Catherine Fox: That's a wrap ​

That’s a wrap. The 2019 Women & Leadership Symposiums – all nine of them around Australia and New Zealand – have finished, but for many of those who came along it’s a safe bet the energetic discussions about the key themes have only just got going.

Hundreds of women came to this year’s events from all sorts of workplaces and jobs. They heard from business leaders, scientists, doctors, pilots, academics and journalists who told their stories about extraordinary careers and lives

There was little grandstanding or ego-boosting from the podium. Most of these inspirational women were generous in sharing their experience and clear that they stood on the shoulders of others (professionally and personally). Most said they owed much of their success to strong support in the workplace and from their networks, and Tina Arena, singer-songwriter and performing artist, called for a return to having villages, saying; “The support of a village is priceless… let’s rebuild our villages.” 

Tina Arena


For many of the women listening there was a keen interest in leading but also thriving – on how to keep moving ahead through shared support rather than scaling a career ladder on your own. Marina Go, Non-Executive Director, Author, and Chair, implored us all to consider being mentored, and being mentees as well; “Get a sponsor. A sponsor is someone who champions you. They introduce you to networks and lift you up.” 

In fact, delegates also heard a lot about the power that is unleashed when you ditch the idea of a ladder and think about a net that helps lift everyone at the same time, as Dr. Kirstin Ferguson, director, and co-author of “Women Kind”, explained. 

They wanted to know what they could do to help get over workplace gender barriers. They were keen to act and savvy about the obstacles they faced. Michelle Winzer, Chief Executive, Bank of Melbourne, told us ‘everyone has the right to pursue their goals, and no one should be held back’ which really resonated with the women in the room. 

Michelle Winzer


There were quite a few women fed up with advice on how to fix themselves rather than identifying bias in the rules at work. Many commented on the authenticity of the speakers, the relatable conversations on stage and the lack of scripted presentations.

Most of the participants were not after carefully crafted corporate messages but real stories. They wanted to hear about career highlights and challenges - the kinds of ups and downs we all go through. 

The focus at the symposiums on how women can amplify each other particularly resonated. It was accessible and easy to do - through championing a colleague or referring them to a new opportunity. Or simply ensuring women’s achievements were visible and recognized. 

They loved the frankness of speakers such as Cecilia Hee-Jung Lim who earned a standing ovation in Sydney from her beautiful and personal description of moving from Korea to Australia and learning to scrap perfectionism. This was her graduating presentation from her WLA Executive Advantage program; her learning experience was certainly profound. 

Many commented on the uplifting feeling of being in a safe environment that allowed candid discussion and comparing notes on shared obstacles.


As questions and comments came from the floor it was apparent many of the women in the room were crucial to their workplace, and their roles involved leading people every day. 

In fact, when participants were asked to introduce themselves without a title the descriptions often included supporting, directing and connecting groups of people and resources.

The questions they asked were about learning how other women coped with dilemmas like learning to say no, taking risks, managing home responsibilities and paid work and navigating male-dominated workplaces.

Like many women in the workforce, these audiences were highly literate about gender issues at home and in their workplace which they felt an obligation to tackle. In fact, the word “challenging’’ was the most popular choice when audiences in all the symposiums were asked to choose three words that best described their lives.

Just as important as tackling problems, the discussions during the symposiums made it clear many women found their jobs enormously rewarding and wanted to see progress so they could perform well but to encourage younger women too. Several mentioned the significant support they had experienced from male allies. 

This year the themes running through the presentations were not pessimistic but realistic and the conversations were about women taking action to use their power to make real change. The chance to broaden their network during the events was a highpoint for many.  

Our delegates were inspired by the high achievers they heard speak but just as importantly they were inspired by each other. 

By Catherine Fox, Director of Diversity, WLA and WLNZ

More from WLA: 

What we have learned from the Symposiums so far

Suzi Finkelstein: Look at the jigsaw lid 

Catherine Fox on quotas, targets, and workplace innovation