Feature, Orthoptics Australia

Leadership development for women in STEM

Despite making progress in Australia, women in stem lack representation in key leadership positions. JANE SCHULLER explains how the wild program is working to change exactly that.

It is well recognised that in virtually all areas of the paid workforce, women are underrepresented in leadership positions. The recent Australian Academy of Science Decadal Plan discussion paper describes how women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields are lost in a leaky pipeline at every stage of the professional ladder, due to factors such as stereotypes, discrimination, culture and structure.

According to the latest statistics from Australian Government Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2019, women hold only 13.7% of chair positions and 25.8% of directorships. Overall, women represent only 30.5% of key management personnel. Whilst these numbers have improved in recent times, progress is slow and there are compelling reasons to do more.

As per the Australian Government Allied Health Workforce Report released in 2013, of the 127,000 registered practitioners nine out of the 11 allied health professions were predominantly staffed by women (except optometry and chiropractic). In the more recent 2017 Victorian Allied Health Workforce Review, led by Professor Susan Nancarrow, of the 27 allied health professions included, more than half consisted of 70% or more women.

With a predominance of women in allied health, we need to provide opportunities for women to build their qualifications, gain skills and undertake professional development to increase the number in senior leadership positions.

Allied health professionals undertake a science-related undergraduate degree with little or no financial, strategy, risk, legal or governance education. Not-for-profit (NFP) governance from peak bodies like Orthoptics Australia requires strong leadership to be properly run.

Good governance ensures our work aligns with and contributes to us achieving our mission and purpose, supports strong strategic planning, allows us to increase our operational effectiveness, ensures regulatory compliance and improves financial and risk management, whilst also improving our member and stakeholder engagement.

In recent times the NFP sector has undergone significant regulatory reform, with many being forced to be more competitive to survive. There have also been a number of reports in the media of misconduct and poor leadership.

Good leadership from the chair and the board is necessary to set the tone and provide the organisation’s guiding values, attitudes and behaviours to support its purpose and strategy, as well as to meet its obligations under the law.

When I joined the board at Orthoptics Australia in 2017, I had more than 20 years’ experience as an orthoptist working in the USA, Asia and Australia, but had never had any formal governance training or board mentoring. It was important to address gaps in my knowledge around modern governance, directors’ duties and how to steer a not-for-profit board through the complex regulatory environment.

With many of these issues in mind three inspiring women, Lauren Giorgio, Nadine Brew and Udani Reets, established the WILD (Women in Leadership Development) Program, which is led by the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) alongside a project team comprising of ST professionals across Victoria. It is supported by the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (Women in ST and Entrepreneurship grant), and Brandon Capital Partners.

The WILD Program aims to develop the qualifications, skills and confidence that early to mid-career women need in order to gain senior leadership and company board positions. I was accepted into the 2019 program as part of an inaugural cohort of 20. The program consists of three components: The AICD Directors Course, a leadership skills short course (led by facilitators ‘The Missing Peace’) and mentoring with real-world board experience and shadowing a ST mentor.

The week-long intensive AICD Directors Course held in February this year is highly sought-after and covers topics such as financial literacy, legal and regulatory aspects of directorship, strategy and risk, including a range of effective decision-making processes.

However, without the support of the scholarships like the WILD Program, the cost of $11,500 can present as a barrier to many funding themselves and for not-for-profits who cannot finance their directors to attend.

The Leadership Retreat facilitated by ‘The Missing Peace’ had a different focus. The purpose was to identify core strengths and discover how best to draw on them to lead. The sessions increased self-awareness and provided practical tools for greater self-regulation and resilience.

The wonderful part of the retreat was connecting with 20 talented and inspiring WILD women, cementing friendships and sharing courageous personal stories about our journeys in ST.

The final part to the program is yet to come, but I am thrilled to share that my board mentor is Dr Pascal Hickey from biotechnology company Aravax.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jane Schuller is Victorian Chair and President elect of Orthoptics Australia. She also works at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in the ocular mobility clinic and at Bayside Eye Specialists.

ORTHOPTICS AUSTRALIA strives for excellence in eye health care by promoting and advancing the discipline of orthoptics and by improving eye health care for patients in public hospitals, ophthalmology practices, and the wider community. Visit: orthoptics.org.au

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