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Unfiltered Conversations: The truths of working across male and female-dominated industries

Smarter Writer
Smarter Team

A team of business and technology journalists and editors who write to help Australia’s community of small and medium businesses access the technology and know-how that helps solve problems and create opportunities.

Smarter Writer
Smarter Team

A team of business and technology journalists and editors who write to help Australia’s community of small and medium businesses access the technology and know-how that helps solve problems and create opportunities.

With Violet Roumeliotis and Lee Shearer

Unfiltered Conversations pairs brilliant business women who are disrupting the status quo, for an honest, intimate and authentic conversation. In this feature, join Violet Roumeliotis, CEO of Settlement Services International , and Lee Shearer, 2019 New South Wales Business Woman of the Year.

Lee Shearer

In this raw and open conversation, Lee and Violet talk about the challenges and rewards of changing institutions and industries from the ground up. They give us their personal insights into their careers to rise to the top of their mostly-male
dominated fields.

Violet Roumeliotis has led dramatic growth of the not-for-profit organisation, Settlement Services International, which supports the personal, social and economic advancement of people seeking asylum as well as refugees and migrants in Australia. In only four years, Violet’s leadership has helped the organisation disrupt the space, and seen it grow from 70 to close to 700 staff, from one to 17 program areas and up to 250 volunteers. In 2017, Violet was the Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year, and the For Purpose and Social Enterprise Award winner at Telstra New South Wales Business Women’s Awards. 

Lee Shearer has led significant reform to the way mining and resources in NSW are regulated. Lee was responsible for building a framework for this high-hazard industry that delivered accountable and transparent outcomes and assisted to build trust in Industry within the community of New South Wales.

Lee Shearer has a long successful track record of doing business differently, across both the public and private sectors, and in roles in male-dominated fields like policing. Lee’s senior leadership roles in a number of areas have had a massive impact. From her post as Assistant Commissioner Northern Region Commander in the NSW Police Force, to her recent work at the NSW Department of Planning and Environment, to her new management consulting career, Lee has been instrumental in transforming her region in the Central Coast in New South Wales. She is described as “bravely breaking through barriers as she seeks to find ways to change the way people work and live”. Lee is the 2019 Telstra New South Wales Business Woman of the Year.

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A tale of two industries

Lee: Hi Violet, okay, so how do we want to do it? I'd love to hear about how you've grown this business and be at the heart of what must be very challenging service delivery.

Violet: Hi Lee, well, thank you and equally with you,because I'm just looking at the industries that you're involved in. I've had many challenges, and I'm looking forward to discussing them with you, but what has really sort of sustained me is that I've always worked in a very female dominated areas and that has been my lifeline.

What strikes me is that you're very much immersed in areas that are very much male-dominated. I just can't imagine what it must be like to be the only or one of the few women in the room. So, power to you for that alone.

Lee: I've worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken, I've driven taxis, I've been a secretary. I joined the police when I was 25 or 26 in 1987, which was then, you know, there was only 10% of women in policing. It wasn't that I deliberately chose male-dominated fields.

I think it's more about the work that's taken me into these fields. It is challenging, but I'm really grateful because I've had lots of men that I've been able to sit down with and, not everyone I've met along the way, and go, "God, what's this all about?" My exposure has made me really understand how male colleagues think, which is in itself a little bit challenging because it can be completely opposite to women at times, as we know.


Female versus male leadership styles

Lee: You do open yourself up when you're a leader in those industries. I remember when I was a young woman starting to move up through the leadership team of policing, this mentor, who was a male and fantastic, said to
me at the end of a meeting, ‘Don't ever admit that you don't know what you're doing or don't know what you're talking about’. I'm pretty comfortable to say if I don't know something, right? If we're talking about something and I don't understand or I've had no exposure to the topic, I'm happy to say so. So this is just a real classic male way of thinking.

Violet: Wow, yeah.    

I remember when I was a young woman starting to move up, a male mentor, said to me at the end of a meeting, ‘Don't ever admit that you don't know what you're doing or don't know what you're talking about’.

Lee Shearer

Lee: Isn't that interesting. If you flip it to your environment, females tend to have less confidence in the stuff that we do than males. We query stuff; generally, we're happy to open ourselves up to, ‘Well what do you think about this’ and ‘Am I getting that right?’

