International Women’s Day – Professor Helen Dickinson

| 05 Mar 2021

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Rachel Packham
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Find a UNSW Canberra Expert

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we sat down with some of our amazing UNSW Canberra alumni, staff and students and asked them to answer your #WomenLead questions.

Helen Dickinson is a Professor of Public Service Research and Director of the Public Service Research Group at the School of Business, UNSW Canberra. Her expertise is in public services, particularly in relation to topics such as governance, leadership, commissioning and priority setting and decision-making. 

Professor Dickinson shares her advice on handling failure, the positive impacts of diversity, and the benefits of allies. 

 If Parliament, the leaders of Australia, can’t get the culture right for women, what hope does any other organisation have? 

Recent events re-iterate incredibly clearly that the culture in Parliament really isn’t always a welcoming place for women. Like many other national parliaments, Australia’s is set up in a rather adversarial way where even the layout of the houses encourage an aggressive style of debate.  Some countries have changed their physical layout, for example the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales, and have been reported to be more respectful and less adversarial as a result and they have seen increased numbers of women in politically elected roles.  I wonder though whether a better symbol for the country might be the Australian Public Service (APS). Women make up 58% of the APS workforce although they are not as well represented in senior leadership positions as men. However, the proportion of women in these roles has steadily increased in recent years. There have been deliberate and substantial efforts over the last decade to address the gender divide in the APS and, while far from perfect, it offers a more optimistic example of where focused effort can improve the culture of an organisation to be welcoming of more diverse backgrounds.  

What is it that I can do right here and now as a straight, white male to make a difference and to better support and promote female leadership? 

The presence of allies can be hugely beneficial for minority groups and there are a range of things that individuals can do to support and promote female leadership. There are the obvious things like challenging sexist behavior or language if you come across it and explaining why this isn’t appropriate.  If you are asked to take part in events or activities that are not gender balanced then suggest a woman instead of you. Ally work is long term, is sometimes uncomfortable and you won’t always be recognised for this. Listen more and talk less, don’t make assumptions in terms of things you see. Try to understand the issues that women face and remember that you aren’t a saviour but you are a person who should try and make sure that your actions and words align. This might sometimes involve you having to think through how you behave and challenge some of your fundamental assumptions.  Be reflexive, amplify the voices of women, but don’t try and speak for women.   

How do you promote belonging for diversity and inclusion while maintaining the balance of challenge required to inspire innovation? 

In my experience – and a perspective that seems to be backed up in the research evidence – one of the positive impacts of diversity is this often leads to more innovative teams and organisations. Having a diversity of thinking is a really great way to drive innovation as it involves seeing a range of angles you might not in less diverse settings. But I think there can sometimes be a tendency to think of inclusion as a great big rainbow hug where everyone gets along and never argues or challenges one another. To me this isn’t a good example of inclusion but of pretending to tolerate one another. You have real inclusion where everyone feels safe to put their perspective across knowing that there might not be agreement, that this is ok, and the world won’t end just because there is difference of opinion. If you don’t have this, you can have diversity but if people don’t feel safe to explore this then it won’t necessarily lead to innovation. So, before diversity can lead to innovation making people feel included is a key part of the process.         

In your view what makes a good mentor? Do you have any advice for seeking out a mentor? 

Understand that you don’t need a superhuman individual to make an effective mentor. In order to use a mentor successfully I always think it is a good idea to have a sense of what you would like out of the relationship. Setting ground rules about how you will come together and making sure that time can be put aside by both mentor and mentee is really important to make the arrangement work. You should revisit these on a regular basis to make sure you are both getting what you need from this.      

Do you have any advice for handling failure? 

One of the things about an academic career is that it is inevitably a study in handling failure. It is an odd profession and I can’t think of many other careers where we ask people to put all of their effort and attention into developing papers/grant applications/teaching activities and then ask other people to try and identify all the things they can that are wrong with this. There isn’t a senior academic who hasn’t failed numerous times, although this isn’t always visible in the way that successes are.  I think there is a really important exercise in unpacking the reason for any failure. Was the failure down to what you did and some issue with this or how you did it or was it just bad luck in competing for scarce resources? Once you have unpacked this you can then think about what you can learn from this experience.  This isn’t always easy in the short term and sometimes it means having to come back to things a while after the more painful feelings have subsided. I always think it is helpful not to deal with failure on your own.  People can be embarrassed to talk to others about failures, but we’ve all been there and it can be helpful to get some perspective on what has happened and why.       

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