Brenda Shanahan, one of Australia’s most successful and influential business people, wonders why the debate around parental leave has been so narrow to date.
Do you ever find yourself thinking, if I’d known that earlier things could have been a whole lot easier?
Brenda Shanahan, one of Australia’s most influential business women, believes it comes down to the questions you ask - and to ask the right questions you must take the time to understand your audience.
With an influential business career in senior executive and board roles for more than 30 years, including being the first female member of the Australian Stock Exchange, Brenda’s successes back her theory.
Increasingly interested in publicly tackling how we maintain female workplace involvement, increase productivity and advance women through the ranks so they have the experience for higher positions, Brenda has declared her hand in a number of ways recently, including in the media.
Maintaining more connectedness between new mothers and their workplaces, she believes will make a difference. Salary related paid parental leave schemes, better childcare options, combined with improved technology which supports the creation of more flexible work practices, will, in her view, help women return to the workforce.
At fault, she believes, is the system. Board and executive level imbalance begins a long way back. Unless the system can jettison the unconscious bias that often holds women back, women will not move up through the ranks and into senior management and so don’t get the experiences they need to become executives and get on to boards.
In a recent piece for the AFR, she stated: “Whether one elects to have children or not, there is no debating they are Australia's economic and social future, especially given our rapidly ageing population.
“And there remains little debate around the benefits of increasing female participation rates in the workforce. Isn't it time to stop penalising professional and managerial women for having children, and start paying parental leave like a workplace entitlement – not a welfare payment?”
For her own part, she believes revolutions in technology are major enablers creating temporal and spatial flexibility that can be exploited by parents with home care duties: “Mobile phones and tablets and the apps we can use have made an extraordinary difference to where and when I can work. Marking up board papers, doing board hook-ups, everything is so much easier with these enabling technologies.
“I can’t imagine doing business without them. I don’t understand people who say the technology is invasive. If you use it appropriately I think it’s the greatest thing to have happened to us.”
Born with what she terms the “can-do” gene, Brenda, who is also one of our Westpac and AFR 100 Women of Influence, believes natural resilience and her upbringing - in a large family on the land with parents who believed in equality of education and opportunity - further nurtured her nature.
It’s not that she hasn’t experienced her fair share of discrimination. She has. As for letting such behaviour beat her that was never on the cards.
“I remember wanting to be an analyst in a stock broking firm and seeing a job advertised in the paper with a telephone number to call. I rang, and the person in charge of employment who took the phone call said we don’t employ women in that role. However, they would employ me in the library. I worked doing company research and preparing briefs for the managing partners as well as getting to understand industries. Eventually, they thought I was good enough to go out and do company visits and things continued on from there.”
For Brenda, success boiled down to taking the risk – and not worrying about progressing in the same straight line her male colleagues had open to them - ‘just because they were male’. Certainly, Brenda would agree the wider opportunities and learnings she has been able to take advantage of have helped her career and its successes, enormously.
“I am of the firm belief that the harder you work the further you’ll get,” says Brenda, who from her early days until now knows of no one – “no matter how smart they are” - that hasn’t worked hard to get where they are.
“You also have to love what you do. I can’t imagine getting up in the morning to do something you didn’t want to be doing.”
And, she counsels, “avoid concentrating on what you want, and look instead at where you can contribute. Success follows, not the other way around.”
Medical research is another area in which Brenda believes and plays her part. She has chaired steering committees and been on hospital boards in her efforts to give back to the community.
“A career in finance takes you everywhere. You can’t do anything without finance and structure,” she admits with a laugh.
“I’ve had a wonderful career doing something I loved. I still feel I have a lot more to offer and do and one of the things I am particularly interested in is medical research and getting that research into the community. I am on the steering committee for Aikenhead Centre for Medical Discovery based at St Vincent Hospital in Melbourne. It’s a research and academic medical centre – bringing together clinicians, engineers, scientists and students.
“Biomedical engineering innovations are the Centre’s focus including tissue engineering; drug design and delivery: developing intelligent drugs, smart delivery systems and medical bionics: innovative devices to replace organs and body processes.”
Bionic eyes, islet transplants for people with Type 1 diabetes, work in orthopaedics for people with cancer, and implants to manage epilepsy are just some of the success stories being further progressed by the Centre.
At the final stage, Brenda is now sourcing support to “get the building up so everyone can meet and work in one spot. It will be much more efficient.”