Step Forward – A Conference for Women and Leadership

WORDS BY SHALINI SEN

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One cold blustery Friday morning, a bunch of postgrad women from across the city come together in the warm and welcoming chambers of the University of Sydney’s Women College, to learn to navigate the tricky waters of life beyond postgrad. The Step Forward Conference held on 11th May, organised by the Postgrad Women’s Collective of SUPRA, was designed to allow postgrad women to meet and network with inspirational women leaders and academics to learn and understand how to make their mark on the world. The intimacy of the setting allowed the women in attendance to interact one-on-one with the likes of Prof. Nalini Joshi, Head of Mathematics and Statistics at University of Sydney; Karina Kwan, former CFO of Commonwealth Bank; Helen Campbell, CEO of Women’s Legal Services NSW; and many other trailblazing women who shared stories of their journey to leadership.
 
Step Forward isn’t an isolated conference for women. Conferences like this are conducted across the globe and every time young women flock to these gatherings to be inspired by the stories of their predecessors. And – not surprisingly – the main takeaways from these conferences aren’t very different from other women’s conferences. But the fact is that despite nodding along and tearing up as we listen to these stories of grit and determination, the young women of today have trouble translating these learnings into practice. And hammering away at the same message again and again in every conference is possibly what we need to finally step out of the shadows of patriarchy and become our own inspiration.

 (Natasha Chaudhary, SUPRA's Women's Officer, who welcomed the audience.)

(Natasha Chaudhary, SUPRA's Women's Officer, who welcomed the audience.)

So, here are the key takeaways from the Step Forward Conference. You’ve heard this advice before, but let’s hope this time it’ll stick!

Ask – Ask questions about everything. Learning is a life-long process and there is no way you can get ahead of the pack if you choose to isolate yourself from all the information around you. Karina Kwan says, “Don’t quash your curiosity; nurture it and develop it. Keep learning things even outside your role – it makes your profession more fulfilling and interesting. ”She also advocates asking for what you deserve, as does Belinda Hutchinson, Chancellor of The University of Sydney. In her dynamic career across various sectors, Belinda says she learnt that asking for promotions and negotiating pay is every professional’s prerogative and women should not be left behind in the race because they didn’t ask for what they deserved.

Network – If there was one unanimous piece of advice from all the speakers at the conference, it was to network as much as possible. Networking allows us to open our worlds to support systems and mentors who are an integral part of any success story. Susan Price, who is an employment lawyer and a diversity consultant, also advises us to find ourselves a sponsor. She says, “A mentor is someone who guides you in the room, but a sponsor is someone who supports you even when you are not in the room.” Networking not only allows us to support one another but also maintains your relationship with the labour force. It is the stark truth for every woman who wants a family as well as a career, that there will be times when we have to temporarily step away from our jobs to do other things in our lives – whether its having children or caring for ageing parents. But as long as you always have one foot in the door, you’ll know how to stay relevant in your career.

Delegate – Wonder Woman is an Amazon, and Super Girl is essentially an alien. So let’s stop trying to be them! It is humanly impossible to be able to do everything and still retain any semblance of sanity. As women, we need to learn to delegate in order to live our dreams. Whether its by picking a strong life partner like Karina did, or by letting go of the smaller ‘stuff’ like Kate McDonell, consultant at PwC, did – allow yourself room to breathe. Glenda Sluga, an ARC Kathleen Fitzpatrick Laureate Fellow, says, "Pick your passions and stick with those. It is not possible to do everything.” Yek-Ling Chong, Manager & Supervisory Analyst at Citi Research, has another perspective to delegating. She says that despite what we have always been told, it’s important to be dispensable – yes, you heard that right! She says being indispensable sometimes translates to missed opportunities. If you’re the only one who can do the job, you’ll be never be considered to do other things. She says, “Delegate and train others, and make yourself more available for bigger opportunities.”

Persevere – We all know this one. There is no substitute for hard work. Each of the speakers at the conference spoke at length about the amount of dogged persistence that goes into a success story. Some of these women had humble beginnings and it was their determined sense of purpose that shaped them into the beacons of hope and strength they are today. “You’ll need resilience, confidence and drive to deal with roadblocks and people,” says Nalini Joshi, the first female mathematician to be appointed professor at University of Sydney. For the daughter of immigrant parents who came to this country before the end of the White Australia policy, Nalini’s journey is peppered with anecdotes of taking the path less travelled. And the learnings from her unconventional journey brought her where she is today.

 (Prof. Nalini Joshi)

(Prof. Nalini Joshi)

Adapt – “Don’t view your career as a linear path, look at it as a jungle gym and gain the most from the detours,” says Holly Lam, President of Women Lawyers Association of NSW. Embrace the twists and turns life has to offer and step up to the challenge – it’s a learning opportunity like no other. It’s a scary proposition for sure, but Lea Vesic, Board Member at Women in Aviation International, advises to “Do it afraid!” In her speech, Helen Campbell spoke emphatically about agency and the part it plays in a woman’s journey – personal and professional. She says we need to stop playing the role of victims and take charge of our lives and decisions. And if we internalise her message and the truths we learnt at Step Forward and every other women’s conference, maybe very soon we’ll live in a world that no longer needs a women’s conference.


Header image: Marian Baird
Image credit: SUPRA

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