A showcase

This Women’s Week, we pause to reflect on the state of women in leadership within the Community Services Industry.

It is commonly accepted that women outnumber men in the Community Services workforce. So why are they not represented equally at the highest levels of leadership – CEO and Board level?

A Deloitte Economics study in 2016 reported that while women in general represent 75.4% of the Community Services Industry, those women leading not-for-profit organisations earn an average of 87 cents for every dollar earnt by a man.

This a ratio only slightly better than the Australian-wide gender pay gap of 83 cents per dollar.

As the size of organisations increase, the gender wage gap decreases showing more equality. However, while this happens, the number of women in leadership also decreases.

Why does it seem more difficult for women to attain CEO roles within larger NFP organisations? And why is this the case given they’re more commonly represented than men throughout the Industry?

To explore this issue, we talked to five women in leadership from Queensland’s Community Services Industry to see how they have overcome these challenges, what has influenced their success and what motivates them.

We asked them:

how they navigate leadership and
what the Community Services Industry can do to address some of the biases the system holds. 


Jennifer Cullen, Synapse

Quick facts

Title: Chief Executive Officer

Organisation: Synapse 

Staff: 119 staff

Clients: more than 2000

Location: Nationwide

Services: Reconnecting the lives of those affected by brain injury: Accommodation, Life Style Support, Advocacy, Brokerage, Indigenous Services, NDIS.

Jennifer Cullen. Synapse. Leading Women of Community Services


“I think that there’s two types of leadership. There’s formalised leadership where it’s hierarchical, for example, I’m CEO but if I look at when I worked with Aboriginal women who are older than me, I’m still a child and in that context, leadership is not hierarchical or formal but to help the next generation of people behind me.”


1. What are the challenges facing women in Community Services leadership?

When I started, the number of women in leadership was higher than men and that was on the assumption that, “oh that’s because she’s got a good heart. You women have empathy, you’re caring, you must be a special person.”

If you were attracted to a community service role, it was around soft skills rather than the fact that women might have  business skills or technical skills or be able to negotiate traditionally what was referred to as male dominated roles. 


2. What advice do you have for young women advancing their careers in the Community Services Industry?

Surround yourself with mentors, both male and female, both older and younger.

I am very blessed as an Aboriginal woman that I am surrounded by the most amazing Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander aunties and elders. And I sit at their feet and I listen to their wisdom.

When I first started out, I always had mentors that were older, and now that I’m getting older it’s nice to have younger female mentors who can teach me a lot more around some of that technological side.

I think the greatest area of increasing equality is in recognising gender but not letting it become the basis of your decision making, or engagement with male colleagues.

Mentors must be from across all industries and sectors not just those in community services, but also those in marketing, finance or digital services.


3. How can the Industry empower women in leadership?

I think [the CSIA can help] around developing leadership capabilities amongst women and I’m not talking just for young women but women who have got different entry points into leadership.

There might be an older woman who may be promoted for the first time. I think what the CSIA can do, is provide access to advice when you’re a first-time leader as well as on how to build your leadership.

I also think they have a big and expansive network that can bring us together, to share the good, the bad, the ugly and the funny.

Often regardless of gender, leadership can be lonely, so being able to be connected to others on the leadership journey is very important.

Karyn Walsh, Micah Projects

Quick facts

Title: Chief Executive Officer

Organisation: Micah Projects 

Staff: 202

Clients: 6645

Location: Brisbane, Rockhampton, Townsville

Services: Homeless Services, Supported Accommodation, Domestic Violence services, Young Mothers and Early Childhood Support, Care for Victims of Institutional Abuse.


Karen Walsh. Micah Projects. Leading Women of Community Services


“I think leadership in the Community Services Industry is really hard work. It takes our physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual self to be focused. We are dealing with matters of the heart, experiences that have changed people’s lives forever, not just the business of running organisations. Sometimes it takes a long time, it's not an overnight fix, but it has enormous rewards and can make change real for many people. You have got to be pretty robust, and learn how to deal with criticism, and with people blocking each other for a whole range of reasons. It's not all smooth sailing.”

1. What are the challenges facing women in Community Services leadership?

Balancing family and work is a challenge.

The fair wage decision 5 years ago resulted in a 30% wage increase in the Community Services Industry and that has made a difference to career planning and being able to provide for your family without having to leave the Industry for higher pay opportunities.

Now that the Community Services Industry is using business language, there is sometimes more of a bias towards men.

