To Go Further Than Where You Started…

13 / 12 / 2012

The following is an edited version of Pamela Robinson’s keynote speech on ‘Women and Leadership’ from the 2012 Parks and Leisure Australia Conference in Newcastle. Pamela shares her experience of being a woman at the 1983 Balderstone Report conference, and offers some handy hints for overcoming adversity and ‘getting ahead’ in male-dominated arenas.

Getting ahead in leadership requires a combination of belief in yourself, ability, relationships (both new and developed), commitment, timing, speaking up, sharing improvements, and finding opportunities for ‘risk taking’ – some assessed and some spontaneous –  because risks often come with rewards.

You will be amazed how one thing leads to another if you ‘put in’.

When I was a farmer, my income, my day job, and my focus was on the production of fine wool, beef and later tree plantations.

I therefore had a keen interest in ensuring my products were taken seriously by those marketing the goods and setting policies that would affect my business. I wanted to be sure that those taking a leadership role in advancing agriculture were working with my interests in mind.

I was the North East Victoria monitor when Australia’s Women in Agriculture started – I attended conferences, trainings and seminars. I also took myself off to all sorts of things where I found I could have a voice to promote my business. I had a keen sense of ‘right to speak up’ where I thought necessary or useful to all – especially in situations where others were marketing my farm products.

So, when I read in the Weekly Times that you could ring up to book a seat in the top end of town (Collins Street, Melbourne) to hear the outcome of the Balderstone Report – the most important agricultural report of its time for the Australian Government – it was a big and important moment for me. I travelled from my rural district one Wednesday morning in 1983 to join what I thought would be a lively and interesting mix of people.

I arrived in good time and entered the hotel ‘ballroom’ to a sea of grey/black business suits. There were not people like me. Indeed, the only farmer-type people were a couple of Victorian Farmer Federation reps in their Sunday best. I was in my best Fletcher Jones slacks and jacket.

I was one of just seven females in the room of 100+ business men, who were mainly from Industry, Banks and Government. Five of the women were Personal Assistants to the Captains of Industry and one was a Minister’s minder. They looked like models from Vogue. The other woman was a reporter from Stock and Land and dressed smartly in similar clothes to mine, and then there was me.

Image from Victorian Women’s Trust exhibition Ordinary Women, Extaordinary Lives, 2001-2002

It was an amazing sight. I was both quizzical as to “where were the farming folk?” and also excited at what I would hear from this important gathering. I was glad I had come.

Several presentations commenced and then came the important panel session to discuss the findings of the Balderstone Report and Recommendation. I was interested what they would say about the recommendations for Agricultural Statutory Bodies, as the language in the Balderstone Report indicated that women hadn’t been considered).

A formidable team of five men – “The Suits” –  appeared on the panel, with lots of hearty handshakes and slaps on the back as they settled themselves. I particularly recall Sir James Balderstone, who was the centre of attention. At the time he was the Chairman of BHP, and seemed to be a director on just about everything, banks included.

There was also the then-new Man About Town fated as the new industry headline – John Elliott – who had acquired Carlton and United Brewery and formed Elders IXL.

The Chair of the Panel was a well-known University professor and clearly in awe of his panel. Many very important and interesting questions came from the men in the room, although I also had my hand up for a long time, well before other questions were taken.

I had a question I thought timely to ask. I was sure it was an overlooked matter in the Report’s Recommendation and thought the Chairman of the Balderstone Report would be pleased to consider the oversight and make an amendment.

I waited and waited to be noticed – well beyond other hands that subsequently went up and were given the microphone. The Panel Chair finally pointed to me saying this will be the ‘last question’.

With what I sensed as embarrassment, one of the PA’s who was passing the microphone around came to me…  and glared!

I started my question, and within seconds the Panel Chair asked me how long I would take.

“UH?” I remember thinking. What did he mean? My hand shook a little with the microphone, but I remember feeling it WAS okay to be here and it was okay to speak – I had been waiting for quite a while, he did see me, he chose not to point to me. This feeling started from my toes and went all the way up my body in strength and I said pleasantly that I didn’t plan to take as long as the previous speakers and continued on:

“I noted at State and National level, Commodity and Statutory Boards currently had no women on them, and wondered why the Balderstone Report hadn’t made mention of this under its wide Terms of Reference. I would like this to be added to the Recommendation and brought to the attention of the Minister.”

Have you ever heard John Elliott guffaw? Worse still, guffaw at YOU?

I continued standing and stood my ground waiting for a reply, much as one would expect. Then the Chair of the panel replied for them all – much to the disgrace of Sir James Balderstone, to whom the question was directed – and said “perhaps it would be something in the future but we will break now for lunch”.

