when it’s faked.  Increasingly, it’s a quality that we’re looking for in our corporate and political leaders.

It’s a fair bet that when you ask someone what characteristics they want to see in their leaders AUTHENTICITY is near the top. This goes for all leaders – men and women – whether in politics, corporates, public sector or community and service associations. Other key attributes suggested by leadership specialists are emotional intelligence, communication skills, confidence, a positive attitude, intuition, delegation skills and someone who is approachable.

A decline in trust

Last week the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures public trust in our main institutions reported that Australians’ trust in government at an all-time low.  Trust in business and the media also declined with Australia being in the bottom third of 28 countries surveyed.

Why is trust in government so low? Maybe Australians are sick and tired of the political dramas of recent years. The still-unfolding citizenship saga, party infighting and the infamous postal survey on marriage equality have taken their toll.

It’s left us hungry for authentic leadership, in both our political and corporate institutions.

We seek people who stand for something, who have values that they back up with actions; people who walk their talk.

Authentic leadership in political leaders

Can there be such a thing as an honest politician? While some may see this as a rhetorical question, wrapped around an oxymoron, your answer provides an insight to what you value in your own leadership behaviour.

Australians are known for their laid-back approach to politics. Not having had civil wars where we have had to fight for the right to vote or bloody battles over democracy will do that to a nation.

Despite the entreaty by political satirist P. J. O’Rourke to ‘Don’t vote; it just encourages the bastards’, we are a compliant lot. We obey our compulsory voting laws, regularly trot off to elections and obligingly number the boxes on voting forms in the hope that we will elect politicians who inspire us and do the right thing as leaders of our Councils, State Governments and our nation.

On first impressions, we are often prepared to give political candidates a ‘fair go’.

We assume people will be honest. That they will act with integrity.

After all, they are running for public office, so aren’t they holding themselves up to a higher standard than the rest of us?

And even if once elected, they are not perfect, we generally cut our politicians a lot of slack. We might not like it, but when we are told an election promise is being dropped because it is ‘non-core’ or ‘there will be no carbon tax’ or ‘no higher taxes’ we sigh and sort of expect it. If they do something wrong or stuff up, as long as they take responsibility and apologise, we (mostly) forgive them.

Don’t cross the line

However, there is a line in the sand of what Australians will and will not accept from our leaders.

When faced with dishonest, lying and hypocritical behaviour our ‘bull-shit radar’ goes up.

We can smell when someone is being deceptive, and we don’t like it. As a result, that person loses respect, and may even become an object of ridicule. If they are a politician, it becomes very hard for them to survive or get re-elected. If they are a manager, they risk losing the loyalty of employees.

Unfortunately, we can all point to examples of leaders in organisations and from both sides of politics where integrity, trustworthiness and honesty have been discarded for expediency or self-interest.

3 things we want in our leaders

Think of an authentic leader you admire (past or present) in political life, corporate Australia or the public service. What were their qualities that demonstrated integrity? I suggest that there are three essential aspects of someone’s character that makes them an authentic leader:

  • Authentic leaders have clear values. They are principled.
  • Authentic leaders stand for something and have standards about what is right and wrong. They are ethical.
  • Authentic leaders use their values to guide their actions – that is, the decisions they make, the way they behave and how they engage with others. They are consistent

Authentic leaders ‘walk their talk’; even when no one is watching. Because that’s who they are.   

We need more, authentic leaders

In a time of declining trust and increasing disappointment in Australian politics and business, it’s time we had more leaders that display integrity through their actions.

The Harvard Business Review has said that ‘Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership.’ Thankfully, there are people meeting that standard. For inspiration, check out Victor Perton’s Australian Leadership Project which has a mission to “Celebrate, Understand and Improve Australian leadership” and includes hundreds of interviews with Australian Leaders.

Perhaps you may be lucky enough to work with, or be represented by, an authentic leader? What is it that inspires you about their values, behaviour and action?

