Supporting young women to become their best

15 April 2019

Growing up as a Gen Xer in the wake of the Women's Movement of the '70s and equal opportunity law changes of the '80s, Jane O'Dwyer went to university assuming she had an absolute right to pursue a career she wanted, in the way she wanted, and to be treated seriously and equally amongst male colleagues.

But for Jane, the University's Vice President of Engagement and Global Relations, it was a bit of a shock to her when she discovered that didn't always happen.

"When I was a young political advisor, if you were in a room full of advisors and you were the only woman, you were often the one asked to make the tea or take the notes. It was difficult at times to feel like you were being taken seriously," she recalls.

"Finding my voice in that environment, which was also a pretty brutal political environment, was really hard and it was my female mentors that helped me navigate it, but also men who made an effort to make sure women's voices were heard."

One of the most influential men who helped her find her voice as that young political advisor was someone, at the time, she didn't know she would work with years later in a completely different setting - at a university. That person was ANU Chancellor Professor Gareth Evans.

At the time, Professor Evans was the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Jane was working for the then Shadow Trade Minister Stephen Smith.

"I remember being in a meeting of parliamentarians and advisors who were discussing a series of issues, one of which I'd written a paper on for the group.  All of the men in the room, regardless of their role, were happily contributing their bit but I was too intimidated and nervous to say anything.

"And Gareth at that point, not knowing my name, said 'who wrote this paper?' and I put my hand up and he said 'then can you take us through this' and he asked me to speak.

"I remember it very well, even though it was a small thing in a meeting long forgotten.  It was one of the first times I ever felt I could speak in that space and break through that sense that the boys had more of a voice than me, which is hard for anybody who knows me to imagine because I'm quite vocal, but I wasn't always! As a young woman I was often intimidated and frightened of looking foolish, so learning not to be intimidated took a long time."

As a young woman, Jane says she drew inspiration from books by women who were leaders in their fields - such as her heroine, former Federal politician, Age Discrimination Commissioner and ANU Alumna Susan Ryan.

"I always like to look at how different people have dealt with different challenges, and always like to be reminded of how far we have come," she says,

"I still have a habit of reading to solve problems but now I find often through those articles online and through social media.  I love that on social media, someone might share an article about a workplace issue or gender equality issue and then lots of people get involved in the conversation about it. It is a much richer way of engaging with issues."

So what advice does she have for young people wanting to take their career to the next level?

"The first is to be prepared to take some risks and not to be afraid of failing," says Jane

"It's easier to say that and it's harder to actually do it but once you do it the first time, every other time after that it's easier, you're more resilient."

"No one really knows the right answer when they first confront a problem or an issue. So you've got to treat failure as though it's not the end of something but actually learning how to do something better or differently.  You can't succeed if you don't fail."

According to Jane, her first big risk was quitting her job and getting on a plane to Japan, a move she says she had not planned.

"It turned out to be a really critical turning point in my career and I certainly would not be in the job I'm in now if I hadn't lived in Japan for four years and had the experience of being another in a culture and seeing the world through different eyes."

Another tip Jane says young women, indeed all young people, should not be afraid to do, is fail.

"This is something I think Australians in particular have a cultural issue with. It's something I learned from my time in the United States that I hope never to lose.

Mentor Walks

Jane says participating in the new Canberra Mentor Walks has given her the chance to mentor young women who are looking for their next opportunity.

Set in a relaxed and non-intimidating environment by Lake Burley Griffin, the first walk attracted a diverse group of people from across ANU and Canberra business.

Both women Jane mentored, at the first walk on 6 March, were brilliant and talented young professionals who were already doing well in their careers.

"What I felt was fascinating was that both of the young women I was talking with seemed, at the end of the day, to be wanting to know how to deal with issues of self-confidence.

"I also felt I learned from them so it was a really nice conversation - it was two ways. When I spoke to my friends and colleagues who did the Mentor Walks, all of them said the same thing."

The next Mentor Walk, which will take place on 1 May, promises to be just as interesting for both mentors and mentees.

"Any women in the University who are interested in being mentors should put their hands up and any young women in the University - students or staff who want to be mentored - should definitely sign up."

Looking back, Jane says the workplace has changed since that fateful day Professor Evans asked her to speak to a group of men.

"We are still not there yet, but I think you see less and less of the woman in the room being asked to make tea. So we've come a long way but we've got a long way to go still."

Register for the next Mentor Walk, on 1 May, at the Mentor Walks website.