Unmissable career advice from 7 inspiring Australian women

Greats like Ita Buttrose, Julie Bishop and others tell us about career-defining moments.

It’s no secret that women are significantly underrepresented in leadership positions. According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, while women make up half of the country’s employees, they comprise only 19.4 per cent of CEOs and 32.5 per cent of key management positions. These numbers are frustrating. But the sting is soothed by the influential Australian women, whose careers have taken a hammer to the corporate glass ceiling, paving the way for the next generation of women.

The judging panel of the 2022 Women of the Future awards, which includes Julie Bishop, Ita Buttrose, our E-I-C Nicole Byers, Lisa Wilkinson, Ronni Kahn, Genevieve Clay-Smith and Lisa Harrington, tell us about the moment that made them in their careers, as well as their best advice for young girls.   

Julie Bishop, former Foreign Minister of Australia, former Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party

It was not long after she had been appointed Australian Foreign Minister that Julie Bishop flew to New York to preside over the United Nations Security Council.

“I was sitting in the president’s chair, with the gavel on the table before me, waiting for the foreign ministers and foreign secretaries of the United Nations Security Council to sit down, and at that moment, I pinched myself,” she says. “My heart was beating fast.”

Representing Australia on the international stage has absolutely been the highlight of her career (so far) but Julie says she made the most of every day in parliament: “You go this way but once, so you make the most of every opportunity that comes before you.”

Among her best bits of advice for younger women is to be true to themselves.

“I think, in the early days,” she admits, “I allowed others to seek to define me. That was a lesson I learned. Don’t let others define who you are or what you can achieve, and don’t let others set standards for you that they wouldn’t or couldn’t meet themselves. Set your own standards and aim high to achieve them.”

Ita Buttrose, Chair of the ABC

As a young journalist, Ita Buttrose’s goal was to edit The Australian Women’s Weekly.

“When I achieved that goal, it was the most magical moment of my life,” she says.

When she was appointed chair of the ABC, she confesses that she was taken entirely by surprise.

“I had no idea it was coming,” she tells The Weekly. “The Prime Minister asked me out of the blue and I said to him, ‘Prime Minister, you’ve taken my breath away.'”

Another achievement she takes pride in is her family.

“As a pioneering working mother,” she says, “seeing that your children have turned out well is a great relief.”

When it comes to women coming after her, Ita encourages them to “aim high” and “to dare to make a difference”.

“Set your goal, aim high, climb mountains and don’t look back.”

Nicole Byers, Editor-in-Chief of The Australian Women’s Weekly

Seeing a series of Australian Women’s Weekly covers projected onto the Great Wall of China at a spectacular 2018 event in Beijing was an incredible “pinch me” moment for our very own Editor-in-Chief Nicole Byers.

“It was to celebrate the launch of The Weekly’s Chinese edition,” Nicole says, “and the Australian edition of an international issue I’d edited had been selected as a showpiece for the event.” Nicole had been flown to China as a special guest.

“It was a surreal night,” she says, “and the first time I was ever asked for my autograph!”

As editor-in-chief of a magazine that has played such a significant role in Australian life over the past 90 years, Nicole considers The Weekly’s Women of the Future campaign the highlight of her year.

The Weekly celebrates exceptional young women of all kinds,” she says. “I consider it our duty to use that legacy to encourage and support future generations of young females.”

Lisa Wilkinson, author, former presenter of The Project and Today

Lisa Wilkinson is continually inspired by the determination of young women.

“I love the diversification of young women professionally, and in the charity sector,” says Lisa. “They don’t see boundaries anymore, and every year, what young women bring into the world just gets wider and wider.”

A young achiever herself – she was the editor of Dolly magazine at just 21 – Lisa says one of her career highpoints was interviewing Malala Yousafzai who, at 16, became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in history.

“She’s an extraordinary young woman – bravery personified,” says Lisa. “The amount of wisdom she has at such a young age just blew me away.”

Lisa recalls, as a first-time editor not much older than her readers, the role mentors had in her success.

“To have someone believe in you when you don’t yet believe in yourself is a really encouraging and powerful moment in your career,” she says. “It’s a wonderful thing to help somebody realise they have wings to fly.”

Ronni Kahn, CEO of OZ Harvest

The biggest opportunity that has ever presented itself to Ronni Kahn came along, she says, when she was working in her earlier career in her event production company.

“I realised,” she explains, “that one of the side-effects of our work was surplus food. And ultimately that realisation became my path, my lifelong work, and I turned it into Oz Harvest. So seeing a problem and turning it into a solution has been my biggest opportunity and I have been privileged to be able to build and grow Oz Harvest.”

Ronni believes that young women have the power “to become change makers” and “leaders in their fields”.

Genevieve Clay-Smith, Executive Director of Bus Stop Films, 2015 Women of the Future Winner

“Listen to your gut; trust yourself.”

Inclusive filmmaker Genevieve Clay-Smith is recalling the most important lesson she learned establishing her not-for-profit venture, Bus Stop Films.

The young filmmaker was entering into an agreement with another organisation, but things didn’t feel right.

“I had a feeling this wasn’t going to be an easy ride,” Genevieve says. “Fast forward 18 months and it was really difficult. If I could do it again, I would have listened to my instinct, and not jumped into that so quickly.”

Since then, Genevieve and Bus Stop have gone from strength to strength, making inclusive and diverse films for the last 10 years.

It all began in 2009, when her film, Be My Brother, won the short film contest, TropFest.

“That was the first inclusive film I made. The crew included people with disabilities, and the lead actor had Down syndrome,” says Genevieve.

In 2015, she and Bus Stop were among the Women of the Future winners and it gave them just the boost they needed.

“From that exposure, Bus Stop got one of the most significant sponsorship deals it’s had,” says Genevieve, “It’s been an incredible journey.”

Lisa Harrington, Executive Director, Business Enablement, School Infrastructure NSW, Department of Education

If Lisa Harrington could advise her young self at the beginning of her professional career, she would tell her to seize opportunities.

“I remember thinking ‘not yet, I’m not ready,'” Lisa recalls. “But you realise later, you’re never fully ready. So now, when I do get opportunities, I say ‘yes’.”

It’s a change in attitude that has paid off in spades for Lisa who, in 2016, was chosen to take part in the Advanced Management Program at Harvard University.

“It was extraordinary,” she says. Her biggest lessons there came from others students.

“There were 80 people from 41 countries on the program,” she says, “an incredible diversity. I connected with as many people as I could and not only learned a lot in terms of professional development, but also about myself.”

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