Ann Sherry AO
Once I made a conscious decision to be clear to everyone that 'this is who I am,' it felt like a huge load had been lifted.
When I first came out of University in Queensland, the job advertisements were listed “men and boys” and “women and girls.” When you think about it, this wasn’t all that long ago and it’s hard to imagine people could think it acceptable to hire talent like that.
To make a point, I applied for all the jobs I thought looked interesting. If I had a less girly name, I probably would have gotten away with it. I’d always receive nice rejection letters saying “you obviously didn’t notice the job was in the men and boys’ column.” I just thought it was so, so stupid.
The only place not hiring according to gender at that point was the Australian Government. When I first started, I did what a lot of women do, which is I tried to fit the mold: to look, sound, and feel the same way as others.
That was probably my first epiphany, early in my career: I stopped and thought, “what is going on?” That feeling has stayed with me forever. Once I made a conscious decision to be clear to everyone that “this is who I am,” it felt like a huge load had been lifted.
Everyone brings something unique, and people could see something in me then that I didn’t see myself. It took me that time to realize I had to value my natural inclination to be a bit more outrageous and outspoken, or be the person who spoke up first in a room.
Of course, that doesn’t work for all organizations and I still see “fitting in” as something people do. It’s one of the great challenges for women because many big organizations have strong cultures that are not always accepting of women who stand out. I know if I’d worked somewhere like that, I wouldn’t have lasted.
On a personal level, having a child with a disability, as I do, makes you even more aware of the fight to find balance between work and home. Gender differences in the workplace were different right from the beginning. I know the men thought I was getting special treatment to move my lunch break to 2pm so I could rush out of the office, drive, pick up Nick from pre-school, drop him at after school care, get back to the office. Forget that I didn’t have time to eat during lunch. It was deemed special. I was deemed special.
That prompted me to look at flexible working and paid maternity leave. In 2015, I was named The Australian Financial Review/Westpac Woman of Influence for my work on this issue in corporate Australia. When I arrived at Westpac, the first thing they wanted was to become an employer of choice. So I argued the case for paid maternity leave on a rights and fairness basis––as I’d been taught in the public sector and watched in meetings as everyone’s eyes glazed over.
I went back to the drawing board and ran the numbers––and they were compelling. All we had to do was lift the return to work rate by a few percentage points and the program would pay for itself. That had a domino effect on corporations across Australia because no private organization had done it at that point. Once we proved it could work, no company could bear to be left behind.