When five high-profile successful women from a spectrum of industries – business, politics, arts, media and the public sector – are brought together on one panel, you could be forgiven for expecting the result might be a fireworks display of clashing opinions.

Instead, for the audience of Inspiring Women Reflect, what was apparent was the consensus on the challenges women face in the workplace, and ultimately, the need for women to support women if we’re going to make any dent at all in this world of ours –in whatever industry we might be.

As the host, Hon. Ros Kelly AO (former Australian Federal MP), eloquently quoted as a final parting tip to the mostly female crowd:

“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”  (Madeline Albright)

An attendee had picked up on this theme in the earlier Q&A, asking for advice from the esteemed panel on how to handle difficult women colleagues. Diane Lees CBE, current Director-General of Imperial War Museums, had only two words: “Frog-snoggers Guide”, a book she said offered techniques to handle  conversations and interactions with competitive showmen (and women). A later  google search reveals its tag line to be “A guide to getting along with toads”.

This was only one of a number of useful, practical and insightful tips from an illustrious panel. Tips which revealed not just ways of succeeding in a chosen field, but also revealed something about the experiences of these women as they made their way in traditionally male-dominated fields and something more still about the current challenges we, as women, all still face.

Joining Hon. Ros Kelly AO and Diane Lees CBE were renowned journalist Geraldine Doogue AO, singer, writer and artistic director Robyn Archer AO FAHA and ANZ CEO Diana Brightmore-Armour MCT, MCCA. Together they represented a wealth of knowledge and titillating tips, which flew out much faster than the rate of women currently joining FTSE Boards.

1. Maintain your confidence and self-belief.

If a theme emerged, it was that across all represented industries, the panel members had experienced a situation where a talented, qualified woman had doubted herself and questioned her capacity to fulfill a role. It was noted that research indicated often women would wait until they ticked off every criteria of a job description before putting themselves forward, when by comparison men were happy to put their hand up at 30% or 40%.

“Just give it a go” implored Robyn Archer, noting that she “had no formal qualifications for anything I do” but had carved an influential path in the arts world.

Diane Lees agreed, arguing there was still resistance to women getting senior roles. When she was appointed to her position at the Imperial War Museum, she noted the press reaction was universally “Woman gets top museum job”, with her gender being a primary focus.

The panel returned to this idea later when exploring unconscious bias. One way it manifested was in the reaction to a senior woman failing after being appointed to a public role. In a similar situation a man may fail for a number of reasons, and likely be replaced by another man, whereas if a woman failed the discourse always suggested her femaleness was a factor. Being a ‘woman’ was the defining descriptor.

2. When you walk into a high-level meeting, just don’t say anything at all for the first five minutes.

In the first of a number of specific, practical tips, Diane Lees acknowledged the power-play behind much of our workplace interaction, suggesting the best way to be successful in a meeting is to first understand your adversaries. Sit back, watch the body language and assess your opponents before making your move was the subtext.

“The bloke with the papers spread over three seats”, she said. “He’s the easy target.”

Understanding your opponent was important she said. For example, acknowledging and understanding their value base may be different from your own. The most important value Diane Lees says she learnt is “generosity”.

“Allow everyone who sounds like they are a complete jerk at least 15 seconds to find and present their best self.”

3. When someone steals your idea, turn it back on them.

Another practical, and seemingly tried and tested, tip from Diana Brightmore-Armour. She mentioned the man we all know well – the one who, after you’ve put forward a brilliant idea in a meeting, turns around and repeats the exact same thought, and sits back to enjoy the kudos. As Diana informed the audience, play him at his own game – agree with the idea , whilst pointing away from him (at another person, at the slideshow), visually deflecting the attention.

Game, set, match.

4. Practice makes perfect.

Think of the best one-liners you’ve ever heard uttered in a public forum. If you’re Australian you’re probably thinking of Paul Keating – from calling the Leader of the Opposition a “mangy maggot” to comparing his performance to “being flogged with a warm lettuce” – spur-of-the-moment zingers delivered for maximum effect.

Not so easy for most of us to deliver those “zingers”, revealed Ros Kelly. Any important political speech, in fact any presentation, talk, discussion or contribution to a meeting, should be thought through, and practised. The panel agreed. Do your homework, prepare and practise in front of a mirror. Practise 25 times if you have to. Then get out there and make your argument well, but also make it persuasively.

Failing that, said Diana Brightmore-Armour, you’ll always be able to get out of trouble with a quote from Churchill!

5. Pick your partner wisely.

Whether in business or in life, the panel emphasized that the value of a good partner or mentor cannot be understated. What better person to be your sounding person, your constructive critic, or your cheerleader, than someone you trust and whose opinion you respect and value.

6. Don’t take negative feedback too personally.

Take it on board, analyse it objectively to assess its merit, but don’t let it fester, said the panel. In addition, depending on your industry, network and find a sponsor.

It was an illuminating discussion, drawing on a combined wealth of experience from across industries that would be difficult to replicate in any other setting. With handouts and a networking evening to follow, it certainly fulfilled its brief. Inspiring women, reflecting on inspiring careers. The audience could not do too much else, but sit back and soak up the words of wisdom.

Alex Ivett is a full-time lawyer and part-time writer who sometimes wishes those two could switch. Check out her work at alexivett.com or follow her on twitter @ozlondonlife.

For a personal take on the lessons learnt at this session, read Emma Sartori’s insightful piece here.

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