INEPT, selfish, frivolous, passive, scattered, opportunistic, gossip, excitable, vain, panicky, temperamental and indecisive. These are all words used to describe women in leadership.
Even when objective performance measures like grades or fitness between men and women in the military are the same, arrogant and irresponsible are the only two used to describe men, a Harvard Business Review study showed.
Women are compassionate, men are analytical. Women are enthusiastic, men are competent.
But is the focus on women’s emotional capacity always a bad thing? Our local leaders don’t think so.
This year marks a century since the passing of the Women’s Legal State Act in NSW, that opened the door for women to stand for election to local government, the Legislative Assembly and practise as lawyers.
“I’ve always been interested in politics and fighting for those less likely to be heard,” Armidale Regional Council (ARC) councillor Deb O’Brien said.
She’s also the standing Labor candidate for the Northern Tablelands seat.
“ARC has a lot of strong women and some of the blokes have a problem with that, but we’re here to stay and they need to get used to it,” she said.
One of the most gender diverse councils in the region, five of its eleven councillors are women - but it hasn’t always been that way.
The first female mayor in Australia was Elizabeth Lillian Fowler, elected to the Newtown Municipal Council in 1928, it wasn’t until ten years later that she took the leading role.
History describes her as large, blunt in speech and remembered for her confidence, force and her “mannish” capacity to control.
Fowler’s personal fief was in the Newtown-Erskineville Political Labor League, she worked as a secretary.
Eventually she was elected to the Australian Labor Party.
Fowler lead the charge on widows’ pensions, child endowment and an investigation into the administration of the Child Welfare Department.
Custodianship of social issues is not uncommon among female leaders, in fact, it’s sometimes an aspect overlooked by men, Uralla Shire councillor Isabel Strutt said.
Fourteen years ago, she was the only woman at the table.
Contention around a wool scouring plant drove Cr Strutt to put up her hand for leadership.
“I thought instead of not agreeing I should put my action where my mouth is, it was also something that appealed to me in terms of giving back to the community,” she said.
In her second term another woman joined her ranks, in the third there were four and now there are three.
As deputy mayor, Cr Strutt has always concerned herself with issues of community.
“I think men and women generally have a different perspective, women are more likely to recognise a wellbeing aspect,” she said.
“Men perhaps more see the benefit of development or change, where a woman will see some of the pitfalls that need to be recognised, the people that need to be brought along with the idea.
“Women recognise the human needs within proposals, or the effect those proposals might have.”
Just 31 per cent of councillors in the state are women, Australia ranks 50th in the world for female representation behind African, Scandinavian and Latin American countries.
Just across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand’s female numbers fare even better, so does Germany, the UK and France.
I would be mortified to think I earned a position because I am a woman, that’s insulting to me.- Mayor Katrina Humphries
Some countries implemented gender quotas to ensure women get a seat at the table, in Tamworth, councillor Juanita Wilson would rather women earn them.
“When you listen to expressions on leaders in media, a male might be focused and directed and the same value with a woman can be expressed as narrow-minded and stubborn,” she said.
“A man is determined and resolute but a woman has limited perspective - I’ve seen that happen quite a bit.
“I think it’s historic that our culture has seen men in positions of leadership and I think that’s taking a little while to dissolve.”
Moree Shire Council mayor Katrina Humphries runs a tucker shop and earned her stripes pulling the town through the Global Financial Crisis. She’s irked by the concept of gender quotas in governance.
“I believe in the best person for the job and I don’t think it should have to be 50/50,” she said.
“I would be mortified to think I earned a position because I am a woman, that’s insulting to me.”
Gender bias is an issue for women in leadership, but traditional gender roles are too.
With women making up more than half of the population in 2018, balancing parenting with career aspirations is something the working world is yet to completely catch up on.
On average, women spend 64 per cent of their working week performing unpaid care work, that’s nearly twice as many hours as men, so it’s no wonder some struggle to find the time for roles in local governance, Tamworth councillor Helen Tickle said.
“We’ve seen enormous inroads but I acknowledge it’s difficult for many women to get that start in a leadership role, I’ve always been a believer that women should be elected on their ability and contribution not their gender,” she said.
“Women often are juggling family life and children, business or employment and they cannot make the time available to do that.”
A common thread among these women is their dedication to community, their role in public service is less about forging a path for gender equality as it is improving outcomes for their regions.
All of them are compassionate, all of them are enthusiastic.
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