Ruth McGowan OAM is an experienced political campaigner at a local and federal level and is a passionate supporter of authentic community leaders standing for public office. She works as a consultant in local government and is a gender equity advocate. Ruth is currently writing a book to assist candidates to Get Elected to public office. 

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4 ways to Filter Feedback

The candidate had just delivered a winning stump speech to a huge audience of potential voters in a local town hall. By the end of her pitch, she had many people on her side and left the forum elated. But just as she was finishing, a friend walked over and said, ‘I wanted to give you some feedback. What you should have done was …”

What followed was a critique of everything the candidate had done wrong that night; from what she was wearing to what she hadn’t talked about. Her friend thought he was being helpful, but his comments left the candidate in a deflated mood. Luckily this candidate was a coaching client of mine. As we discussed what happened, I was able to share with her a simple ‘feedback filter’ to consider when receiving feedback.

Unwanted feedback vs useful advice

Let’s face it.  Feedback – even when delivered with the best of intentions – can get your back up. Ever felt ambushed by someone’s opinions about your life or work when you haven’t even asked them to comment on what you’re doing?

I’m not talking about useful advice, provided in a helpful way by someone who knows their stuff. There’s a difference. For example, check your reaction when someone who knows nothing about your area of expertise says, “I want to give you some feedback” compared to an expert who asks, “can I give you some advice?” Most people will brace for the inevitable negative comments that come with the first statement yet may be curious to listen to advice from an expert.

The four feedback filters 

Here’s a straightforward way to filter feedback from the helpful to unhelpful. Its drawn from the excellent advice of Thought Leader and motivational speaker Matt Church, who writes about “When to listen to feedback” in his latest book NEXT. Matt (who is an expert!) advises:

“Not all feedback is good, constructive or useful. Take control and be strategic about who you listen to and what advice you take on board.” (Matt Church)

Based on this approach, it’s important to accept while that feedback can assist you to act, not all advice is good advice. Too much ‘white noise’ of others’ opinions can paralyse and confuse you, especially when it’s not asked for or comes from people who don’t know what they are talking about.

Matt Church’s model is simple with an effective approach to classifying feedback into these four categories:

  • SOLICITED advice is when you ask for feedback from someone
  • UNSOLICITED advice is when someone just gives you advice, even when you didn’t ask for it.

Overlaying this is the second filter; qualified or not.

  • The people you receive the feedback from, are either an EXPERT on the topic and experienced or knowledgeable (i.e. qualified to speak on the topic). Or
  • They are NOT EXPERT, just someone who’s unqualified, giving you their opinion.

When to listen to feedback; diagram adapted from NEXT by Matt  Church

Quickly sort feedback

To understand what category feedback falls into, Matt suggests you ask yourself these two questions:

1) Did I ask for it? and 2) Is this person qualified to have an opinion?

If the person is unqualified to have an opinion and you didn’t ask for it, you have the option to ignore it. On the other hand, even if you didn’t ask for it, but the person is qualified, you may want to consider the feedback. If the person isn’t qualified but you asked for their feedback, there is an opportunity to take the information on board as data, that may or may not inform your action.

The real gold comes when you can ask an expert for feedback and they are willing to provide you with some informed advice.

That’s the sort of feedback worth acting on. For candidates in political campaign mode like my client, it is crucial to have a team of trusted advisers (often known as the Kitchen Cabinet) who can guide and provide feedback for action.

How to respond next time you get feedback you don’t want

If you’re tired of getting unsolicited ‘feedback’ from unqualified people with plenty of opinions, I suggest here are a few polite replies you could use:

  • “Thank you for your opinion”
  • “Thank you, you may be right”
  • “Thank you, however, I need to focus right now but next time I want your advice I’ll be sure to ask for it”
  • Simply smile, nod and move on

Ultimately, feedback and advice can be great, especially for showing up blind spots that you may not be aware of. However, feedback should lead to an improvement in your work, not stymie action or knock your confidence.

