Women leaders – social change

In 1989, in a journal article called Green Girls and Ecological Housewives: women, feminism and the conservation movement, I wrote that:

“With some exceptions, (Tasmanian Christine Milne and Queenslander Aila Keto spring to mind) the majority of those conservationists with a significant public profile are men.  More women appear as spokespeople at the state level and their numbers increase further at the local level.

So where are the women, because they’re certainly part of the movement numerically?  The vast majority of ACF staff are women.  Just under 50% of ACF membership is female, but women’s representation [in leadership positions] is less than 30%.”

In 2011 a quick analysis of the higher management and leadership positions within five major national environmental organisations finds that not a lot has changed in terms of women’s representation in their most senior positions.

Australian Conservation Foundation CEO Senior managers including CEO Board Elected Council

Male 33% female 42% female 36% female
WorldWide Fund for Nature CEO Directors Scientific Advisory Committee
Male 25% female 18% female
The Wilderness Society CEO or equivalent Committee members prior to 30/6/10 Committee members after 30/6/10
Male until 30/6/10 Approx. 50% female 25% female
Greenpeace CEO or equivalent Management Team Campaigners
Female 25% female 60% female
Landcare Australia Ltd CEO Board Advisory Council National Landcare Facilitator

25% female 38% female Male (but has been female for many years before this recent appointment)*

Information obtained from website of these organisations accessed 21 March 2011.  I’m very happy to be corrected if any of this information is wrong.  

*Information from Matthew Reddy International River Foundation

A new project has given me the chance to look more deeply at women’s leadership in the environment and consumer movements.  The project is called:

Women and Leadership in a century of Australian Democracy

This ARC-funded research project is being led by Professor Patricia Grimshaw of the School of Historical Studies at The University of Melbourne. The project aims to identify the extent of women’s leadership within movements for social and political change in Australia, from the neighbourhood to the international level, and to make this record of active citizenship available through national cultural institutions and linked e-resources and through outreach to schools.

The Chief Investigators are from four different universities and are joined by professional researchers from six industry partners:

  • The National Library of Australia,
  • The National Foundation for Australian Women,
  • The National Archives of Australia,
  • The Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House,
  • The National Film and Sound Archive,
  • The Australian Nursing Federation (Victorian Branch)

Professor Marian Sawer of the Australian National University is leading that part of the Women and Leadership project that encompasses women and leadership in movements for social change. Working with her are Research Associates Dr Jane Elix, Dr Susan Harris Rimmer, Dr Merrindahl Andrew and Kate Moore, all of whom are engaged in different aspects of the research and in the identification and interviewing of women leaders.

More info about the project can be found at http://www.womenaustralia.info/awal/

This project has given me the opportunity to ask women in the environment and consumer movements how and why they have (and have not) undertaken leadership roles.

Confession:  And this questioning has a level of resonance for me, which I need to confess at the beginning (after all, social history isn’t written by automatons, but rather by unreliable, emotionally involved, ordinary people with axes to grind).

In 1989 I managed some 12 staff and the whole Natural Resource Management program within the Australian Conservation Foundation.  I left ACF and became director of the Australian Federation of Consumer Organizations – another relatively high profile, leadership role, with lots of lobbying and media action.

And then in 1992, I fell in love, moved in with the (somewhat surprised) object of my affections, quit being an activist and became a consultant.

Since then I’ve worked for industry, government and the community sector in a range of roles behind the scenes. I’ve facilitated meetings that help others to take on their leadership functions, helped to develop strategic plans that others will implement, written reports that governments ignore, and resolved conflicts so that others can take on the task of bringing about social change.

And along the way I’ve mothered 2 kids, and been on the P&C at school, got a PhD, had some long periods off with illness, and done a few other things as well.

But I feel like I left my leadership aspirations behind me 18 years ago.  I like to tell myself it was because the sort of leadership I was doing in social change movements was incompatible with having a healthy relationship and happy secure children – too much travel, out of hours work, and non-controllable crises.

But perhaps I was really responding to an unacknowledged fear of failure.  Or maybe it was frustration with the constantly adversarial political processes.  Perhaps it was just boredom with the endless meetings.

Perhaps I was just incapable of maintaining the level of commitment necessary to be a leader in social change –  I might just be too lazy and introverted to have been a real leader.  End of confession.

However, I’m not Robinson Crusoe here.  There’s quite a few of us who travelled a similar path – women who would have been (or were) leaders in social change movements but who left their employment in various movements, or consciously stepped back from voluntary leadership positions.

