The Not So Good of Leadership in Australia

…having been the youngest female on a publicly traded company’s board and working in a university without a PhD / not being seen as “senior enough”- I have seen many people’s true colours. On the bright side I’ve learned how power & status work. Here are some of my not so great experiences.

Before I start I feel compelled to add, I am not known as someone who complains all the time, I consider myself an activist but the majority of my public communication is positive. I have had to think very carefully about being labeled a trouble maker or an “angry brown woman” because I know this is the label given to women who speak up.

However I had a phone call this week where a wonderful young woman said to me “I just thought everything was going very well, because you always share the success and she seemed rather surprised at my more difficult experiences navigating leading impact driven projects. I figure I’m doing a disservice in not speaking about this side of work, I’m rather proud of standing my ground and speaking up when disrespected or dismissed but I wish I knew this earlier on.

So here goes – my experiences working in higher education and serving on a board. Again 90% of my experience working in higher education at a university has been positive – so take the below as a small sample of some of the unproductive behaviors that goes on. I do imagine it happens in every large organisation too. The people perpetuating this have no compassion or self awareness and the bystanders have little courage to speak up.

1. An older man yet my equal made me stay back & said “I wanted to slam your fingers shut in your laptop” I said you can’t say that. He said it again & louder. I was trembling. Never having been spoken to like that in my professional career I burst into tears & took an Uber home.

2. The one other woman in that room was surprised (she would tell me later “I’ve never seen him that angry” but did little if anything to stop him. She said “X has a point, perhaps it could be conveyed differently” + she thought I’d step down from the investment committee he chairs.

3. I asked for a written apology* One year later I never got it – instead I got a shiny glass plaque in the mail for my “years of service”. I didn’t break the glass ceiling for glass plaques & to be surrounded by leaders who can’t take a stand . That’s #diversity without #inclusion
*(I have shared this email with 100+ other young women of colour who have asked for it in a private network, if you would like a copy get in touch).

4. Early on, in a 1-1 meeting with a very senior leader, I mentioned I was hiring + expanding assuming the growth of my programs was good for the whole organisation – after all we exist to empower students. He said “what?! Who let you do that? I need more staff” he already had a team 15x the size of mine. I was so confused.

5. I wanted to hire a consultant. I spoke to a senior in a different part of the organisation who apparently I needed to consult and would help me. I got “if you have any extra funding that should be coming to us”..I even offered to have consultant work from their office thinking it’s actually good for whole org no matter who hired them, apparently not. I told the CEO and she actually sent an email to the head of this team, who I think dislikes me to this day. I’m still not sure why.

6. After a “restructure” where no one bothered to consult me I had a new boss. Who was appointed by senior leader we met in 4. He demanded I cancel something last minute that I had already spent months planning and incurred expenditure & that the higher ups had asked for it. When I asked who exactly has asked – he said “that’s not for you to know or ask.” I was angry. Though I did the professional thing, hung up. Took a deep breath and called him back. I blamed bad reception, thanked him for his concerns and said I’d consider what he was saying. Then I called the higher-ups. No one had said anything. He made it up. #petty This guy likely earned double what I did…

7. I’ve been asked to prepare a “business case” every time I say I want more resources. Having done this 3 times & it never actually reaching decision-makers or being considered … I’m convinced this is a waste of my time.

8. Those are my not-so-good experiences. I have more when it comes to my community work too, which I’ll share another time. I must acknowledge that I’ve been helped by two very strong women a lot. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. One was the former Vice-Chancellor. She is a legend. I will forever be grateful for how she recognised my results instead of being dismissive of my age. I don’t think she knows the impact she had on me, even though I only met her twice. Just knowing that I could email her and she would act on it, was huge.

I share this confidently now, given I have no fear. I’m not scared of never getting a board position (I prefer the startup approach anyway) and I have no interest in climbing up a ladder that wasn’t made for me. So I’m happy where I am working on my passion projects and leading my small but very effective team at the university.