5 Minute Snapshots:
Judi Apte and Grace Leotta talk about Women in Management in Tech, Media and Communications

Hi Grace. We have worked in the more female friendly environment of health and community services but we both nearly took another path. Can you outline a bit of your story.

 

Grace:

I knew I wanted to be a social worker from about the age of 14 years. I don't think I fully understood what social workers did - I liked the idea of working with people and communities. At high school I read some sociology textbooks and learning about how societies functioned really confirmed that social work was for me. So, I went straight from school to university and undertook a social work degree. 

In my first year of Uni I toyed with the idea of also studying English. I've always loved English and history. I decided to stay with social work. Over the years I've met people who have combined social work and the arts, such as drama or writing, and if I was studying now I would like to combine community development and the arts.

Working in services for people with a disability at a time of enormous sector reform was crucial to developing my approach and implementing what I had learned in my degree. I feel fortunate that I had learned that social work was about creating social change to achieve just societies, and this required a combination of working with individuals or families, groups, and communities, and advocating for systemic change. This gave me a pathway which led to a community development and community participation approach to work, involvement in advocacy, and to several management positions. 

Several years ago I took a position coordinating and managing training for NSW at the Australian Broadcasting Commission, where I was also involved in change management and team development at a time of significant transition at the public broadcaster.

Eventually interests in organisational development, facilitation and training brought me to the work I do today. I work with a range of organisations including from all levels of government and national, state and local human service organisations and networks. Internationally I have worked with Samoa Umbrella for Non-Government Organisations (SUNGO), and in New Zealand/Aotearoa through the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Australasia.

 

Judi:

Well, my initial career plan was to work in IT as a systems analyst. I was interested in working in business with a focus on the East Asian region. So, I did a higher mathematics course at uni, with a computing element, and did very well but there were 4 women in a class of 200 and no other woman, nor the guys I was friendly with, was going to continue into year 2. The culture of those continuing was extremely narrow and disrespectful of anything outside their orbit. 

And in my late teens and early twenties I had a range of experiences that strongly oriented me to giving primary importance to people; and I saw the potential of community initiatives to support young people in aiming higher and even turning their lives around. So, I chose to do social work. I was interested in social philosophy and policy and psychology, and it was a great time to engage with the social work profession as major change was happening in so many areas of practice, and we had great lecturers who equipped us to be a part of that.

So, there are some things I have missed through that pivotal choice, but it has been very rewarding to see some of the changes that I have been part of - for individual people, agencies and sectors.

Different family members have worked in those areas I initially considered, and I love looking at the similarities and differences in being a manager across the spectrum of human service organisations and business organisations.

 

Thinking about Julia Gillard’s quote: “Gender does not explain everything, nor nothing”: 

What aspects of leadership do you think have been easier because you are a woman, and what aspects have been harder?

Grace:

Being a woman in leadership roles working with teams made up predominantly of women has been great for establishing a collaborative way of working with staff and for supporting young women in their leadership roles and aspirations. I have noticed both while in management roles and working as a consultant that people are sometimes surprised at the experience and knowledge that I and other women in leadership bring. I think that this is about having lower expectations of women which means that we sometimes need to work much harder than some men to prove ourselves. 

Judi:

An interesting question. In one way I think I have been able to promote a culture of excellence more easily because my messages are not heard through traditional views of authority and power. I have had conversations with women managers in health and community services about the importance of quickly establishing your style and ensuring that you will not be aligned with concepts of ‘mothering leadership’ as that can lead you down a very unfortunate path.

 

What do you see as the picture for women leaders in the years ahead?

 

Grace:

I think the future for women leaders is a bright one as organisations recognise the importance of women and other people with diverse backgrounds and experiences in senior leadership roles to the success of the organisation. The emphasis on more women leaders is coinciding with the appreciation of leadership styles that are facilitative and collaborative. 

Women in leadership and those that support them need to recognise and support the full diversity of women so that women leaders truly represent the diversity of women in our community.

Judi:

I think it is a very promising picture for the next generations of women leaders, but as the events of 2021 demonstrated, old attitudes are still embedded in some Australian workplaces. I think those attitudes have been challenged strongly, and I don’t think that challenge will fade. But we cannot be complacent and assume that legislation and policies are sufficient.

Whereas in the 1990’s we had to argue for the importance of “soft skills” they are now acknowledged as central. My hope is that we develop organizational cultures where many backgrounds, skills and experiences are valued and utilized. I think our future is dependent on that, and we need to move quickly.