!!!!!!!

I was left like a shag on a rock – but I felt amazingly calm, knew I had been heard and thought privately as I headed out of the room on my own for lunch “its okay, you are alright. You are not the one that embarrassed yourself in that interchange!”

It was in my thinking that this was very poor form from a group of ‘Australian Leaders’ and these men were different to the men in my life. I decided I would engage John Elliott in conversation if he was available. Of course he wasn’t, as he was the centre of attention with The Suits.

HOWEVER, several things came out of that brief and brave participation. Learning comes to us in various ways not imagined at the start of a day:

 

1.       The Professor Panel Chair sought me out at lunch time and apologized for his interruption, which I accepted graciously. He appeared to feel awkward about what had happened and I remember thinking more of him for saying this directly to me in the crowded room.

Sometimes you do need to let others off the hook; see, hear and understand their discomfort when offered.  Sometimes people are managing a lot in their biggest day.

I heard him say to me ‘it was an unforgivable put down”.

I continued to have good contact with the Professor, as we would see each other over the years at environmental interests.  He often told others at functions with introductions of his first meeting with me when he was ‘rude to me’ until one day I reminded him that it was very much in the past and just fine not to mention it.

 

2.       I was approached that day by a young man and told Sir James Balderstone wanted to speak to me. I was taken to meet with him in a small room away from the lunchtime group of Suits and just before the afternoon session.

There Sir James told me his daughter had asked the same question as to what I had referred in the morning. He added that he would ‘quietly’ mention the matter to the Minister. At this stage, I was thinking even small steps are important as this clearly was not something Sir James – despite his positions in life – was prepared to say out loud in front of The Suits at the morning session!

For his approach, in a small room away from The Suits hearing him, I didn’t accept his account as graciously. To have not replied to me in the public arena, given my question was to him as Chairman of the Balderstone Report Committee, and then tell me this well away from The Suits just seemed weak.

So I thanked him for seeing me but added I thought he had actually missed a major chance to be the right high-profile person at the right time and place, who could have said publically in the morning with press present and in reply to my question (let alone on behalf of his daughter) that it was an oversight that there were no women on Agricultural Boards and Statutory Authorities to date. He could have indicated he would raise the matter with the Minister.

He looked strangely sad (or was it surprised?) that I had added anything more this sort of ‘done and dusted’ outcome he thought was all that was needed – I momentarily felt like I had been rude to my grandfather!  But somewhere I felt okay, too. He stalled and added “I will speak to the Minister”.  I was to learn much later that he did indeed speak quietly to the Minister about “a time coming when women would need to be on the agricultural committees”.

 

3.      The Stock and Land, in their next edition the following week, had a lengthy two-page article on the Balderstone Report and Recommendations, and the Melbourne Meeting. It was full of names of the Captains of Agriculture Industry and who had said what. But in the final paragraph there was a reference to me. It said: “Mrs.Robinson from Baddaginnie wished to ask a question, but was interrupted by the Panel Chair to be asked how long she would take – to which Mrs Robinson rightly responded by indicating ‘not as long as previous speakers’ and proceeded to ask that women be appointed to Statutory Bodies”. The last line said: “It seems men still don’t want to listen”. Press coverage ensured more articles over the following months were about women in agriculture.

 

So what would I do next? What was my input going to be to get a solution? This is, in part, what leadership is about – being prepared to get matters out there and follow through to get some forward action happening.

Firstly, I provided a further response to the Balderstone Report and sent a copy to the AG and Victorian Minister for Agriculture’s Office. I kept it to two particular matters; one being the matter of women on Statutory Bodies, the other being that Women in Agriculture should be brought to the table of the Agricultural meetings of the Minister.

I also wrote to Senator Susan Ryan who was the Minister for Women’s Affairs (a strange title, I always thought – just who wanted to know about women’s affairs?) which later became the Australian Government Office for Women.

I later met with with Commonwealth and State Ministers for Agriculture to advance the inclusion of women on Agriculture Statutory and Commodity Boards – both as an individual and with others from Women in Agriculture.

When it was developed, I registered my name with the Australian Office for Women to be considered for relevant Statutory Body appointments where my qualifications would fit.

From there I was appointed to several Boards and Committees and appointed to Chair Government Panels.

 

So here’s some lessons from my experience, no matter where you find yourself:

(a)    It is important to take up opportunities to attend to and advance work and business opportunities

(b)   It is okay to be there – wherever “there” is

(c)    It is okay to speak up

(d)   It is important to see yourself doing some of the ‘hands on’ lifting to get the change needed or change you want to see considered.

(e)    You need to be prepared to go further than where you started.

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