This International Women’s Day, the focus is on achieving parity in leadership roles. To celebrate, we spoke to six women in business about what this day means to them.
International Women’s Day (IWD) 2021 is today, Monday, March 8. This year’s global theme is “Women in Leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.”
To acknowledge the day and celebrate the achievements of some of our most important connections, we spoke to some of the outstanding women with whom we collaborate every day, to gather their thoughts on what IWD means to them, and what their hopes are for women in the future.
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio has been working at Woollahra’s Emanuel Synagogue since 1998. When ordained as a rabbi in 1998, she was only the third Australian-born woman to achieve such a status. “IWD is an opportunity for us to pause to celebrate the achievements and successes of women as well as to challenge inequality,” she said, “to recognize the places where we all need to grow and continue to change the world to create a society which is equal for all.”
For Romney Stanton, General Manager of Sydney acting school, Darlo Drama, the day signifies many opportunities. “For me, IWD is about women rising together, supporting each other’s successes, and holding each other in times of challenge. It’s about valuing each individual woman.”
Mellissa Larkin, Founder & Managing Director of law firm Peripheral Blue sees IWD as a marker for the professional achievements of women who blazed the trail she is now successfully navigating. “IWD is an important expression of gratitude for all the work that’s been done by those who’ve challenged the status quo before me. It’s also a public acknowledgement of the need for us to continue to support and champion each other, both personally and professionally, as we move forward.”
Ilona Lee, General Manager of Plus61J Media, reflecting on half a century of leadership in the workforce and volunteer sector, describes IWD as reminding her each year “how fortunate I am to have had such an interesting career and still be able to make use of my skills and expertise in a meaningful way.”
Given 2021’s theme, we asked these leaders about a time when they’d chosen to actively challenge the status quo.
For Lee, her challenges go back to the Whitlam Government’s making university education free, when she was pregnant with her third child. “I joined a tertiary institution and had to convince the male hierarchy that I could be an effective member of staff and a mother at the same time,” she said. “Fortunately, I managed to do that and many opportunities followed as a result.”
Brenda Loh, a dentist and Partner at the Myers Street Dental Clinic in Geelong, reflected on her two-decades’ long journey to get where she is in her career. “When I first entered the workforce, dental practices were most often owned by men. Practice ownership was something that most of us wouldn’t contemplate – at least not until later in our careers when we had already established our families.
“My journey from being a female graduate dentist to co-owner of a large dental group practice at the age of 26 is credited to my male colleagues, my husband, and my parents, who to this day #ChooseToChallenge the status quo alongside me.”
Meanwhile, Rabbi Ninio’s very existence challenged the status quo. “Even though my congregation chose to hire a woman and was committed to gender equality, the reality of having a female in that leadership role, was, for some, empowering, and for others, confronting.”
Stanton believes her multiple skill sets enabled her to avoid being ‘pigeonholed’ in her career. “I feel I have challenged the status quo by not feeling like I have to conform to a single career path, and by passionately creating a life that looks how I want it to. Having lots of different areas to focus on helps me to let my creativity flow, to help others in varied ways, and to have a life full of joy!”
The #ChooseToChallenge theme heavily resonates with lawyer and Founder, Mellissa Larkin. “When the time came, I chose to consciously ‘unbundle’ my life to actively rebuild the life – and legal practice – I’d always dreamt of. I left a successful career in BigLaw to launch my ‘dream firm,’ Peripheral Blue, removing all the metrics which fostered the toxicity of traditional firms, and built my model out from there. ‘Choosing to challenge’ has caused a ripple effect that has positively impacted my, my team’s, and my clients’ lives, and so on, which is amazing.”
Championing Other Women
So, how do these businesswomen actively support and celebrate other women in achieving their goals?
Ilona Lee says she looks for opportunities to support other women, particularly young women who are just starting out on a career path, just as Dr. Brenda Loh says her practice encourages all its staff to be the best they can be. “If any of our staff wish to embark on further study into differing career paths, where possible, we alter their hours of work so that they can retain employment while studying. When our team members start a family, we try and find a way to amend their hours so that they can keep working, while fulfilling their role as a parent.”
Larkin, too, is proud of her firm’s flexible workplace model. “It enables anyone in my team to provide a high quality, responsive service from wherever and whenever they need to, to best support our clients’ needs. Our model fosters inclusivity, with team members always on an equal playing field regardless of gender, and in the drivers’ seats of their own work/life balance.”
Forging a Gender-Equal World
Shanti Bedard, Co-Founder and Director of Exit Advisory Group, believes we should be asking ourselves how we can take steps every day to create a gender-equal world. “One of our core values is respect, which we define through diversity, humility, and acceptance. We are all different, and diversity is a strength,” she said. “Not only does our team have great representation of women … we also have people that differ in race, faith, ethnicity, and geography. We love the diversity! One of our mantras is that everyone has a voice at the table, and we want to hear it.”
Romney Stanton said she aims to keep a balanced perspective on gender equality and to share it. “We need to tell the story of gender equality and its importance with grace and without vindication.”
On the same question, Rabbi Ninio said she was proud of the synagogue’s, and her congregation’s, commitment to shaping an open and inclusive community. “Together we are changing perceptions and modeling what a gender-equal world can look like, and I hope we can continue with this really important task.”
Dr. Loh said her practice is committed to hiring on the basis of merit and suitability to the role rather than gender stereotypes. “It’s wonderful to know that we have been part of a movement that helped steer away from traditional gender stereotypes among the various roles within dentistry.”
Finally, Ilona Lee said that while she acknowledges that, on her own, she can only bring about change within her small sphere of influence, there are always evolutionary steps to be taken. “One way is to always ensure gender balance in any public forum, panel, or consultation group,” she said. “The female perspective must always be as important as the male perspective.”