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Secretaries reveal: tips to make it to the top as a woman

Catherine Russell

I can’t wait to tell my daughter about the year that was 2015.

It’s the year the first woman won the Melbourne Cup, the first woman became Defence Minister, the year we had the bravest and most articulate Australian of the Year, a woman who shone an overdue spotlight on domestic violence, the year the women’s cricket team won The Ashes (not the men), and our Australian netball team received its highest television ratings for a final they went on to win.

It is the year too, where Julie Bishop brought fierce intelligence and graceful diplomacy to domestic and international politics, delicately balancing a shift in power between Prime Ministers; a year when more women have been appointed to the ASX boards than any other time and when men have become visible champions for their colleagues, wives, sisters and daughters. It is the year when classic ‘women’s issues’ became mainstream challenges, framed in economic and social terms that influence all of us, regardless of gender.

2015 is a fitting backdrop to mark 30 years since the appointment of the first female to Secretary in the public service in Helen Williams (pictured above)–a trailblazer, accepting the challenge to go where no woman had ever been. 1985 was a different time for women, before the House was on the hill and where as a woman you were still expected to be pushing prams and typewriter keys than policy ideas. No one was talking about the underbelly of domestic violence; sexual harassment was a part of daily working life for many women.

There was just one woman was in the whole Hawke Ministry, Susan Ryan, and as a sign of the times, Netball Australia had just published its first Annual Report with the hopes of taking the first steps towards elite players earning a living from the sport. You might have had a job in the lower ranks of the public service but everywhere you would look there were men from senior management to secretary to minister. Helen’s appointment and more than 24 years at the top of the service has influenced the opportunities for all women at all levels.

Today 78,966 (58%)* women hold ongoing employment in the public service and a growing number are in the upper ranks of the service with five of the 19 Secretary positions now held by women.

Four of the five current female APS secretaries: Renee Leon, Kathryn Campbell, Lisa Paul and Glenys Beauchamp.

Four of the five current female APS secretaries: Renee Leon, Kathryn Campbell, Lisa Paul and Glenys Beauchamp, at the IPAA ‘Celebrating Female Leadership’ event.


The Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) brought together a rare gathering to mark the 30-year milestone of Helen’s appointment.

A sold out crowd heard from five female secretaries: Glenys Beauchamp (Industry), Jane Halton (Finance), Kathryn Campbell (Human Services ), Lisa Paul (Education and Training) and Renee Leon (Employment) who revealed timely advice for making it as a woman in the modern public service. Here’s what I took from the discussion.

1. Market yourself well and pitch yourself to the situation

Think of yourself like a brand in the way you behave and the way you present and don’t be afraid to speak up; put your hand up and put yourself forward.

Being self-aware can also help you to pitch yourself to a situation and draw on a repertoire of responses and ways to manage everything from meetings to phone calls.

2. To move up, move sideways and always take opportunities to learn

Embrace hard challenges, the situations and polices that are complex, tricky and not well loved by the community—for this is where you will find your courage, a way to collaborate with people outside your comfort zone and further more, have the necessary impetus to innovate and deliver in a timely way.

There are many pathways to the top job and moving sideways could give you a new skills set or understanding that rounds out your offering and deepens your experience, which will always stand you in good stead for the next position.

Importantly, if someone taps you on the shoulder to ask you to do something and maybe your heart isn’t in it …. still do it. Walk through the doors that people open for you as you will always learn from the experience.

3. Look out for good managers and go and work for them

We learn how to be good managers by having good managers and watching how they navigate, champion, call out behaviors, resolve conflict, manage workflow and motivate people.

All the theory in the world can’t demonstrate how to be a good manager, it is truly something you must experience.

If you find a good manager do everything you can to work for them, observe them and seek their guidance.

4. Be a good people leader: ‘people leave the boss not the work’

People are the key to delivering anything and tackling the challenges that come our way. As summed up by a secretary, ‘ people leave the boss not the work.’

Do everything you can to be a good leader of people and keep doing it – as it’s the common skill you will need throughout your career.

5. Invite women to contribute everywhere you can

While the majority of the public service may be women, their voices are not always heard or recognised.

Gender dynamics play out in meetings and anything you can do as a leader or peer to draw out the women around you will help round out the advice and ensure that diverse opinions are considered.

At the same time, inviting women to speak up can subtly shift the culture team-by-team, branch by branch, department by department.

6. Have passion and be visibly seen to love what you do

Passion is an infectious ingredient that can energise teams and motivate those around you. Walk with passion and carry your projects and challenges in a way that makes others want to be a part of them.

It is a key silent ingredient to leadership.

7. Know your kernels of confidence

As women we are more likely to doubt ourselves than have a go. Know what drives your confidence and check in with these drivers when a decision challenge or opportunity comes your way. Do this, rather than leaning into the seeds of doubt we all have.

8. Be clear about your boundaries and caring responsibilities but not ashamed

More than 50% of the workforce has caring responsibilities. Rising through the ranks doesn’t need to come at the expense of the home front nor should caring responsibilities be hidden during negotiations.

Being clear about what it takes for you to work but also live can help you establish expectations from the get go, rather than wind up overwhelmed and under-supported on all fronts without effective boundaries.

You know that with the right settings you will work smarter and harder, so back yourself. If they want your skills, set your conditions.

9. Treat ‘Women in Leadership’ like any other business need

Use your feet and be influential to help build a truly equitable culture for future generations of women – it is though, not just a nice thing to do but also as a business imperative.

As such, it should be treated like any other business needs with clear targets and metrics and with accountability.

10. Champion all diversity

Know that raising the flag for women and being a role model is actually about something bigger than gender.

It is about cultivating diversity within all the ranks of the public service so that the public we serve is very much represented the people who are serving.

*Source: State of the Service Report

Image of ‘businesswomen discussing over paperwork‘ via Shutterstock

Catherine Russell

Catherine Russell is enthralled by public affairs in Canberra and the world at large; the issues that impact people from all walks of life; start memorable dinner party debates; fuel politics; create our advocates; and drive social media commentary. Consultant, mother and partner Catherine presents the HerCanberra perspective on the headlines. More about the Author

  • Thanks so much for writing this piece Catherine. As a woman in her 20’s who is working hard to build a career, I found this very helpful. All of the points made are great but I particularly like points 3 and 4. Good management is so important and can make or break a team. From my experience, I’ve learnt what type of Manager I don’t want to be and have also learnt what a great Manager can be. As Richard Branson says “Learn to look after your staff first and the rest will follow.”