Catholic Schools NSW Breakfast for International Women's Day
Friday, 5 March 2021
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC
I pay my respects to the Gadigal of the Eora Nation in the ‘Sydney language’ of the Gadigal - and to all First Nations women, Elders and people here present.
International Women’s Day has now been celebrated for over 100 years. A feature of International Women’s Day each year is a theme which both underpins the celebratory aspects of the day and facilitates the reflection necessary to move women’s lives forward.
Despite a century of achievements, there remain barriers to equality and treatment of women which is unfair, inexplicable and, at times, shocking. There are times when women are sheerly exhausted by having to deal with issues that have been on the table for too long. Equal pay – and equity in pay - is one which sits high on that list. It is an imperative at every level including at the most basic level, as is mutual respect, value for the work one does, regardless of whether it is performed by men or by women, and advancement on ability.
It will not have escaped anyone’s notice that this year’s International Women’s Day is celebrated at a time of heightened media focus and public awareness of the incidence of sexual assault, coercive control and domestic violence across all levels of our community. And this, despite the fact that our 2015 Australia of the Year, Rosie Batty made domestic violence the centrepiece of her year in the role. It is also a reflection of a problem which seriously affects mostly women that Australian of the Year this year, Grace Tame’s focus on her role stems from her experience of sexual assault and the legal silencing of her right to speak out about it.
What then can we take from this year’s theme, '#Choose to Challenge', which will make a difference in individual lives and in the lives of the women and the men in our community? What can we take from this year’s theme that will allow women individually to flourish so that women and men can celebrate the worth of each individual in our community?
A theme such as 'Choose to Challenge' evokes, for me at least, a challenge to women of leadership. At this point I have a confession to make. I suffer from ‘avoidance syndrome’ which I experience every time I see a new book on female leadership, see a blog by a change agent, and I simply cringe when I hear about the latest advice given by the latest influencer on the block. Nonetheless, drawn to this topic as if it were a magnet, I thought I would, and probably should see what is being written about female leadership. Having thus engaged with my topic, my remarks this morning could be entitled: ‘the good, the bad, the ugly and the useless’.
In 2013, Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and author of 'Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead', wrote: “In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders”, a sentiment with which I agree. Indeed, I see it as very much part of the present. In this State alone, we have a female Governor, female Premier, female Lord Mayor of Sydney, a female Chief Health Officer, a female Chief Commissioner of the State Emergency Service and, until recently, a Female Chief Scientist, to say nothing of the many women leading not-for-profit organisations and the many, many female principals in our schools who perform one of the most vital roles in society: educating our future generations.
However, returning to Sheryl Sandberg, she added: “I hope that you - yes, you - have the ambition to lean into your career and run the world. Because the world needs you to change it.” As soon as she exhorted women to ‘run the world’ she lost me, as did her mantra: work harder, shout louder, aspire higher. The message was that the solution to female inequality lay within women themselves.
No sugar coating in that message!
For a while, my reaction to the 'Lean In' movement seemed to place me in a minority. Her book led to a ‘Lean In’ organisational network spanning the United States – purported to set the challenge for women - or perhaps more correctly, exhorted them to mimic the very corporate modus operandi about which it was contended was biased against them. There was no message of dialogue, no guide to organisations as to ‘how to’ recognise and encourage ability, no discussion about corporate culture which needed to change.
In some ways, the message was impliedly insulting. Give me any woman in this room who wants to work harder – not because you resist hard work – but because you do work hard. More often than not, you do succeed despite barriers and having to do balancing acts.
Then the backlash started. After so much ‘leaning’, it was apparently time to 'Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In', as authored by African American author and academic Bell Hooks, who decried Sandberg’s lack of acknowledgment or analysis of entrenched systemic or structural inequalities. She was speaking for women who so often couldn’t get in the door.
Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University, favoured ‘reclining’. In an article entitled: ‘Recline: Don’t Lean In (Why I Hate Sheryl Sandberg)', she railed against Sandberg for her implicit denunciation of the rest of women who had not achieved within the ‘jungle gym’ of the corporate sector as ‘self-sabotaging slackers.’ No sugar coating there either. Brooks, too, questioned why women should have to work harder to get equal recognition.
A similar point was made by Mikki Kendall, an African American columnist, in 'Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women White Feminists Forgot', speaking of the many disempowered and disadvantaged women who are fighting to house, feed, clothe and educate themselves and their families. In her 2020 critique, she said: “The ‘hood', [referring to the neighbourhood], taught me that feminism isn’t just academic theory … Feminism is the work that you do, and the people you do it for who matter more than anything else”.