Violet: Oh very much, Lee.

Lee: That diversity of thinking is really important, as well, for precisely the same reasons you need it in the more traditional environments. It must have been a challenge for men coming into your environment.

Violet: Very much because of so many different lenses - diversity, ethnicity, even that people come in with trauma, which brings a different lens again. So the other day, all the key executives have a strategic goal, and under that strategic goal, there are business plan owners who have to get up and talk about it.

What was interesting, though, Lee was all the female executives stood up with two or three other women and spoke collectively how they work together and what they found, their discoveries and all the male executives got up on their own.

Lee: Oh that speaks volumes. 


Disrupting the status quo

Lee: I left the New South Wales public sector last Friday. But the public sector is like many other bureaucracies, it's probably more comfortable, I think, with sticking with people that do things the same way. There aren't really people that are prepared to put themselves out there and challenge the status quo, and I've done a lot of that.

The reality is that when you're doing that, when you're shaking the status quo even in an industry like mining, you don't gather a whole lot of friends along the way. You actually do gather friends, but people are uncomfortable with change. I've done the mining stuff for nearly five years, but I was also asked to drive in the planning sense the revitalisation of Gosford, and I've completely unpacked the way planning was done. I have undone the status quo for planning in the last two years.

I've undone the status quo around Aboriginal people. So, when the Aboriginal Land Council for Land Rights Act came in in the '80s, and land councils were able to claim certain types of land without getting into all the details, they made the claims, and this was seen to be the great future for self-determination. But what didn't happen was that all the other Acts that control how you use the land – the gaps weren't filled or they weren’t lined up with, say, the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act.

In 2019, the land councils were behind the eight ball, they had all this land, they had obligations to look after it and maintain it, and they tried to develop the lands for the benefit of First Nation people, but they never got off first base in a lot of cases because of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act in New South Wales.

So, I led a small team to develop a higher order instrument to say under certain circumstances, aboriginal land will be put on an equal footing with all of the other things that have got to be assessed under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act. Now, that was 30 years in the making. Not 30 years from my perspective. I did it in six months, but the problem ...

Violet: That's extraordinary.

Lee: Well, by doing things like that you demonstrate that it can be done.    

You've just got to think about it differently, and you've just got to be committed to doing it, and invest in it. I've done that a number of times in my whole career. I don't believe in just going to work and existing.

Lee Shearer

You just, you and I both know, female or male when you're undoing the way that business is done you are upsetting the status quo, so you invariably are upsetting clusters of people.

You're also making other people very happy and what I'm pleased about is in mining, I made it safer for workers in the Aboriginal land space. I made it easier for them actually to get ahead and pursue self-determination for their area.

Violet: When you got up and spoke [at the NSW Telstra Business Women’s Awards], Lee, I saw in you a women of substance, of depth, of passion, a disruptor but not for the sake of destruction. A woman who felt an obligation to ensure that you stood up for what you believed and for something that was outside of yourself and that you have the means and the opportunity to affect. I think that that's something that we have in common. I think a lot, for me,I've not worked in the public sector, but I know it would be an area that would sort of an organisation that would be very challenging because, by it's nature, it needs to have people who comply to systems and the status quo.

It probably needs, every now and then, people like yourself to stand up and say, 'Hang on, we need to do a values check here, and a reality check,' and that is very important. So, power to you. 

Lee: Thank you.


Overcoming the challenges of change

Lee: But this is a really good segue into the talk about the challenges around change. You've built this business from a tiny little spot to 800 employees with all of the challenges around the diversity. So what were some of those challenges that you found when you were actually building it?

Violet: We had one programme area, about 60 staff and roughly a $9 million turnover. Refugee resettlement was our flagship programme, and yet we had a painful experience years earlier of having lost that contract and almost needing to shut down the organisation.

Being optimistic, I thought no, we'll wait five years and try again and it worked. In those five years, there was a lot of time to reflect while I was doing a lot of other things and thinking about our industry and where we're passive.    

"We wait to accept the policies of government or other and not take our future in our own hands. We’ve got power and we've got to harness that power."

Violet Roumeliotis, CEO of Settlement Services International

So, those five years were really good times for me to then become the CEO of Settlement Services International and to have that vision. I really do believe in the power of setting those goals and direction and going for it. It was about building and creating teams. Really powerful, diverse, expert teams that could get us to where we wanted to go, but we needed a strategy, and we needed to have a really key purpose and mission.

