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01 February 2012
According to Jane Hunt, even the best of us hold some entirely unjustified stereotypes about people who are unemployed. The most prevalent being ‘that there’s something wrong with a person if they don’t have a job’, and that ‘unemployed people are dole bludgers who really just don’t want to work’.
In the three years Jane has been CEO at Fitted For Work, the not-for-profit organisation founded by Renata Singer and Marion Webster in Melbourne, preparing and helping women return to the workforce, Jane’s witnessed many women come through the organisation’s doors and “they wouldn’t have been there if they hadn’t wanted to work”.
Referred by the 180 or so agencies with which Fitted For Work is partnered, a staggering 75 percent of the women using the dressing/outfitting service have successfully joined the workforce within three months.
There are all manner of reasons why women may be out of work or need to find a job and are not able, explains Jane, not the least of which revolves around the fact that Australia has one of the lowest participation rates of single mothers in the workforce of any OECD country.
“In Australia, about 80 per cent of single parent households are headed by women,” says Jane. “The barriers to entry for women to the workplace, systemically, including inflexibility in workplaces, education rates and levels for women, along with childcare costs, which for women on low-incomes, are enormous. If, after costs, you were to find you were only earning 20c more a fortnight you’d be forgiven for asking yourself, why bother?”
However, the answer for many of the women has nothing to do with the money, but is in what it gives your children, says Jane.
“We have women escaping domestic violence, women who are divorced and need jobs or maybe they’ve had an accident that has left them unable to continue working in the field for which they were trained. They want to work and they want their children to see and understand what it is to work and its benefits.”
According to Jane, there are women Fitted For Work sees who have grown up in households where there has been no employment. The role modeling around what it is to work, how you do it, the skills to be part of the workforce don’t exist for young people in this situation.
“That,” says Jane, “doesn’t mean there’s something inherently wrong, that their DNA is wrong. It’s just different social circumstances, and a service like ours can teach those women the skills they’ll need and have to learn.”
Learning those skills is as simple and life changing as learning the skills to grow your own food. A metaphor not lost on Jane whose great passions include gardening, her two children and her volunteer work, teaching children to read at her local primary school.
“It’s very grounding, sitting on a little chair reading to children, attempting to keep their attention ,” says Jane, who believes knowing how to read, having the basic building blocks and a good education are of the utmost importance to live successfully in the world in which we find ourselves. The creative and practical pursuit of gardening on the other hand, answer Jane’s self-confessed need to experience change quickly and her love of growth phases.
“If you weed a patch of earth the results are immediate,” she explains.
“I like that, and the surprises you get along the way inherent in the slower more long-term change that’s also gardening.”
Jane Hunt grew up in three countries: the UK, New Zealand and Australia. Her father was in construction and moved for work. It was a lifestyle which could have included a stint in Germany (Jane and her sister opted to stay in Australia), and has left her with some lasting legacies: “shocking handwriting”, because each school taught writing in a different way; an oddly displaced accent; strong skills around transition picked up moving between schools and having to make her way in new environments.
Understanding the processes of transition, being able to handle them and use them, interests Jane, who saw herself in academia until she realized making an impact on people’s lives – “providing them with the resources to do the amazing things we are all capable of” – is what inspires her.
“At university I did a double major in geography and psychology and an honours in social geography looking at a protest movement around a brothel located in Camberwell in Melbourne,” explains Jane.
From there it was on to a Masters degree analysing the discourse around community protest movements, focusing on the closing by the Kennett government of three schools in three entirely different areas of Melbourne: “I was interested in looking at and analyzing the kind of language each community used and how that worked or didn’t work to achieve a successful outcome. I was also interested to know what community activism brought the people involved in it. From there, I did a Masters of Business Leadership specialising in organisational change. The project here was to examine women returning to work and the cross-pollination of parenting skills in the workplace. Lots of things in our workplaces demand the skills you need as a parent. The integration of these skills and our need to value them in and outside the home is important.”
Fitted For Work, Jane describes as the culmination of what she’s studied, who she is, what she does and why she works, especially as it relates to the particular period of growth in which the organisation finds itself at the moment.
The once small volunteer-based concern has for the past three years been morphing into a sustainable national organisation with a “quadrupled budget”; a greater range of programs to get women into the workforce and keep them there; more diversified income streams that include retaining strong donor relationships, foundation and trust monies, and the development of two social enterprises, a bricks and mortar vintage fashion retail venture called, “Dear Gladys”, and her online sister (www.deargladys.com.au).
Heading up a not-for-profit where the specific aim is to provide women with the skills to look the part, behave the part, dress the part and land the job, it seemed only fair to wonder what the interview process was like for Jane when she went for her current position and what, if anything, she’s learned along the way.
“I’ve always received positive feedback in any of the positions I’ve held,” admits Jane. “It came as a shock when at one of my reviews I was asked by the board ‘why I always watered down my impact by limiting my achievements and being apologetic?’ The whole thing was very difficult to face because it actually meant looking at the fact that I was afraid of getting right out there and owning what it was we were doing. I was frightened I’d be criticized.”
It’s a fear, Jane says, which is not unreasonable to hold in this country, where “we treat our leaders very poorly. Our criticism of them is often vitriolic, and personal. However, not claiming what you’ve done only undermines your own ability and credibility, and limits that of the organisation as well.”
The honesty of that review and the lessons learned – around what Jane needed to do if she was to grow in her role – remain with her, as does her experience of the interview for the job with Fitted For Work. In front of a large panel of five or six board members, coming at her from very different perspectives, she faced questions ranging from “how do you lead people to how would you sort clothes”. The interview taught her the importance of understanding who and what drives the people that make up an organisation.
“I needed more preparation around Fitted For Work’s culture and environment. I needed to have probed who they were more and that is what I would keep in mind for next time,” confesses Jane, modestly, as she moves on into her fourth successful year at the helm of the operation.