Then came ‘Lean Out: The Truth about Women, Power and the Workplace’ in 2019 by Marissa Orr, also a former Facebook executive, who criticised Sandberg for defining success in male patriarchal terms. In an insightful comment, she remarked that: “Existing power structures are hard to change, because it involves powerful people giving up some of that power”. Women, she said, “need to define success on their own terms.” She recommended orienting success around well-being, “using the ability and the power they already have.”
Sandberg’s thesis was derived from her personal history trying to succeed in a male-dominated workforce. I understood much of what she was describing, having had either similar experiences or knowing women who had had similar experiences.
David Jones, the then only tailor of bar jackets, part of the ‘uniform’ for practising barristers, wouldn’t make me a bar jacket because I was a woman. A particularly unwelcome form of control that I experienced as a barrister was where males considered it their right to tell me, not advise, but tell me what sort of work was suitable for a woman to do – which was family law. Not the commercial or public law that I had excelled in as a law student and which I loved. A concomitant of that advice was not to sully their chambers by applying to be a member.
When I was first appointed to the Court in 1993, I was told that it was socially irresponsible for the Government to have appointed me because I had a husband and children.
There was a meeting in the Court one Tuesday. One item on the agenda was about which morning to have the weekly judges' meeting. I explained to the President that Tuesday was the only day that I couldn’t make alternate arrangements for the children. He said, ‘oh well, we’ll have this one tomorrow and go from there.’ When I arrived at work just as the meeting finished, the judges emerged and one laughed and said, ‘Oh Margaret, you weren’t there so we’ve decided to have the judges’ meetings on Tuesday.’ And he was serious. That would have meant that I would have been kept out of every decision the Court was making. And I can keep going with similar stories – for a long time.
You might ask: ‘how do you deal with such attitudes?’ I have a few suggestions: smile a lot; never lose your dignity; pick the issues that you can win on, or which need to be put on and kept on the table; keep being very good at what you do; and every now and then, if need be, turn the tables on your male colleague.
I was senior counsel, doing a workplace accident case. Sitting at the bar table listening to the evidence of a critical witness, my male junior counsel, a little bit older than me, leaned in – seriously – physically leaned in to me with a sense of urgency and said: “Get that down, will you, sweetheart?” I let the comment pass. It was his job of course to be taking the notes.
Later in the day, we were having settlement negotiations. I tasked my male junior counsel to work out the wage loss. Settlement is all about the figures. My male junior worked out a wage loss double the offer. We had no chance of settling. I sent him back to check the figures. Same result. Eventually I went to the client and said: “Tommy do you get paid weekly or fortnightly?” “Fortnightly”, came the answer. I went to my junior and said: “Tommy gets paid fortnightly. Can’t you divide by two, sweetheart?” And we duly settled.
But let me return to Sandberg. The flaw with her book, as her critics have pointed out, is at least twofold. First, although she acknowledges that not everyone wants to be a leader, she advances her thesis as if - for women who have leadership potential and ambition – her thesis was the only way to progress. Secondly, she misses the main game – which is change in the workplace, change in the culture; and equal pay.
Sandberg’s book was written in 2013.
In 2013, I was President of the New South Court of Appeal, so things had changed, but I was only the first woman after nearly of century of women having the right to be judges, which tells a tale in itself. And even with significant advancements and achievements by women, there are many who will say, with some justification, that things have not changed enough.
Just days after Japan's Olympics chief was forced to resign over sexist comments that women talk too much, its governing party the Liberal Democratic party made a decision to allow five female lawmakers to observe its all-male board meetings - in silence. We might, in turn, be incredulous and scoff at that, but in an era where news is beamed into every country in the world, there will be those who will be emboldened by the message it sends: of women are too silly to be listened to. It is a powerful and destructive message.
Silence, silencing, and its many variants, veil disrespect for women - disrespect for women as an individual; failure to respect their rights, their intelligence and their autonomy. For example, Julia Gillard, author of the recent book 'Women and Leadership: Real Lives: Real Women', co-written with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the recently appointed first woman and first African woman head of the World Trade Organization, gives the example of a group of women scientists and engineers who were observed to speak less in meetings than their male counterparts. On further investigation, it was ascertained that if a thesis was advanced that was partly right but not completely so, the accurate part of the male scientist’s argument would be picked up and the female’s rejected in its entirety. 