Quite a few went into government, with a regular pay cheque and all sorts of good family leave provisions.  Others went consulting – in all its different forms of freedom from organizational structure.  Some went onto Boards of Directors and did leadership in a different way.  Some of us even went into Local Government, and many of us decided to put our efforts into regional and local community activities – again, leadership in a different arena.

So this project has given me the opportunity to talk to women leaders in environment and consumer movements, and ask them about what led to their leadership, how they deal with its pressures, how they manage their families and friendships, and how they trial and refine different ways of leading.

One thing that I’m already noticing is women’s modesty and down-playing of their leadership contributions.  I’m not sure I can rely solely on their self reporting.  So, I’ll be putting profiles of women up on this blog and inviting comments about the leadership of these women.   How do you see their leadership styles? Are there stories that demonstrate their leadership qualities?  How did they overcome difficulties and challenges?  Are women leaders different from men?

Please  contribute to this project by commenting on the profiles – it will help build up a picture of how women leaders helped bring about social change in Australia through the non-government sector, and hopefully be used to help women leaders in the future.

About Jane Elix

I don't have enough bandwidth to deal with this www.janeelix.com
This entry was posted in About this project - women leaders in social change, Women leaders in social change movements. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Women leaders – social change

  1. Judy Lambert says:

    Great to have the chance to read your musings Jane.
    I think there are different ways of providing ‘leadership’, with that up-front, very visible sort of leadsership that CEOs and others occupy being just one form.

  2. Heather O'Connor says:

    Jane – this is a great start – I love the personal voice! It’s what I’m trying for – what a role model you are! Hope it is going well – I’m powering ahead and enjoying every minute of it. I particularly love how you’ve captured the change for a lot of women leaders – frantic activity for a decade, then the move on – that’s exactly what I am finding – I think it was particuarly difficult for the some of the women MPs – their leadership while in parliament and/or as minsiters was perhaps the most public leadership, then their loss of office was so brutal and to a large extent out of their control – not jsut like deciding to leave one job and take up another. I look forward to more. good on you! Heather

  3. Jasmine Payget says:

    I am very interested in women and leadership in volunteer/activist organisations as well as local government. I am now working on a very male dominated local council, and the ratios have not changed in 10 years despite an ‘award winning HR strategy’. It is astounding but not surprising that women have not increased their stake in leadership; in part because of the way in which leadership is defined.
    (In my experience of several councils) leadership in councils means partaking in a very narrow notions of leading, and dealing with a culture that defines teams in a similar way to sport. If you are in our team, then you have to be loyal to us (regardless). If you are in ‘their’ team, you are the enemy/the ones to be vanquished. It is real and highly competitive; funny and confronting. It can be counteracted if you partake of a sport across the silos at lunchtime and somehow be part of the ‘team’ in a different way. Loyality!
    Interesting, regarding CEO and leadership of the major conservation organisation: in 1993 all three majors (ACF, WWF, & Wilderness) were headed by women.
    I am in a point of change: moved to Sydney, left my feminist networks behind in Adelaide (I miss you people SO much), children, safe job, not particularly valued for my knowledge about community engagement unless there was major problemo, but it is time for a new way forward! Many people, including my conservative cousin Peter, tells me that though the press valorises young entrepreneurs, it is mostly those in their 50s who do remarkable things! Hurrah, it’s the right time!

  4. Pip Walsh says:

    Amazed to see, Jane, that you thought you left leadership behind when you becane a consultant. I met you and Judy in the mid to late 1990’s and as “consultants” you both have served as role models, mentors, compatriots. I learnt a lot from continued exposure to your different but complementary methods of working with people and have particularly admired your ability to maintain threads of interest and passion in your work over the years.

    Not a leader. Piffle!
    (Perhaps some of you trademark directness also rubbed off)

  5. Clearly leadership styles differ and sometimes these can be overgeneralised across gender lines but I will say that female leadership in facilitation, organising and giving access to many voices is more apparent to me in the ‘environment’ sector than many others.
    In terms of the research I think a snapshot, a moment in time, could be somewhat narrow and that say over the last 10 or 20 years we could get a better picture of women’s leadership and even trend analysis to state whether its improving or declining.
    Also in the international space, Swedish female leaders, in the US also, we can see prominent female leadership, and good leadership also – lets not forget that important point, we need excellent leaders, and I am thinking here of Cristiana Figueres who replaced a poor leader of the UNFCCC.
    Oh and the most prominent female in the environment space would have to be Mother Nature.

