March 8th was International Women’s Day. A number of events were held around Toowoomba on a date which has been recognised nationally in the U.S since 1909 with the event going global in just a few short years.
Toowoomba’s Chamber of Commerce began its inaugural event in 2012 with a panel of local, high profile business women. With high interest in the event, this year the chamber booked the Downs Room at the Burke & Wills Hotel to bring another panel and an expected crowd of 100 with networking over drinks and canapés.
The goal of the panel was to explore the careers of high achieving women and to inspire and motivate others. The panel consisted of Professor Jan Thomas, Vice Chancellor of the University of Southern Queensland; Lisa Backhouse, Manager of Corporate Affairs, New Hope Group; Donnalea Ballard, General Manager, Burke & Wills Hotel; Shannon Smith, optometrist and formerly the longest serving president of the Optometrist Association Australia. The panel discussion was moderated by Jane Calder, General Manager Marketing, Heritage Bank.
The panel was asked a succession of questions which they answered openly and honestly based on their experiences on a range of topics which included their workplace experiences, career breaks, mentors and discrimination. A common trait which surfaced was that these successful women either made the opportunities themselves or seized them when they occurred.
Donnalea Ballard who dropped a career in local government to follow her passion in the hospitality industry said she was seeking recognition and promotion and was not getting it. “I had to create it myself. I was working in pubs in Brisbane and at that time, a male dominated industry, so with my sister and respective partners we bought our own hotel in Maryborough”, she said. That was the career break she needed. “Without that, I wouldn’t be where I am now”.
Shannon Smith, an award winning optometrist and co-owner of Outlook Eye Centre thought she’d always just be an employee. Her first real career break came when she became president of the Optometry Association. “We spent a lot of time lobbying government and meeting different professions and that was the start of thinking that maybe there was something more.”
Everyone has ups and downs in their careers. Lisa Backhouse who has had a distinguished media career over two decades said her biggest disappointment came from having to leave ABC after being part of the unprecedented cancer cluster in Brisbane. Lisa remember that “It was a big part of my life and it was difficult leaving under circumstances that weren’t of my choosing or under my control. Sometimes we just have to make decisions after we weigh up the risks.”
Our influences shape who we are and how confident we are to face the world and its challenges. Mentors can play a big part in the way we respond to challenges and how to manage difficult situations. For Jan Thomas, her development into a strong capable woman began at home. “My mother had a very strong influence on our sense of self worth and capacity. She was a strong matriarch in the family. She established value sets quite strongly”. With a background in the sciences – a very male dominated industry -her mentors were mostly male, whom she felt sometimes decoded the workplace so she could survive in a man’s world.“But it started right back, by having a self-esteem and confidence and a sense that you can achieve anything. That would have come from my mother, no doubt”, she quips.
Attendee Aileen Cater-Steel of University of Southern Queensland (USQ) really enjoyed the listening to the panel. She believes one serious challenge for women in the workforce today that isn’t often discussed is the responsibility to care for one’s elderly parents. “It’s a complex problem, as unlike children who grow up and leave home, elderly parents suffering dementia, blindness or a disability gets more challenging”, she said. Jean Charlish also of USQ agreed. When she had to become a carer for a family member, her employer at the time struggled understand the demands that had been placed on her, with medical appointments being often an intrusive interruption to her work schedule.
The major points to learn from this discussion were:
– If the opportunity is not there, create it.
– Back yourself 100%. Don’t doubt yourself at what you can do.
– If you are facing discrimination in the workplace, don’t accept it.
– Use disappointment as an opportunity to look for new ways of doing things
– Be innovative and creative. Never let an opportunity slip by.
– If you are told you can’t do something, remember that someone has to do it. Why not you?