The Community Services Industry is fundamentally different to business.

Obviously  business skills are very useful, but that's not the vision.

We have to reinforce that our core business is to be a foundation and pillar of cohesive communities and economies.

The human services sector needs humanness or community to be put back into it.

Community services are dealing with personal and community adversity. These are issues of the heart, issues which change lives and communities forever rather than simply creating products, managing risks, or business deals.


2. What advice do you have for young women advancing their careers in the Community Services Industry?

You cannot assume that you are just going to get there by it being offered to you. You have to plan your career.

You have to know what your strengths are, what you want to do and seek mentoring. I think there’s too much of an emphasis on leadership and business and not enough on how to be a good advocate and how you work for social change.

Social change is not the hobby you do on the side ... it is integral to your professional role.

A lot of people feel they can't see the light at the end of the tunnel and it takes a long time to get an outcome. 

My advice to young women is don't give up. There are skills and knowledge that people can develop to stay focused over a long period of time, but there are also wins along the way that we have to get better at celebrating and acknowledging in the Industry.

Affirm and be generous to your peers.

Also, I would reassure young women that they have the skills we need for the future. I love what young women have given to our organisation.


3. How can the Industry empower women in leadership?

I’d say dialogue is an important teacher.

You get self-knowledge and awareness through talking to others, and the knowledge and skills you gain through formal training backs that up.

For example, it's not only external and systemic issues that can block our progress. It’s how we challenge ourselves to grow and how we build confidence when we doubt our own ability.

[We need] more emphasis on the really hard things such as advocacy and policy, how you hold your sense of purpose, relationships, building networks, sharing skills and knowledge - I think they're really important.

Tracy Adams, yourtown

Quick facts

Title: Chief Executive Officer

Organisation: yourtown 

Staff: 600

Clients: 240, 000

Location: Nationwide

Services: Education, Employment and Training, National Telephone and Online Counselling Service Kids Helpline, the Parentline [Qld and NT], Domestic Violence refuges, Homeless family refuge, Indigenous Programs.  

Tracy Adams. YourTown. Leading Women of Community Services


“I think women should always be encouraged to be authentic leaders. When you’re authentic, there are going to be times that you’re frustrated, and I don't see why we have to be so careful all the time about how we bring that to bear. Sometimes we simply have to make the decision and people have to accept that. You don't have to spend all of your time then convincing everybody else that you made the right decision.”


1. What are the challenges facing women in Community Services leadership?

When men are strong or forceful or want to make a point, that's considered to be their role, but when women in leadership try to do the same thing often people say: “God she’s a bitch”.

I think we tend to view women’s emotions – such as frustration – unfairly.

Women pay more care and attention to coming across in non-confrontational ways and to being more conciliatory than sometimes is in their best interest.

There’s nothing wrong with being authentic, in fact I think it should be applauded.

Diversity in leadership, representing different views and different characteristics, and women feeling that they are given equal opportunity are all vitally important – taking their places as CEOs, in other Executive roles, and in the Boardroom.

2. What advice do you have for young women advancing their careers in the Community Services Industry?

Create an environment where you are part of the conversation and allow yourself the opportunity to create pathways.

Don't feel that because you’re employed in one role, that the other roles aren't options for you.

There is always a place for great generalists in organisations. So, keep the roundedness and the ability to have a particular skillset that you continue to add to, and look for ways to seek those opportunities out.

There is a mutual responsibility in your own development and some of that comes from being prepared to be inquisitive.

I don't think we express the value of courage strongly enough.

One of the things that frustrates me from time-to-time when people think about our Industry, is that we are different somehow. But this is a business, and we are in the business of helping people, and it’s complex.


3. How can the Industry empower women in leadership?

I think collectiveness is stronger than individuality, and there’s opportunities for collective minds to come together to create advocacy.

If we're thinking about creating leaders we must consider how we give our people learning opportunities so they can step outside their own organisations.

We could create an aspiring leaders program, which creates opportunities for people to engage with people outside their own business, to share ideas and have those opportunities to learn.

There are times that we compete against each other, but that shouldn't stop the sharing of good practice and development opportunities. 

Anita Veivers, Centacare Cairns

Quick facts

Title: Executive Director

Organisation: Centacare Cairns 

Staff: 72

Clients: 2830

Location: Cairns

Services: Multicultural Services, Mental Health and Wellbeing, Families and Children, Aged Care, NDIS and Care Coordination, Counselling, Emergency Relief. 

