Louise was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1942. Prior to her birth, her parents and older sister were living in Malaya (as it was then). Her father was a colonial civil servant, working for the Forestry Department (which controlled almost the whole of Malaya, as it was mostly forest at that time). When the Japanese invaded in 1941, her father was taken prisoner and spent the rest of the war in the Changi prison camp. Louise’s mother, very pregnant with Louise, escaped with Louise’s sister on the last boat out of Singapore, and ended up in South Africa. After the war was over, the family was reunited, her parents went back to Malaysia, and Louise went to boarding school at the age of 4. Louise says that this was not uncommon at the time – families living in “the colonies” and children spending all year in boarding school in England.
As a consequence, Louise describes her boarding schools as being very influential on her in much the same way that other people’s families are. She says they were extremely encouraging of women having significant careers. “Just getting married and having children wasn’t even perceived to be an option.”
The boarding schools were Anglican, and Louise attended church regularly while at school, but lost her religious beliefs shortly after her confirmation. Her parents were notionally Anglican, her older sister married a parson, but Louise now says she has no religion.
Louise graduated from Cambridge University with a science degree in 1963, and describes herself as having the sense of “the world being her oyster”. She married at 21 and remained married for 30 years to Clive. The couple did a lot of travelling, exploring and sailing and neither of them had a particular drive to have children. Louise says “I have always felt that I didn’t know what a family was, because I didn’t have one myself. It’s not that I didn’t have a childhood, but it wasn’t enfolded in a family context.”
Clive’s academic career took them to the US, and then to Canberra. Louise did research assistant work in a range of areas as they travelled. The work was not completely satisfying and it wasn’t until they moved to Sydney that Louise eventually resumed her own studies, gaining her PhD in 1980 from the University of NSW in the history and philosophy of science. During her study, she was tutoring and lecturing at UNSW and the University of Wollongong
Louise says that it was during her time at Wollongong University that she first feels she became involved in leadership. In the early 1970s, a group of women lecturers set up a Women’s Studies course – which was the first interdisciplinary course of its kind. The women involved saw themselves as a pioneering academic group and Louise describes it as an empowering experience.
As soon as her PhD was completed, Clive and Louise sailed away on a boat they had built themselves, and stayed away for a year. On her return Louise worked at the ABC being involved in the production of science shows, and then in 1981 became the project manager at the new Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. In this position Louise was the leader of the decision making process about the first exhibitions to go on show. She edited all the publications, worked with others on the captions for the exhibits (“giving them a bit of a zing”) and found the work really stimulating, and exciting.
In 1985, Louise was approached to become the deputy Director of the Commission for the Future, a Barry Jones initiative. The Director was Rhonda Galbally, (who Louise describes as “quite a remarkable woman, very incisive”) and there were some big personalities on its Board.
After a few years, Louise began to find working for the Commission increasingly difficult. There was a small budget, and some very ambitious ideas; it was high pressured and she needed to do lots of public lectures etc to keep the profile up.
But more importantly than that, Louise was questioning the usefulness of her work. It was the “unformulated” nature of the work she was doing, and its apparent irrelevance to real people that was troubling her.
At the time, her sister also died, which was deeply distressing for Louise. Nancy and her husband had been working within their local communities, making real contributions on the ground, and they died within days of each other. Louise felt that this was a wake up call for her – “fundamentally what I was doing was out of kilter. I just knew that nothing was working”.
At the same time, her marriage was falling apart, and so she took off to India, China and Pakistan for 6 months. Louise describes it as her “midlife crisis.”
On her return, she moved to Tasmania to take up a position as the Director of a new International Antarctic Centre which was to be established in Hobart, a “genuine meaty leadership job”. A good group of staff were hired and the ideas were coming together, but the government changed in 1989, the project was cancelled, and Louise lost her job.
However, almost immediately, Louise saw an advertisement for Station Leader in Mawson Station in Antarctica. She applied and in 1991 become the 2nd woman in Australia to lead an Antarctic station. Louise tackled this new opportunity with enthusiasm. In the extract below she describes some of her approaches to leadership during this first stint as Station Leader
The issue of building trust in herself as leader was crucial for Louise – particularly as a woman leading a group of men – in conditions where safety is absolutely critical.
It wasn’t a question of being a bloke, but it was a question of valuing people and demonstrating that you trust them. … You could build up a relationship where people could see that you valued them, and therefore they valued you.
I’ve always argued that the form of leadership that you need in Antarctica is the sort of leadership that women tend to be quite good at. It’s cooperative, collegial and it’s not leadership by command. Somebody has to be the leader, somebody has to say what’s going to happen but you have to be able to have people agree with you – not so much follow you – but just recognise that what you’re saying needs to happen.
When Louise returned to Tasmania, she wanted to continue her environmental work and she became the first Convenor of the Tasmanian Greens. She ran for office several times. In 1998, she was the Senate candidate and nearly got in. She did a lot of public speaking on behalf of the Greens and put most of her energies into Greens’ leadership for a number of years.
I asked Louise about the differences between leadership at Mawson Station and in The Greens.
In Antarctica it’s about maintaining agreement about things. In the Greens it’s much more about taking a position and holding it against opposition. There was a lot of negotiation, and developing policy, philosophy and ideas, putting them forward, arguing for them – sometimes winning and sometimes not.
Louise found the media work somewhat difficult at first, but then “learned the knack” of getting her points across as clearly as possible. In many ways, the work was quite exhilarating for her, and she enjoyed working with Bob Brown and Christine Milne particularly.
In 2000 and 2003, Louise did 2 more stints in Antarctica. There were more women on these trips – and consequently, Louise says, there were more opportunities for fun, more creativity, and it was easier in a lot of ways. Louise also worked closely with Margaret Blakers and Christine Milne to coordinate the development of the Global Greens Charter in 2001, ( a process described in Margaret’s interview in this blog).
For several years Louise worked on an international study abroad project, where she was leading education activities, and guiding 18-20 year old American students around the world, being a mentor and sometimes helping them to sort out their personal problems.
These days Louise continues to lead commercial tourist operations to Antartica on a regular basis and is very involved in forest campaigning – doing economic analysis to support the work of Christine Milne, and the forest peace (statement of principles) process.
Louise lives part time on Bruny Island, Tasmania, and as a representative of her local environment group, is on the Management Committee of Environment Tasmania. But she says, she is shying away from leadership roles.
I’m more and more thinking other younger women should move into the space. I’m still inspired by all these environment issues, and everything I get into, I give my all, but I’m not hungry for it like I was before, when it was the focus of my life, I’m more just enjoying “being” in the environment on Bruny Island.
On her experiences of leadership through such a diversity of situations, Louise says:
I enjoy working with other people to make things happen. Increasingly the concept of leadership of being out front and having everyone else follow is not the way it works. Usually 2 or 3 brains are better than one, and it’s that kind of collaborative leadership that works best, and the sum becomes greater than the parts, and that’s the excitement of it. You develop that way, and you learn. I really think leadership is about learning.
Louise’s unusual early life has obviously contributed to her scientific and environmental leadership work all over the globe. With Louise, I always feel in the presence of someone who is fascinated by everything around her, looking always to learn more and dig deeper, and her thoughtful and considered approach to leadership demonstrates this so well.