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Women in regulation talk about challenges, barriers and why it’s a great career

7 March 2022

News and media


Image of women listening to a conference


Regulation in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand has historically been a male-dominated profession but in recent decades more women have begun to reach the top in the field.

To mark International Women’s Day, ANZSOG spoke to two female regulators: Rowena Park, General Manager, Compliance and Enforcement, Australian Energy Regulator and Victoria Thomson, Deputy-Director General Liquor Gaming and Fair Trading, Queensland Department of Justice and Attorney-General, both of whom are members of ANZSOG’s National Regulators Community of Practice.

The two women took different paths into regulation but were united on the satisfaction to be gained from working in a field that was intellectually challenging and delivered positive outcomes for the community.

Ms Thomson (below) has spent her career in regulation after gaining a graduate position in Workplace Health and Safety Queensland in 1998, starting in the field as a workplace health and safety inspector.

“WHSQ had already embarked on a deliberate ‘professionalisation’ strategy, recruiting university educated people into health and safety regulatory agencies. We more routinely started to see women being employed in male dominated inspectorate roles, such as construction,” she said.

“I learned a lot from those early regulator days – engaging with people across a diversity of workplaces and industry sectors and seeing first-hand the very real human and business costs and consequences of regulatory failure. It was interesting, challenging and at times, confronting work.

“I’m very proud of some of the work we did at WHSQ, where we set up a small team and we moved to have more intense engagement with people and the industry. For example, we set up networks of transport operators and got industry to work on their own issues. These initiatives got results, have been sustained and represented a genuine cultural shift.”

But she said that she did not fully understand her commitment to regulation until 2012 when she spent a year in the private sector.

“Straightaway I missed the regulatory environment – the breadth of the work, the stimulation of the contested environment, the potential to influence state and national approaches, constantly learning, and knowing that even in a small way your actions make a big difference.

“And very importantly I absolutely missed the camaraderie of being part of a regulatory team bound by a commitment to public good.”

Ms Park (below) began her career as a lawyer before shifting to a role with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) in 2013 and deciding to become a career regulator.

“I worked on the Storm Financial litigation and I just really enjoyed it, the idea of going in and fighting the good fight and wearing the white hat,” she said.

“So I stayed for seven years, first working as an enforcement lawyer and then moving into the management side, including working on law reform projects and managing teams.”

“I began to discover that there was so much more to regulation than enforcement litigation. If you want to reduce consumer harms, you need to use all the tools in the regulatory toolkit and what interested me was more that problem solving side of things.”

Highlights from her time at ASIC included managing a litigation program that stemmed from the Hayne Royal Commission into financial services, and co-leading ASIC’s project team for the Treasury-led ASIC Enforcement Review Taskforce reviewing of its powers and penalties, which led to it getting increased powers to impose penalties and enhanced ASIC’s regulatory toolkit considerably.

Ms Park said through her exposure to other regulators, she realised she was not pigeon-holed as just a financial services regulator but someone with a set of skills that could transfer into other areas of regulation where the challenges were similar – such as her current role at the AER.

Innovating and collaborating for the future

Ms Park now manages a team of 60 people, out of AER’s 300 staff. Her main focuses are on energy consumer protection in retail markets as well as wholesale electricity and gas market regulation.

“The mission is to make energy consumers better off,” she said.

“I’ve enjoyed coming from a massive regulator to a comparatively smaller one that is capable of being agile and is undergoing change and having new people come on board.”

“I also like having moved from enforcement to a mix of compliance and enforcement as well as market entry, I feel like I’ve got my hands on more of the regulatory tools.”

She said that good regulators had to focus on the harms they were trying to reduce and be able to create a culture of innovation within their teams.

“They focus on what the harm is, rather than focusing on the tools and powers that they have. They need to look at the problem holistically and look at the causes of the harm and try to address them.

“They need an ability to try different approaches, because regulation is iterative and it usually takes a few goes. People take comfort in procedure and process, but you need to try and empower your team and let them know that it is OK to try things and have them not work out, because that is the way to success.

“The key is controlled failure – to try things in the right forum where you can have that iterative approach.

Ms Thomson deals with politically sensitive portfolios that balance mitigating harms with economic concerns.

She said that good regulators needed to be across the speed of change and to be able to innovate and collaborate with other regulators to tackle harms.

