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Strong women leader Sam Mostyn, our Ruby of the Month

07 February 2013

A company director, diversity and sustainability adviser, the extensive list of Sam Mostyn’s involvements is indicative of her expertise and reflective of personal preoccupations around authentic diversity, sustainability, and the importance of keeping busy and staying confident in your abilities.

A trained lawyer, who spent a number of years in Federal Government policy advisory roles before serving on the senior executive teams at Optus, Cable & Wireless, and Insurance Australia Group, Sam describes her work now as a “portfolio of corporate, not-for-profit and government advisory work, some paid, some unpaid”.

It’s a flexible fulltime job with lots of gear changing and travel and although the stop/start nature of her work existence has its challenges, it allows her to be an active, involved and engaged parent, a top priority now her daughter is in high school.

On the boards of Virgin Australia, Transurban and Citibank Australia, Sam is also a Commissioner of the Australian Football League; on the National Mental Health Commission; and National Sustainability Council. She chairs the Stakeholder Advisory Council of CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation Flagship, serves on the board of Climateworks Australia, Australian Volunteers International, the Sydney Theatre Company, the Australia Council and is a member of the NSW Climate Change Council.

Recently, she served as a member of the Review of the Treatment of Women in the Australian Defence Force. She has been the President of the Australian Museum Trust, a board member of Reconciliation Australia and was on the Crawford Review of Sports Funding in Australia.

Patchwork quilt
Admittedly, anyone glancing at her CV could find it puzzling: where’s the pattern, the linear journey?

But that would miss the point.

Women, Sam believes, don’t have the same constructs set around work and life as men. The heroic, linear journey (set up by out-of-date industrial systems and traditions) actually fails to cope with the new rigours of modern life and work, and so resorts to treating women, who are adept at change and dealing with change, as problems.

“Women are actually far more adept at functioning in the workforce and dealing with what happens in a workforce because they deal with change,” says Sam, continuing on to explain that the research for a long time has shown that a flexible, dynamic workplace not only produces great outcomes but elicits the highest performance from people as well capturing most of their discretionary energy.

Corporate Australia, says Sam, is yet to create those sorts of organisations and empower men and women to operate in them: “We keep going back to this old industrial model, that has very little relevance to the way people want to live their lives. A model that burns talent, depletes our productivity, lacks imagination, places a price on flexibility and makes the concept [just as it does ‘lippy’ women] a problem that has to be managed.”

According to Sam, as long as women (in fact anything that differs from the corporate ‘Norm’) are seen as a problem to be solved, or an anxious lobby group to be managed, rather than as equal players – part of a means to build better connections into and understanding of markets – then there will never be advances.

“We can continue to blame the system but in the end it’s up to us to take risks, try new ways and let people flourish. Systems are there to support us not to drive outcomes for human beings,” finishes Sam.

Growing up
The eldest of four girls growing up with a father in the Armed Forces, Sam’s family did a lot of moving.

Quick to work out the new environment and cope, Sam thinks it was her “ability to empathise” that allowed her to fit as seamlessly as she did so often. Certainly, when it comes to positions of seniority and power – short-circuiting bullies, winning friends and influencing people – her ‘fearlessness’ has also played a part.

“I’ve tended to take opportunities and say yes to things when they’re offered, and worry about the consequences afterwards,” explains Sam.

“If someone sees something in you and makes an offer based on what they’ve observed in you, then don’t lack confidence in yourself to act. Take the risks, and if you behave authentically and honestly you’ll soon have a reputation for being a safe set of hands.

“It’s also very important as a woman to promote yourself, to back yourself and speak up,” Sam continues.

“People say, but that’s not seemly, and I say, that’s the whole point. It is totally seemly for men, why are women different, not equal!” exclaims Sam, across the kitchen table in her inner-western Sydney home, exasperation creeping into her voice as we get down to the nitty gritty on equality.

“Men are seen to be providing for their family, doing the right thing by their skills and getting on, when they self promote. Women are stuck in these classically defined roles that have, for so long, allowed us no room to be anything else but retiring. When people do want more, or something different, or to be part of the wider debate, they’re treated as a problem… and that’s the real problem.”

What people want
Pull back the layers of how people describe themselves, their relationships with others and society, and the goals remain the same – “we want progress, a sense of connection, and that moment where we can be lifted out of the ordinary to the inspiring,” says Sam. Whether it’s in the arts, science, sport, not-for-profit or corporate, we’re all driven by the same desires, and want similar things. Once you find the common ground with others in and outside the group, dialogue gets established and with that comes the opportunity to create the space for ongoing communication and constructive change.

“I’m personally fascinated by the idea that corporations can actually play a strong societal role. They can have a Noble Purpose that, at a broader community level, functions to support the creation of long-term sustainability, diversity and real equality,” says Sam, whose recent Mental Health Commission role is driving home the urgent need for change in the workplace around the acceptance and acknowledgement of mental health issues.

Another major focus for Sam this year, and one into which her preoccupations around sustainability on the broad stage feed, is the National Sustainability Council, where the setting of long term wide-ranging sustainability indicators for the country are firmly on the agenda. The Council is attempting to build some understanding of sustainability in a much broader context than we may have so far considered, including the roles of corporates, and communities.

Tackling the issues
The recently released report by the Mental Health Commission, ‘A Contributing Life’, noted that, one in five of us will experience a mental health difficulty in any given year; that we have some of the most innovative and progressive mental health policy to be seen in the world, and that we spend more than $6 billion a year on mental health.

The problem, says Sam, reflecting the Commission’s line, comes back to the lack of checks and balances: “accounting for how that money is delivered and what effects and outcomes it provides for those who may or may not be receiving it, is very poor.

“I know from my own Human Resource experience in the workplace that the sort of support and encouragement we provide to people with a physical disability or a health problem, such as cancer, and to carers and family members dealing with the issues is very comprehensive. As for having done the same for anyone with or caring for someone with a mental health issue, I can truly say I’ve failed, miserably.

“Corporate Australia not only views the issue as outside its jurisdiction – belonging to health practitioners – but unconsciously and often consciously attaches all sorts of stigmas to the phrase, ‘mental health issue’, and that’s not a sustainable attitude.”

Those stigmas, Sam points out, perpetuate fear about what that phrase means, and stifle dialogue, limiting our scope to listen to, let alone support, people who have an issue or who might be caring for someone who has an issue, forcing everyone to remain silent.

“Imagine how that silence holds people back from achieving their full potential, forcing them to manage huge amounts of stress and anxiety alone and in fear of what people will think. That just does not happen in cases of other illnesses,” says Sam.

She can see real potential for improving the productivity of workplaces through opening up dialogue, getting employers and employees to discuss, listen and proactively support people with mental health issues or those caring for someone with a mental health issue. The strategy will increase participation rates of people living with a mental health condition, and creates more sustainable communities and workplaces.

The aim is to bring our delivery of mental health policy up to the level of the policies themselves, which, as Sam points out, are some of the best in the world and through that create workplaces and communities with greater inbuilt sustainability.

Sam Mostyn is an inaugural Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence awardee.

For more on the Mental Health Commission and its work so far:



  • Jodie Aickin

    Jodie Aickin 7 years ago

    Great article... Whilst l cant say l have been on boards etc, my resume does look like a patchwork quilt too, and a pretty nice one at that! Im now looking at the options now for what piece l will add next. Thanks for sharing :0)