Perhaps next time you feel a desire to give someone feedback, consider if a) you are qualified and experienced to pass it on and b) if the person has asked for it. If it’s just a random opinion and the person has not asked for it, maybe hold your tongue!

Ruth McGowan OAM is an experienced political campaigner at a local and federal level. As a past Mayor, she mentors political candidates and was previously Campaign Coordinator for her sister Cathy McGowan’s successful political campaigns as an independent candidate for the Federal electorate of Indi. Ruth is currently writing a book to assist candidates to get elected to public office.

by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

Lets recognise Her Story too

It was one of those ‘ah ha’ moments you can get as a teenage girl when I realized the power of language. A poster for an exhibition of women’s stories was called “Her Story’. As I wandered through the inspiring displays of stories and photos of amazing women, I had the then-stunning realization that most of history is the recording of His Story, that’s why it was called history. Doh!  What a realisation for a budding feminist.

Why does Her Story matter?

Recognising and validating women’s stories as worthy additions to the public record is an important way of validating women’s worth. In fact, it is a pre-requisite to gender equality.

As a gender equality activist, last year I co-founded the Honour a Woman movement to further recognize women on the public record by working towards equality in our national awards system, with Elizabeth Hartnell-Young and Carol Kiernan.

Honour a Woman have a bold goal. We want 5050 recognition of women in our national awards by the year 2020.

Whats wrong with our Gongs?

Receiving an Order of Australia, or The Gongs as they are affectionally known, generally relies on a citizen being confidentially nominated by a member of the community. Men are nominated at a higher rate than women – by both men and women. And, ever since Prime Minister Gough Whitlam introduced the awards in 1975, men have consistently received the lions share of the awards.

After 43 years, it’s surely time for Her Story to be recognized equally on our national public record.

While most Australians are enjoying a long weekend this Australia Day, our movement has been busy today counting up the numbers of women recognized in our national Australian Honours. It’s frustrating to note that yet again only one-third of the honours have gone to women. Having been awarded an OAM myself in 2014, I know this recognition is a great honour and I congratulate all who have been recognised today. However

In a country that prides itself on equality and fairness, how can men continue to receive the majority of our honours while many worthy women remain unacknowledged? The system does not reflect the rich diversity of our society.

The system is broken

Why are women consistently missing out? It’s like the many excuses around why there are low numbers of female CEOs in corporate Australia. We hear ‘women don’t put themselves forward’ or ‘there are not enough suitably qualified women’. *Yawn*

We’re tired of hearing the Canberra public servants who manage the award system saying that the problem lies with us, the citizens for not nominating enough women. Along with my co-founders, we’re getting impatient about inaction on the perennial gender imbalance which always favours male recipients of the Order of Australia. While the men are deserving, so are so many (absent) women.

I want more women to join me by being recognised with an Australian Honour. I want to see her achievements, her record, her story – all given the same prominence as men’s history.

It’s time for action

We’re now stepping up our advocacy to the Federal Government and are calling for gender targets to be immediately introduced into the Australian Honours to ensure women are equally acknowledged by the year 2020. As a passionate advocate for women’s leadership Carol Schwartz AM said today on ABC News, if the UK can do it and get equality and diversity as priorities in their UK New Year’s honours list, so can we!

In 2018 we will be lobbying the Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer to introduce targets in our national awards so that we can fairly celebrate diversity while recognising outstanding service of all Australian citizens.

We’re saying that the Government must stop blaming the community for the low nominations of women.

The system doesn’t deliver equality or fairness. It’s time to change both the way people are nominated for Orders of Australia and the whole selection process. That’s why we believe that bringing in targets will drive fairness as well as better resourcing of States and Territories to put their own nominations forward.

What we really want is structural reform that commits to fairly recognising women and their outstanding contribution to the Australian community.

There is hope things will get better. After a year of effort as a volunteer, grass-roots movement Honour a Woman believes we are making a significant difference. Our advocacy and encouragement to thousands of Australians to nominate outstanding women is bearing fruit.

