Breaking the Glass Ceiling

According to source, Australian Institute of Company Directors, women now represent 29.7% of ASX 200 Boards, up from 8.3% in 2009. However, women CEO’s of ASX 200 Companies only represent a mere 7%, with 23 of these companies having no women on the executive (source: Chief Executive Women). While there has been an improvement at the board level by shining a light on the issue and support from the ASX, women CEOs have not had the same focus. We have come a long way but there is still a long way to go.

Throughout my career in financial services, which as we know is a very male-dominated industry, I have experienced many challenges and barriers. I want to share some lessons from my journey and demonstrate how we can overcome these issues, break through the glass ceiling and take a seat at the table.

As I reflect on my life to date, I realise that aspiration has been critical to my achievements. Aspiration doesn’t always lead to success, but you don’t succeed without it.

“To understand the heart and mind of a person, look not at what he has already achieved but look at what he aspires to” Khalil Gibran

I was brought up in the Western Suburbs of Sydney and was the first from our family to go to university. My parents frequently shared with me, from a young age, their aspiration for me to attend university. As a result of their aspiration, I had an expectation and aspiration to go to university. No other local kids went to university – their parents didn’t have the same aspiration for them. I consider myself lucky that my parents had this dream for me, and that I wanted it just like they did.

Then, as I moved through my career, I became the first female to run a Business Banking centre at NAB - a very blokey environment. One day one of our young female tellers stopped me to tell me that after seeing me do the role, she believed she could do it too. That was the first time I saw myself as a role model and realised how important that was. From that day I decided to make a difference, be a support and role model for other women. Many women in my career didn’t encourage or support other women - I vowed not to be one of those women. I know that teller had goals of her own and by seeing my aspiration, dedication and hard work, she too believed she could have a go and get to where she aspired to be.

Another lesson I learnt was to not listen to my self-doubt. As women, we have that voice of doubt on our shoulder all the time. Research shows women won’t put themselves forward unless they are 130% qualified for a role, men are 25% qualified and will go for it. We all have that ability, we just need to believe it, and not allow self-doubt or a lack of confidence to creep into our psyche.

“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint. Then by all means paint and the voice will be silenced.” Vincent Van Gogh

I learnt this lesson first-hand when I was asked to be the first woman to Chair the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in Melbourne. I was approached by the then Chair and Police Minister. When they approached me, I was shocked, my voice was saying, you can’t do that. Then a realisation came to me - if others saw so much in me and believed in me - maybe I should see more in myself and believe in myself more! I used this realisation to still my self-doubt and accepted the position. I became the Chair and after a slightly rocky start, where the fire fighters thought my appointment was wrong, it ended with them asking to come to my farewell, where they told me what a difference I had made and how much they would miss me. This meant so much to me. I had proved them, and my self-doubting self, wrong!

I have also helped others quash this self-doubt and believe in themselves. A woman I worked with was being told she couldn’t be a regional manager. I backed her, mentored her, supported her and inspired her to know that she could. I helped her rid herself of her self-doubt. Not only did she become a successful regional manager, she also won an award in that role and has now moved on to be general manager of a much larger organisation.

These lessons were important to me in becoming the CEO of Bank of Sydney – only the second woman to run a bank in Australia. I was approached about the role by a head-hunter. I had the aspiration to be a CEO but that silly self-doubt came up again. Again, I had to ignore it and have a go. My three years as CEO led to the best results in the Bank’s 25-year history. During that time, I also won over the very traditional Greek and Lebanese customers who were used to men being the leaders.

I have had a very rewarding career so far - it hasn’t been easy at times, I have been continually stretched and have had to draw on every experience to succeed but I revel in learning, growing and making a difference every day. Just remember success takes aspiration, persistence, perseverance and believing in yourself.


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Julia Hyam Elliott | Business Growth Strategist

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