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Targets, quotas and women in leadership: Christine Nixon makes the case

24 May 2021

News and media


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Women make up a majority of the Australian and New Zealand public service, but are still a minority in leadership roles. At the same time the public sector is slowly moving away from traditional models of leadership to ones that prioritise collaboration.

ANZSOG’s Women leading the public sector online workshop, commencing in July over six weeks, will see former Victorian Police Commissioner Dr Christine Nixon and Professor Amanda Sinclair look outside traditional leadership models and provide a mix of practical and theoretical approaches to support women leaders and help them reach their potential.

“The skill sets for really good leaders are not limited to middle-class males. The idea of the course is that women make good leaders and we need more of them,” Dr Nixon said.

“What has struck me in teaching this course is the talent that exists among women in the public sector. We don’t think that women need to be told their styles of leadership are good.

“The issues are more about the systems and processes in organisations: how people are chosen for jobs, how flexible work practices are introduced or followed, and all the systems that see the ‘manager bloke’ as the norm, and the perceptions that women don’t want to lead, or that flexible work is not possible.

“All this has an effect on women, who apply for jobs and are rejected and start to feel that they are not good enough.”

Dr Nixon said provides women with an insight into their own educational and cultural background, how it had affected their ideas, and whether it stopped them from putting themselves forward.

“The program makes you look at yourself and get insights into what has happened to you, and some of the fears and concerns that may be holding you back.”

Professor Sinclair said that while parts of the public service are now more deliberative about diverse recruitment and reducing bias and discrimination, which had led to more women coming through, outdated stereotypes of leadership were holding women back at middle and senior levels.

“Historically for women to advance it has been a matter of learning the dominant model of leadership, and learning to conform to it. That model comes from military-style, hierarchical, male-dominated workforces. It’s about the heroic commitment to work, long hours, arranging life around the job – always being available to travel, to work late or socialise after work.”

She said that there were still significant biases against women leaders who were held to different standards and had a lot more visibility and scrutiny, such as the recent treatment of Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate.

“Women are still often judged against a single template and assumed to represent the whole, regardless of our different views and backgrounds.”

Addressing structural barriers

Dr Nixon brings her personal experience in managing organisations and changing cultures to the workshop, from her career as a police officer, culminating in becoming Victoria’s first female Police Commissioner, and her role as head of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority, working with bushfire-affected communities to help them rebuild in the aftermath of Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires in 2009.

She said that change needed to be driven from the top and should include explicit attempts to break down barriers.

“I am a strong advocate of targets and quotas, there is good evidence of the difference that they make. The evidence shows that female CEOs lead to an uplift in major companies and make a difference on Boards – women can be risk-averse for example, but that is OK,” she said.

Dr Nixon said that while the greater presence of women in organisations had led to cultural change, there was still a need for change to be driven from the top and pushed through.”

“Having more women in organisations is really helpful to changing the environment and culture because women have less need to ‘fit in’ to that male culture to be accepted.

“There are still issues around sexual harassment for example. We still don’t have good systems for reporting and we need to work for systemic reform.

“Resistance to diversity, at a personal and organisational level, is about holding onto dominance and is still a factor preventing female leaders.”

New models of leadership

Professor Sinclair said that new models of leadership were based on the notion that leadership was never done in isolation.

“It’s a collaborative activity. We can’t do leadership alone even when that is the fantasy – not just for leaders but for others who wish that someone would come in and take charge,” she said.

“We need to encourage managers to mobilise and support others to find the answers, rather than solving problems themselves. Old models were distrustful of ambiguity, but part of our experience of COVID has been that leaders need to be open about what they don’t know.

“The other thing that has come out of COVID and remote working is the increase in trust. Traditional models of leadership didn’t trust and required people to be watched over, that has been disproved. In most cases, productivity and engagement improved through COVID.

“You also need to understand the difference between leadership as ‘doing’ versus leadership as ‘being’. The doing side is one we are familiar with, but there are a lot of situations, including crisis management, where focusing only on action and telling, can get in the way of effectively scanning the environment and listening to hear information in a fresh way.”

Dr Nixon said that leadership was a set of skills that could be learned and developed, and that the mythology of ‘innate leadership’ was a way of excluding people from leadership positions.

“There’s no such things as a born leader, it comes from opportunity and development and layering leadership over time. There is no set of innate qualities, there are some great leaders that don’t have any personal charisma at all.

“Leadership is about how you bring people along and how you show respect for them, how you hear what the issues are, bring it together and say this is where we are going to go.”

Dr Nixon was subjected to intense public criticism during her career, and she says the workshop provides an important opportunity to discuss the effects of criticism and the impacts of being a leader.

“You need to overcome fears about what people will do to you, you need to learn what it is like to own your own power, and how to recover from criticism. These are the issues for leaders that people don’t talk about enough.”

Professor Sinclair, author of Leading Mindfully, said mindfulness and reflection were important for leaders.

“Mindfulness is about paying attention to the moment, because the moment is important. A lot of neuroscience supports the idea that pausing and bringing our attention to the people and issues in the moment is an antidote to an excess of judgemental thinking. Mindfulness is a place for us to make room to really hear what matters to other people. It can help us find empathy, openness and appreciation – valuable for ourselves but also felt by others.

“It’s important for leaders because listening is something they do a lot. It can become very routinised and not effective as a leadership tool.

“Reflection is about stepping back and thinking deeply about your role and identity. There is pressure on us to deliver a leadership persona, and for women to conform to certain scripts, such as the need to over-work or be a ‘good girl’ to show leadership. Our program provides the opportunity for women to reflect on how those scripts were written, whether they are still useful, and to open up new ways of being.”

Leadership in the COVID age

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way that workplaces function and the expectations placed on leaders. The Women leading the public sector workshop has adapted to meet these changes and explore how the positives from the public sector response to COVID can be maintained.

Dr Nixon said that the course had changed to reflect the new challenges for leaders in a COVID-world –the importance of kindness, how to manage remote workforces and support them emotionally, and the need to think about digital issues and technological change.

“COVID has reinforced the need to work with a lot of different people, and bring them together, that has been seen across a lot of governments, in a lot of different ways – the idea of listening to experts for a change, the increase in flexibility and agility,” she said.

“We have also updated in terms of where women are – focusing a bit more on harassment and exploitation in the workplace, and talking about the new wave of young women – like Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins – who are leading change.”

Professor Sinclair said that it was “pretty clear that the conventional workplace is over”.

“During COVID, people were catapulted into a situation where they ‘got it’. They understood they needed to care about the people they worked with.

“The question is how can we deliver connection and belonging, how can you onboard people and make them feel part of the organisation, without being part of the workplace?”

She said that the course would give participants a renewed sense of what they could achieve and the confidence to do it.

“We will encourage them to think about leadership more broadly and learn new ways of both giving and receiving support,” she said.

“We hope they have fun too. There is a lot of sharing of quite big things that people don’t have the opportunity to explore in the normal busy-ness of their lives.”

ANZSOG’s Women leading the public sector will be held online over six weekly sessions starting on 14 July. For more information, or to register click here

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