We recognise the continuous and deep connection to Country, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of this nation. In this way we respectfully acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of this land, sea, the waters and sky. We pay tribute to the Elders past and present as we also respect the collective ancestry that has brought us all here today.
AUTHOR: KIM HARRISON
There is a common quote “You can’t be what you can’t see”. This resonates with me, but I think there is more to it. “You can only dream based on what you can see”. I’m a strong believer in the adage that people learn from behaviour, beliefs, and attitudes that they see around them. What I’ve seen and learnt in relation to gender equality throughout my career has changed dramatically. It is like a stone rolling down a hill – quickly gaining momentum and with an ever-decreasing level of resistance – which just needs to be constantly guided and encouraged.
When I first started my career, during Paul Keating’s “recession that we had to have”, I was recruited as a graduate into the Audit division in the Brisbane office of one of the then “Big 8” accounting firms. There were no female partners in Audit at that time and in fact, I don’t remember there being any female partners across the firm. This was no different to any of the other firms in town at the time, female partners were exceeding rare at that time. In fact, at that time, I remember a disproportionately low number of women in the Senior Manager and Principal/Director ranks as well.
This was not a situation unique to the accounting profession, in the main, women weren’t CEO’s or CFO’s of public companies, they weren’t partners in accounting or legal firms, they didn’t sit on Boards and they didn’t hold high positions within government departments or hold elected office. It was hard therefore to imagine the path to get to those positions as a woman, in my case to be a partner in an accounting firm. The irony of that being that of the six graduates into the division that year, five were young women. One of those graduates is still in the profession and is a partner. It isn’t one of the women. I’ve often asked myself why that is and how that came to be as I truly believe that most of those graduates had the potential to be a partner if they had wanted to be. There are many reasons, some personal, some due to circumstances and experiences and some just personal desire and ambition. However, I truly believe that it is partly because, at that time, none of us could see a woman in that role and we couldn’t see a role model that inspired us.
As my career moved on, I moved out across the world and out of the profession and into commercial roles and then onto roles within not for profits where I found my niche and also the women in leadership roles that inspired me. It was whilst working in London in one of my first positions after I left the profession, that I first worked for a female CFO. She was technically highly knowledgeable; she was experienced, and she was a great manager. It was the first time that I saw a woman in a senior finance role that I thought I would enjoy and could actually see myself doing and she encouraged me to apply for a position that I thought was beyond me when the opportunity arose.
My career moved on and over the years I continued to work, mainly for men, within finance functions across a range of companies. Generally speaking, the men I worked for had no hesitation in assisting me to gain the experience and knowledge I needed to further my career and encouraged me to think beyond the roles that I was currently doing. However, it was the women that I worked with a little later in my career who truly inspired me to follow my own path. In particular I worked for a woman who was the head of an international aid office in a war zone. She was a strong and confident woman who had no hesitation in demanding what was required to provide for the people who were under the care of her office in a predominately male dominated culture and industry. I later worked in a national arts organisation with both a female CEO and a female Creative Director. Both were highly knowledgeable and experienced in their respective fields and eager to share that knowledge. They were also both keen to work in a consultative environment and to seek and learn from other’s experience. What I learnt from all three of these women was that that passion, experience and knowledge, and a consultative approach can contribute to success both individually and professionally.
The young people, male and female, in our firm don’t think twice about women in leadership positions within our own firm or within the government departments that make up our client base. They work closely with and see women in these roles on a daily basis. I am very proud that our firm has organically grown to have a majority women in leadership roles and has a representation of 50% women across the firm. I find the young women in our firm truly inspiring. As well as working for us, they sit on Boards, they are highly active in voluntary capacities, they have their own projects outside their work with us and they aspire to positions that, at their age, I couldn’t imagine even considering. If this is the norm of today, then I am excited to think that our young women have the inspiration to dream higher and further than what they see.
Change can be slow and sometimes we need to be patient and to appreciate how far we have come before we can move forward. Do we need to disrupt current codes of behaviours, beliefs and systems that foster entrenched inequality? I would argue that we already are. The professional world for women has changed markedly during my career and I think that continues to be the case. The most important part of that, I believe, is providing someone with the inspiration, the knowledge, and the encouragement that they can aspire to be and do more than what is considered the “norm”. With what is considered the “norm” today within our firm and our clients and workplaces then I am very excited to see where the dreams of the young women of today will lead them.