  6. Hi Jane, thanks for putting pen to paper on this important matter. I will read in more detail, but make the following observations about women who are (or recently were) in kleadership roles in the environment movement that do not get picked up in your work because they don’t work in these large ENGOs:

    1. Until recently, three of the seven Directors/CEOs of Conservation Councils were very women with a lot of passion, effectiveness and leadership qualities (Kelly O’Shanassy at EV, Kate Faehrman at NCC NSW, Julie Petett at Conservation SA).

    2. Here at the Environment Centre NT in Darwin, all of my Board are women, as are 80% of the staff.

    3. Penny Figgis has followed a path a tad similar to you, having been a key high profile campaigner with ACF, and now has a key role with IUCN with WCPA and is involved in important processes, such as Linking Landscapes.

    4. I suspect for many women with a real desire to see change, they are less bound than men to saty in the big NGOs and climb the ladder or hold on to a senior role, whether it is due to family needs, getting tired of doing hard core advocacy and media year-in-year-out, or getting tired of the bureaucracy in larger NGOs. I also suspect some women are better able to multi-task and hence run / have senior roles in smaller or niche NGOs that allow them to take on a more satisfying range of challenges (people management, fundraising, mentoring, capacity building, plus of coyrse the advocacy and media).

    5. In some areas of advoccay, most key campaigners are women. A good example is marine sanctuaries, where the bulk of advoccay capacity and talent at present are currently, or were until recently, females (Michelle Grady and Imogen Zethoven at Pew, Gilly Llewellyn at WWF, Jill St John at TWS WA, Daisy at AMCS, etc).

  7. Heather says:

    I wonder if anyone else has contributions about the ‘modesty’ mentioned by Jane? I’ve been pondering this after recruiting many women to this project and certainly a humility and almost apologetic tone is often present when invited to participate in the project. Perhaps this is a national characteristic as much as a personal or gender based reaction. The Tall Poppy syndrome comes to mind.

    On a personal level I remember when one of my sons was in primary school and a teacher suggested that he was a ‘natural leader’ expecting me to be pleased, whereas I recoiled thinking immediately “is he a bossy breeches, loudmouth or has fascist tendencies at age 8?”! (Looking back it was more likely his infectious and attractive sense of humour). I remember reading an article about our present Opposition Leader where it said that from an early age he was told he would or could be Prime Minister and I almost felt sympathy for him.

    It is clear that many of our interviewees have become leaders in their field almost by osmosis and didn’t realise their leadership position until the first media interview was sprung on them or when some other event smacked them in the face. At certain points others have been so frustrated by what they saw as either incompetence or a total lack of interest in issues dear to them they have deliberately taken the mantle and shaken it, with varying degrees of comfort and support.

    I would hope that it is not taboo to compare pathways to and styles of leadership across gender and nationality as well as the personal – has to be good to put all in the mix of our discussions. It may even be encouraging.

  8. Barry Traill says:

    Finally made the time to cruise through your profiles Jane. Only read a 1/5th of them so far but it it is great to read more on women who have had a great influence on my life (I first met Margaret Blakers when I was a shy 14 year old birdwatcher) or who I have jsut admired from a distance of time or space. Aside from personal inspriations, I think it is important to keep pushing discussion of gender & leadership styles, even if generalisations they can help in cutting through patterns that don’t work well for individuals or for the social change movements as a whole.

  9. Frances Davies says:

    Jane , you must be one of the best people on the planet to undertake this research. Can’t wait to read more

  10. I find this really interesting! I am 25 and Assistant Director at the Conservation Council ACT Region, President of the ANU Postgrad Student Association, and the Greens candidate for Canberra in the 2013 federal election.

    I have held various project management roles in different environment and human rights organisations for the last 6 years. Now, I am contemplating the next step. To continue with management and leadership within the NGO space, particularly in conservation. OR apply for Government jobs. Some of the challenges I have come across are quite varied. For example lack of resourcing within the NGO space and the constant pressure of having to fundraise takes away from my passion to work on policy and law. Also, I think there needs to be more formal mentoring and coaching initiatives for young women emerging in the NGO space – rather than older, more experienced women keeping a distance for fear of others moving up to take their positions. I desperately want to learn and be mentored by those more experienced than I. I want more than anything to be inspired by the achievements of those who have gone before me, and for the NGO space to feel like a continuing journey that is passed on from generation to generation – a movement rather than a job and for there to be more cooperation between campaigns rather than competition for funds.

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