“Industry innovation, disruptive technologies, and resource disparity means many regulators, if not all, are constantly trying to keep up with those they regulate. This will be all the more difficult if we go it alone. It can’t be about our own capability, we need to think about how we enhance other regulators’ effectiveness too,” she said.

Ms Thomson used the example of regulation of casinos, and the recent state-based inquiries into casino operators which have raised questions about the regulatory frameworks set up to control existing and emerging risks.

“Concerning themes have emerged from successive inquiries, such as the failure to effectively control money laundering risks, ‘profit above all’ cultures, and a highly irresponsible approach to the service of gambling.”

“We have started working more closely with agencies like Austrac, which handles money laundering, and the Queensland Police. Already we are seeing the benefits of how we can share information to good effect.”

She said that regulators needed to understand the ‘authorising environment’ they worked in – including the government, and other stakeholders who give us legitimacy and support in formal and informal ways.

“We are public servants and we work in a political world. We still need to produce the frank and fearless advice to government about policy impacts and consequences,” she said.

For example, post-COVID, governments will have a focus on jobs and the economic recovery, and that will involve discussion about removing so-called red tape – we need to provide quality analysis and advice about the possible consequences of moving in a ‘de-regulation’ direction.”

“Critical to regulatory capability is building relationships with the authorising environment whilst maintaining independence and acting with integrity. It’s about building a relationship of trust, because things will go wrong at some point, but when there is trust you can come back from mistakes.”

“As a regulator you overlook and undercook the authorising environment at your own peril.”

She said that while the COVID-19 pandemic had posed huge challenges for regulators, moving out of the pandemic and into a phase more focused on economic recovery would be equally challenging.

“We’ve had two years of intense work and uncertain times, we’ve been in a reactive, busy crisis mode and we have to be careful that we don’t stay that way. We need to shift gears so we don’t compromise that long-term thinking, and find some space and time for the deep work that regulators need to do.”

Creating more opportunities for senior female regulators

Ms Thomson said that women were well-represented in the public service, but still not as well represented as they should be at senior level

“What’s fantastic now is that we can see very visible senior leaders in regulatory organisations, there are some excellent role models out there who weren’t there when I started,” she said.

“I had really great sponsorship from male colleagues who pushed me to accept ‘opportunities’ more than I thought myself capable of, and we all need that belief and support. Women don’t need more mentoring, we need people to invest and sponsor us into senior levels!”

“I think flexibility in workplaces is important because we’ve still got to build that pipeline of potential female leaders and allow them to manage their career and carer responsibilities, but again all of that flexibility will be for naught if we don’t put women into those senior roles.

She said that the ‘glass cliff’ phenomenon – the observation that women are more likely to be offered leadership roles during periods of crisis, when the chance of failure is highest – was a real issue.

“There’s always risk in taking on a new challenge but women need to be aware that this is a possibility and think about whether there is an alignment between the role and their values.

“I’ve faced several glass cliffs in my career. Don’t avoid them because they are too hard – back yourself but you need to make honest, deliberate and considered choices. You need to ask yourself if the opportunity is compatible with your values, motivations, your inner compass and your strengths.

Ms Park says that being in a traditional male-dominated field such as regulation had not been a major issue for her.

“I think by the time I entered regulation a lot of those prejudices had gone, and I’ve never felt I was not listened to because of my gender.”

“A lot of women have been promoted to senior positions in regulation, including in ASIC, which is positive. If you don’t have women in your leadership team you don’t have a representative sample of the people you are regulating for. But diversity is more than gender. You need to have a people with a diversity of views, if everyone is drinking the kool-aid you might go in the wrong direction.”

She said that the public service offered genuine flexibility for women with caring responsibilities and that had attracted a lot of high-performing staff to the AER.

“I think that the value proposition that the public service offers could be made better known to people – it’s not just flexibility, it’s the fact that it is the most interesting work I’ve done in my life. You are often dealing with issues that are in the papers every day, and that can make real differences to people lives. That needs to be made known to high-achieving young women thinking about their careers.”

“When I was younger I studied business and law and I thought I’d stay in that world. I wish I’d been told that there were a lot more options than doing that. I wasn’t aware of what the public service had to offer in terms of the enjoyment of the work and the satisfaction of doing something good for society.”

For more information on ANZSOG’s National Regulators Community of Practice click here.

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