I had done a lot of reading around the idea of a social business because it was very important, Lee, that I took people with me. That they understood that it wasn't too corporate or too businesslike, that the heart had to be there as well as the finance and the corporate. The fear of the globalisation, corporatisation, marketisation, privatisation. It always comes at a cost to the community, and they always draw the correlation. So, building a social business and getting that out was sort of like the analogy of the honey bee and the locust.

When I speak to our newly arrived refugee communities and community leaders and my colleagues about the importance of being sustainable, I say we have to put in place operation systems and structures that are sustainable. And we need to look at our corporate brother and sisters who are values-driven. It's about partnerships, and that's what's gotten us there really, Lee. The issues that SSI deals with, they're wicked societal issues, and not the kind that one sector can solve on their own.

Lee: No. No, they're multifaceted, but it's interesting because even in the work. So you've built all this from the ground up whereas I've deconstructed and rebuilt, I guess, a number of public sector delivery arms and it's the same stuff. It's the same stuff that you've got to do, and the challenges are always getting people to see the vision, getting people to agree with why you exist, working really closely with the people to move them from one position to the future state.

Planning, self-reflection and tears, unpacking, repacking. It's the same strategies and challenges that come up even from what you just said. It's a finely balanced exercise in putting those rules and regulations around but not too tight so people are stymied and you've covered them in rings and rings of red tape.


Knowing when the status quo needs to be challenged

Lee: But it's interesting, it's the same stuff that presents the challenge. I always say when I work, I realise I've got to challenge the status quo when I ask people why they're doing something. They respond in a way: ‘Well that's how we've always done it’ or ‘That's how things are done like that around here.’ Is that something that you can relate to in your world?

Violet: Oh absolutely!

We grew exponentially and in different areas, but still true to purpose, it really caused such an uproar. Initially, there were quite a few people in awe, but then later a lot of detractors because it was very disruptive model. Our business model and the way that we operate really ... it was quite a distraction for the for-profits that had been in this sector 'cause we were really competitive.

We were scalable, we were agile, we had something that was very marketable, which was bilingual, bicultural staff. We had something of value that, in our industry before, if you talked about the fact that you had starter or qualifications from overseas or people who could speak another language or people who had community connections, people thought, ‘Well big deal, what's that?’ Then people started seeing it in a very different light.


Resilience and picking yourself back up

Lee: So, let’s talk about resilience. You've been knocked down, I've been knocked down. I know what I'd do, and that's really just, picking yourself up and using your networks and building your self-esteem to move forward, really.    

“You can choose to stay in the bog of whatever it is that's brought you down, or you can just start to look ahead and bring yourself out of it and go again.” 

Lee Shearer

Get back on the horse, or go get back on the bike once you've been thrown off. What's your advice to women?

Violet: Well, Lee, I think it's pretty much the same that when you are involved in any industry or work when you lead with your values because you can apply your values and integrity in any area.

Like you were saying, in mining, in planning, it is about the lens you use and the application. When you're a leader, it is about much broader than yourself, it's about the people you're leading, it's about your organisation, it's about your community. You have an obligation and a responsibility, and that is what I say.

Sometimes you feel demoralised, or you feel down. You need to take time to heal and to take care of yourself. Then, once you replenish and you do it any way that works for you, and that's really important to surround yourself with those who love you, and you love. Get yourself strong again and go back out because you have that obligation and responsibility.

“When you lead with your values, you never go wrong. You're always protected.”

Violet Roumeliotis, CEO of Settlement Services International

Lee: Yeah, I think that's important advice for women and men. Step back, regather, nurture yourself, but then you have to go back out again, and you stick your head out the door, and off you go. That's your obligation. It's really destructive to just stay locked up under the bed covers and think you're never going to come out again. It's just getting out at the right time with the right attitude and move forward.

Violet: And there are many ways to do it. Yeah, many different ways to do it.


It’s doing business, unfiltered.

Lee: Well look, I think we've probably wound up now, so I'm really looking forward to seeing you in May at the nationals. Thanks so much and talk soon! See ya later, Violet!

Violet: See yeah later, Lee! Take care!

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