There is another message here. It is not sufficient to have a place at the table. There must be a place and a voice at the table. That is the significant role which the chair of a board, a committee, or meeting can and must play. The role of the chair is not only to control the meeting and move through the agenda. It is to ensure that all the voices at the table have the opportunity to be heard and given the value which is appropriate to them.
Indeed, silence, as a social control, operates at many levels. Cathy Humphreys, Professor of Social Work at the University of Melbourne, has commented: “Silence is a key enabler for men perpetrating violence against women. If women’s voices aren’t heard nothing changes and the violence goes on.” The frequently heard evidence in child sexual abuse cases is that the sexual activity is ‘our little secret’. In this, there is a lifelong message of silence. It is the most destructive message a child can receive.
In the past weeks, there have been many stories, of sexual harassment and more, kept silent for a variety of reasons, including ridicule and shame. Importantly, we have heard the voices of young women. Sexual harassment and abuse is often spoken of in terms of power. That is well documented. However, the stories we are hearing across the country of unwanted sexual activity comes very much from a sense of an entitlement to act in a certain way. As I see it, a sense of entitlement is a precursor to a sense of power and right to control.
It is important that we have frank discussions around these matters, not only amongst women, but as a society, in rooms full of males and females, men and women of all ages, young men and young women. However, anecdote after anecdote will not change what is unacceptable. There is a need for systematic, evidence-based research to reveal what happens in schools, workplaces, hospitals and other institutions and why - and an understanding of the impact of stereotyping and the need for good role models for young women and young men.
I was told the other day of a Harvard study on STEM examination results, which consistently showed a disparity between male and female results, with female results being lower. The testing required an exam number and a gender. By removing the requirement for the examinee to specify gender, the disparity reduced markedly – the thesis being that if one went into the exam with a mindset ‘I am a girl and girls are not good at maths’, it is reflected in the outcome. Unless something is done to dramatically and quickly change this mindset and our female students encouraged, if not inspired, to pursue careers in STEM, we, as a society, will be responsible for producing the next generation of disadvantage in the workforce and it will be a female disadvantage.
So where do I land on all of this? It has been a tough few weeks in the legal, political and education landscape. Having mentioned, ‘some of the bad, some of the ugly and some of the useless’, let’s get to the good, of which there is much. I am still excited that I had a career that I absolutely loved, even though I had to navigate experiences of sexism and, at times, misogyny.
I still feel privileged every day, that I hold my current appointment, where every day we meet people who are just wonderful: some are rich and famous; some have a disability, some help those with disability; some are researchers who every day look for a cure for cancer and believe they will get there; others who develop the best medical approaches for the treatment of cancer; schoolchildren, who are so enthusiastic to share their work and their ideas; older students who are articulate and thoughtful; teachers who love their jobs.
So, what advice would I give to students such as we have here? First, as an individual, don’t worry about the barriers. Be a doer. Pursue your interests. The opportunities are there. The bad stories are ugly, but no-one’s life is plain sailing and the successes, including the stories of everyday good performance, are so rewarding – and should something go wrong – don’t let it defeat you – learn from it, gain strength from it.
I was fortunate from my earliest school days at Mount St Joseph to have teachers, who fostered boldness, independence and a lifelong interest in education.
We were turned from 16-year-olds who didn’t know what we wanted to do, let alone what we could, into young adults who were taught to think, to question, to challenge, indeed - to choose to challenge and - just as importantly - to do.
Don’t try and emulate other people’s style of leadership. You can admire other leaders; you can learn from them, but at the end of the day, the best leadership is your style of leadership.
Let me finish with one further comment and one anecdote.
I was frequently asked at the commencement of my term as Governor what did I hope to achieve. I am not a prophet, but I do have this deep belief – it is in the value of people. If, during this time, I succeed in making one person feel valued, I will have achieved something that I believe is itself valuable. The privilege of this role is that it provides that opportunity, on a daily basis. To our students, to our future leaders, that is the advice I would give you. Make those around you know that they are valued for who they are.
Now for the anecdote:
I had an amusing experience one time where I was driving my daughter to school with her friends and they were doing an assignment. There was all this chatter in the back when my daughter piped and said ‘Mum, are we up to the second or third wave of feminism?' I said, ‘Darling, I didn’t think we got through the first stage!’
I would hope I wouldn’t give that answer today … but sometimes I still do wonder.
 Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg, 2013
 Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In, Bell Hooks: https://thefeministwire.com/2013/10/17973/
 Hood Feminism: Mikki Kendall, Bloomsbury Press, 2020, Page xiii and page 256
 Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons, Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Penguin Random House, 2020, page 161