Anita Veivers. Centacare Cairns. Leading Women of Community Services


“I think most leaders in the Industry are rising to the challenge of moving to a more business-like model. We are delivering a service to people but we are empowering them at the same time to be our customers.”

1. What are the challenges facing women in Community Services leadership?

There's a perception that women working in community services are coming from a solely social justice perspective and they can't make the transition to a business model.

Conversely, we have a lot of strong female leaders in community services who have a strong business mentality.

We understand the Community Services Industry, our customers, social justice principles and we are developing our business skills to be able to move forward into a new era.

The perception could arise because social service qualifications are not so clear cut.

If you're a woman in engineering you have an engineering degree and you follow a pathway. In the Community Services Industry there is a broader skill set that is required and progress is not so easily defined.

Dealing with boards and committees and leadership teams is also quite different than it is in the private sector.

Getting acknowledgement and recognition is a little challenging.. …you are always having to prove yourself.

As a women being acknowledged and recognised as a business leader is a little challenging..…you are always having to prove yourself. 


2. What advice do you have for young women advancing their careers in the Community Services Industry?

Be confident in your abilities, talk to people, read things, ask questions.

If you don't understand something, research it, find out about it, join networks and learn.

Take opportunities to be part of working groups and policy groups because all those things, are about learning and challenging yourself.

It's also about not being afraid to try, and that means that sometimes there will be failure but that's OK.

Leaders also need to realise they don't need to be an expert in everything and they need good strong teams around them.

The other thing is just be who you are, be real, be honest, be authentic.


3. How can the Industry empower women in leadership?

I think there is an opportunity to develop a more formal mentoring system and support women to recognise peer mentoring as an opportunity to grow and to develop.

It’s about inspiring people to see leadership as an aspiration and as a development opportunity.

It’s not a clear-cut pathway, you don’t just decide one day: I want to be in leadership. It grows and develops as you develop, so it’s about encouraging people at all levels of organisations to develop. 

Robyn Cavanagh, Quality Lifestyle Support

Quick facts

Title: Director

Organisation: Quality Lifestyle Support

Staff: 120

Clients: 165

Location: Queensland-wide

Services: Respite, In-Home Support, Community Access, Professional Services.

Robyn Cavanagh. Quality Lifestyle Support. Leading Women of Community Services


“I don’t see myself all the time as a boss, I don’t expect any of my staff to do anything I wouldn't do. I am very hands on, I know I am a boss and I have to sign off on things. There's a lot of stuff that I have to do, but I don't think that's the forefront of what it is we do.”


1. What are the challenges facing women in Community Services leadership?

Females sometimes think that we can do everything ourselves.

I’m not saying we can’t, but there are many people out there that can help us.

We can’t sit back and think it’s going to fall in our laps, you have to go out there and do it.

The challenge that a director has – whether they are male or female – is being listened to.

Ultimately, leadership is less to do with gender and more about making sure our clients are looked at as people rather than a number.

I think it’s a massive challenge to get governments to recognise and acknowledge this. I think that over the years, the disability sector has led the way and enabled other sectors to develop more female leaders.

There is a lot more equality.


2. What advice do you have for young women advancing their careers in the Community Services Industry?

I’ve always been a big people watcher and I’ve taken things I’ve learnt from two ladies (Ronnie Murphy and Trish Feehley) who were a part of the Department of Communities for years. These ladies I first met as a 29-year-old, recently divorced mum of three wanting to work in this industry.

I’ve looked at their techniques, and ways to do things, and have just sort of put it together.

Be hands on, do not sit back and wait for things to just pop up.

You cannot sit in an office, at a desk and do paperwork.

We have to tick the boxes, but if we just do that we aren’t doing our job.  

Also look at who is around you and use those resources.

You need to find something that you are passionate about because that is what is going to keep you in the Industry as long as it does.

3. How can the Industry empower women in leadership?

I’d like to see the CSIA create links between organisations so that younger women starting as managers can make the connections.

I think there’s so much room for these younger ones coming through. We need to be developing younger people and imparting the things we know.

You can’t ever rest in this industry, it might be one small step that we take to break down the barriers, and that one little step could be enough to change a hell of a lot of people’s lives.

It’s is not about the money, it’s about the person and helping them achieve what we all take for granted, to have a life. 

The 2017 Leading Women of Community Services showcase has been proudly brought to you by the CSIA as a result of a Women's Week grant via the Queensland Government and YWCA