IWD2018: trekking through the equality jungle

To celebrate International Women’s Day, all week bluenotes will be guest edited by respected journalist and author Catherine Fox. We’ll be publishing content on women, their experience in the workplace and the future of equality. We hope you enjoy it.

I was recently asked to speak at an International Women’s Day breakfast.  While there I was asked why I think it is still necessary - in 2018 - to have a specific day to focus on women.  The same question was asked of me when I collected a Telstra Brilliant Businesswoman award in South Australia in 2017.

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I answered each by sharing a simple story from my daughter who moved to London at age 25.  As a new arrival in her company, she was in the tearoom and had a conversation with a fellow employee. 

"We all have an important role to play in continuing the process of change.”

“So you have just moved from Australia?” her colleague asked. When told yes, the follow-up question was “did you move here with your husband?”.

As my daughter said - this wasn’t a comment made in a negative way. It was just a simple question.

If she were a 25-year-old male, she wondered, do you think anyone would ask “did you move here with your wife?” 

We have come such a long way from when women had to seek permission to keep working after they married.  Or from when my husband was invited to a “wives’ day” as there hadn’t been a male partner of an executive before and the system didn’t quite work.


I grew up with three brothers and parents who never differentiated in their treatment of us based on gender. 

My dad was a chemical engineer and had a very strong focus on education.  There was always an expectation I would go to university.  They sacrificed a lot when they moved from Scotland to Australia and were always focussed on giving us the best education possible.

My mum worked from when I was young and we all contributed to the housework. Dad was responsible for the shopping and the kids for the washing up. Dad usually played quiz master as we did the dishes. This focus on education and learning was a very strong influence on me.

I grew up wanting to be a veterinarian – in fact it was the only job I ever wanted.  I had selected all of my school subjects based on this and it wasn’t until Year 12 I realised I was not going to grow out of a squeamishness which sees me faint at the sight of blood.

I started university doing a science degree but dropped out – I never wanted to be a scientist.  I got a job in a bank with the intent it was for six months while I worked out what I was going to do.  That six-month job lasted 17 years and all of my further study happened part time.


I started my working career in banking in 1981. This was a time when females generally worked in branches as tellers or in typing pools.  It was also a time when the rattle of a tea trolley was still commonplace – and I don’t think I ever saw a male pushing that trolley!

There were certainly very few senior females.  My first executive appointment was just after I returned from maternity leave and I was offered a position as a Project Director. 

I was thrown in the deep end for this role as I knew nothing about Gant Charts or Critical Path dependencies – but I learnt more in 12 months in the role than I would have if I had stayed safe in roles where I already held most of the competencies. 

This positon was offered to me by the state manager – he explained to me afterwards he wanted to send a clear message the restructure was really going to change the way the Bank operated. 

Appointing a young female - especially one who was returning from maternity leave - was a symbol of change.  Until then most executive positions were mature males who had spent 20 years plus with the bank.

When I first moved into the Department of Further Education it was a surprise to attend a management meeting where females were the majority.  It was the first time I had ever experienced that.

When I saw the Zoos SA Chief Executive role advertised in 2012, I was immediately attracted to it.  I didn’t know much at all about the zoo sector but knew I had business skills that would be valuable for Zoos SA.  It was also consistent with all of my personal values.

At Zoos SA we have a good diversity of gender – at board level, my management team and across our staff.  There are still teams where there is an unequal mix but overall we are balanced. 

We do however need improvement in cultural diversity.  Improving in this area makes sense given the large number of international visitors we have at our two Zoos.

True equality

We still have a way to go for true equality, as my daughter’s simple story highlighted. We all have an important role to play in continuing the process of change.

There is so much research on the value of diversity. We need to share this, help drive continual change and encourage diversity of all types.

My key learnings from a fun and diverse career - be brave, recognise transferable skills, keep a good sense of humour, focus on continuous learning and follow your passion.

Elaine Bensted is Chief Executive at Zoos South Australia

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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