• Ella Mitchell

'Leading Interviews' with Carol Schwartz AO

Updated: Mar 31

In a new series 'Leading Interviews' we speak to inspiring female leaders about their work and their views on leadership and gender equality.

We learn about the moment that they had a personal realisation about the importance of the gender equality and what continues to drive their work.

This month Ella Mitchell spoke with with Carol Schwartz AO, Chair of the Trawalla Foundation and the Women's Leadership Institute Australia about her advice for men in regards to supporting gender equality and the qualities she values in a leader.

In one of Julia Gillard’s recent ‘A Podcast of Her Own' episodes she spoke with UK journalist and activist, Caroline Criado-Perez, who described a clear tipping point - a moment that galvanised her feminist sensibilities and framed her activism. What moment was this for you?

It is interesting that you ask that. I’d say that all through my school life and university life that I had no feeling or awareness whatsoever of inequality between males and females. I went to a co-educational school where I felt girls were encouraged to excel to the same extent as boys. In fact the girls generally tended to do better academically than boys and I certainly did not notice any difference in the way teachers behaved towards girl students as towards boy students.

At university, I studied arts law at Monash University, and the same thing, I never felt that as a female student that I was given less opportunity than the male students. I felt academically encouraged in exactly the same way that boys were.

I’d say that I probably noticed the difference in my mid-thirties when I started working in a family business. It was a property business and the property industry is a notoriously 'blokey' industry. However I was actually completely oblivious to it because we worked in retail property and most of our senior property managers were women at that time. So I would go along to meetings with other groups and find that I was the only women at the table, and I began to ask myself – where are the women?

So there I was in my mid-thirties having the good fortune to work in a family business where I was given the flexibility that I needed and on reflection perhaps not aware enough, or sensitive enough, to see that women working in different types of environments actually did not have the luxury that I had working in a family business. So that’s when I started asking myself the question more broadly and more loudly – where are the women?

When you started asking the question, how did you mobilise it? This was before social media platforms were available.

I’ve always been somewhat fearless and courageous, so I would just ask the question of the people I was working with, my colleagues. Questions like “Well, where are the women in your organisation, and why aren’t they being represented at these meetings?"

I would go along to luncheons and ask the same questions. And when I got into positions of more seniority and power, within those existing structures, I started to make sure more women were invited and more women were included and more women felt comfortable attending meetings, and luncheons and workshops – activities that they may not have previously felt comfortable attending.

You’ve long been committed to gender equity and supporting the equal representation of men and women in leadership. In your lifetime what has been the most exciting action or event you’ve been involved with in relation to this goal?

I would say that for all Australians the most exciting event – not that I was directly involved - was the election of our first female prime minister. Which was a fantastic occurrence and very exciting. You know, it was just as exciting as when Barak Obama was elected President of the United States. It was a galvanising moment for Australia, and it was momentous.

Currently, Australia ranks 42nd on a global index for gender equality. How might Australia be different if we had equal numbers of men and women sharing power and decision making?

I believe it's crucial in a representative democracy that we have half the population represented in leadership, power and decisions making. It is just absolutely crucial.

To have anything less than 50% is, in my point of view, not viable going forward. I support quota systems for leadership positions, particularly parliamentary leadership. I think that our parliament should look like us, therefore I think that we should have 50% men and 50% women as our representatives. And I think that if we have a critical mass of men and a critical mass of women, that our decisions would be a lot more coherent and a lot more cohesive and potentially galvanising for us as a nation.

I should add that change needs to be given time to play out. As we all know there is almost 50/50 in the Senate now, but the fact is that that is very new, and our parliamentary culture has been in place for more than 100 years. So, we need to give time and space for a new more equitable culture to emerge.

If you had one piece of advice for men in regard to supporting gender equality what would it be?

My advice would be to remain flexible and keep a really open mind to the opportunities for the people around them. Men and women are both subject to unconscious bias – if we are raised in the same society we have the same unconscious bias.

There is a very simple and effective unconscious bias test, which is the question what does a leader look like? Well I would suggest the answer would be, for most people, an image of man, because that is what we are used to.

So I think that men and women need to be very conscious of what our ingrained biases are and work very hard to make sure that when we are bringing people around us in senior leadership roles that we make sure we give equal opportunity to men and women and to ensure that we do have that gender diversity. I believe that when we have that gender diversity that the broader diversity will naturally happen.

You started the Women's Leadership Institute Australia in 2011 to promote and support women in leadership. What qualities do you value in a leader; which leaders do you most admire?

Well you know I think that courage, authenticity and integrity are very important. Authenticity has become a bit of a buzz word at the moment. So I’m a bit reluctant to use it, but actually it is such a meaningful way of someone conducting themselves. Be true to yourself, be the leader you want to be, have integrity and be courageous. Be prepared to make tough decisions. Yes collaborate, yes consult, but at the end of the day, if you’re in a position where people are looking to you to take a tough decision, you have to be prepared to do that. Of course there will always be compromises but make sure that you have a vision and a clear path forward and I think that people really appreciate that.

Are you happy to share the names of people that you admire?

There are many leaders that I really admire. I recently met one really fabulous women Halla Tómasdóttir who ran for president of Iceland. She did not win the election and is currently running The B Team, an organisation out of New York, working with Richard Branson. She was phenomenal.

I’ve met a lot of really good leaders and I’ve been lucky to learn from everyone I meet and I think that is very important. As a human being and as a concerned citizen I think we’ve all got to take the opportunity to learn from others in different positions. Because one assumes, often wrongly, that a leader is someone in a very senior position. That is actually not the case. There are leaders all over society, who aren’t necessarily in senior roles and I think we’ve got to be open to that and to learn from them too.

Where do your best ideas come from and how do you foster innovation and creativity?

Well again it is exposing myself to other people, to other environments, to be challenged, to learn and then think, how might I adapt that to work in the environments in which I operate?

I learn a lot from other people and I am a very curious person... And I make things happen, which I think is a positive. If I see something that I think will make a big difference in the environment that I’m working in, then I will do it. A lot of people talk about things, and have great ideas but for some reason don’t action them, well I’m an action person.

What are you most excited for in 2020?

I’ll tell you firstly what I’m not excited about and that is the climate crisis. I’ve been a concerned citizen for some time, but for the first time I feel really worried for my children and my grandchildren for what their future might look like. I am feeling really anxious about it, and have a slight feeling of dread. Which is really not a good thing.

On the positive side, I think what has happened here in Australia is going to galvanise us all to create those solutions. Because we want our children and grandchildren to inherit a beautiful earth – the same earth that we’ve had the privilege and the pleasure of living in, and enjoying and whatever stuff-ups we’ve made, we need to fix.

In the gender equity and leadership space I am really excited about expanding our Pathways to Politics for Women program. This has been an outstanding success. Melbourne University have been a fabulous partner, we’ve worked with amazing people and I am really excited because I think this is going to be one of the channels that will ensure that we get to that goal of sustainable, equal representation in parliament. I am so happy to see this program expand in Victoria and launch in Queensland and cannot wait to meet the next cohort of women coming through the program.

"Leading Conversations" interview, Flagstaff Gardens 2020

"Selfie": Ella Mitchell and Carol Schwartz AO