Today, the Victorian Government has announced the appointment of a dedicated awards officer who will focus on organising an additional 200 nominations of Victorian women each year to ensure a gender balance. It’s great to see State leadership on real action to address this inequality.

Also, today the public servants that manage the selection process announced a 40% increase in the past year of nominations for women. This is a result of the fantastic work by everyone who has nominated a woman recently.

Will you help us reach our goal of equality in the honours? Nominate an outstanding woman from your community or profession and get her story on the public record. Download the form here.

For more information on our movement see this week’s article on our Push for Gender Targets in the Order of Australia in the Australian Financial Review

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

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Ever considered it?


Have I lost your interest right there with that one word? Are you like the ever-increasing numbers of voters disillusioned by politicians? Sick of the fighting, the inaction, the bullshit? Frustrated by the inability of those in power – be it at a Federal level, State or Local Council – to get anything done?

Have you, like many citizens, turned off politics? Or… are you still interested enough in the way the world works to care about how the system can be improved?

 If you still believe in democracy and think you could do a better job than those currently in power, why not consider standing for public office?

Now more than ever, the timing is right for passionate citizens wanting to change the system, to step up and stand for election. This coincides with a voter hunger for a new type of politician; an ordinary person ‘just like us’.

Could politics be your next career move?

We need a new type of representation

It’s no secret that Australians are disenchanted with politics. Last year a university poll of 2600 Australians found that three out of four Australians are disillusioned with politics in this country.

Increasingly Australians see politicians as being out of touch with their life experiences not reflecting the ‘average’ voter. Research on Federal politicians, reported last year found that “nearly half of all Liberal MPs were former political staffers, party officials or government advisers while inside the Labor caucus, 55% of MPs had previously worked as staffers, electorate officers or advisers before being elected, while 40% have previously worked in roles within the trade union movement”. (Fairfax media)

Without disrespecting people working in political offices or trade unions, that experience doesn’t really represent the working lives of the rest of the nation. Perhaps that’s why voters are increasingly looking outside the main political parties for people to represent their views; not only in Australia but around the world in western democracies.

The ‘political class’ is on the nose.

We need diverse representation 

At the last Federal election, a quarter of Australians gave their preference to parties other than Labor and the Coalition, a trend that has been rising for the past 10 years. Voters want to support more and more ‘ordinary people’ to put their hand up and prioritise a career in politics.  People with a vision. People who believe in what they are doing. People who know that power is worth pursuing because when you are ‘in the tent’ you can make and influence decisions that will benefit communities, businesses and our planet for the better.

It’s like shopping at Aldi or FoodWorks, instead of just Woolworths and Coles. Increasingly voters are turning away from the two major parties, Labor and the Coalition, towards independents and minor parties to channel their angst about the current political system. They’re voting for people who don’t come from a political background; independents such as  Jacqui, Nick, Andrew and Cathy and others from micro parties such as Ricky, Pauline, Derryn, Clive,  Rebecca and Bob.

What are you waiting for?

The rigid 2-party system is under threat. Australians are hungry for political representation from independents, populists and ordinary people. That leaves scope for potential candidates to stand as independents or even for a micro-party.

If you’re intelligent, interested in politics, community-minded and skilled at communicating your passion, politics could be a terrific way of making a real difference in your community.

If not you then who? If not now, then when?

So, could politics be your next career move? Why not have a crack at standing for Local Council, a shot at State Government or maybe even fancy yourself as a Federal politician? Need some inspiration? Check out some of the speeches from those independents (or watch a few old episodes of West Wing).

You never know, politics could be your calling and just what your part of the world needs right now.

Ruth McGowan OAM is an experienced political campaigner at a local and federal level. As a past Mayor, she mentors political candidates and was previously Campaign Coordinator for her sister Cathy McGowan’s successful political campaigns as an independent candidate for the Federal electorate of Indi. Ruth is currently writing a book to assist candidates to get elected to public office.