Ladies first: The new gender balance that is reshaping leadership in Queensland

More women are taking on senior roles in Queensland, challenging preconceived notions about gender and power. Important milestones are now becoming routine, writes Sean Parnell.

Aug 17, 2020, updated Aug 17, 2020
Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young giving one of her regular COVID-19 updates with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. (Photo: ABC)

Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young giving one of her regular COVID-19 updates with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. (Photo: ABC)

Two weeks ago, Cynthia Hardy was elected president of the conservative Liberal National Party. The LNP now, for the first time, has a president who happens to be a woman, and a parliamentary leader, Deb Frecklington, who happens to be one too.

Both, importantly, were elected on merit alone – gender seemingly played no greater role in determining their position than experience or aptitude. Labor, too, has women in those roles – party president Julie-Ann Campbell and, of course, parliamentary leader Annastacia Palaszczuk, Queensland’s second female premier. Gone are the days when politics was a man’s domain, and women relegated to a supporting role, even if the rebalance still needs some time to settle.

Last week, Professor Helen Bartlett took up her new role as Vice Chancellor of the University of the Sunshine Coast. In doing so, she raised to six the number of Queensland universities with women at the helm. In years past, this would be simply unheard of, given the prominence of men in academia. But as women have been allowed opportunities, seized opportunities, and earned opportunities, Queensland organisations have started to better reflect the populations they serve.

On Friday, Dr Jeannette Young brought up 15 years as Queensland’s Chief Health Officer. She is now the most powerful bureaucrat in Queensland, leading the state’s defensive effort against COVID-19. In 2020, Young has found a new public following, based on her clear, concise and often impassioned statements on COVID-19, and the encouraging results to date. None of this is gender-based – Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, still has a strong public following despite his state’s struggles – but it matters that she can perform such a role without being reduced to a derogatory gender stereotype.

Unfortunately, on supposedly “social” media, the worst of society still hurl their personal insecurities like excrement in an effort to smear high-profile people who happen to be women. Only time will tell if, or when, this will stop, and whether it might actually be more of a motivation for change than a deterrent. The trolls’ obsession with gender is disgusting and ironically counterproductive – there are many other ways to judge people, fairly, and without heaping criticism on women for being women. But the fact that the next generation, boys and girls, now have a range of people to look up to, men or women, is encouraging.

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While the above-mentioned milestones are important, perhaps more important is that they are no longer heralded as such. This is as expected. These achievements, while noteworthy, are just correcting an imbalance, creating a new status quo, establishing an environment in which gender does not need to be a starting point or dividing line.

Remember, Queensland also other high-profile women, including the Police Commissioner, Chief Justice and Chief Entrepreneur, several mayors, various top artists and sportspeople. Every industry, every profession, every trade, every part of society has its challenges, and inherent biases, and it is important they be addressed from within.

Of course, there have also been some women to fall from grace, or at least experience a career setback of as-yet unknown duration. Former chief scientist Suzanne Miller was this year jailed for fraud. Long-time deputy premier Jackie Trad, one of the most powerful women in the state, resigned from Cabinet after questions were raised about her integrity and judgement. The latter may make a stronger comeback than the former, but, regardless, it is important that people witness their journey.

Boys and girls, men and women, need to see that anyone, regardless of gender, can rise to great heights, and go out on top, or be called to account for their failings. Gender is no more an impediment to life’s achievements than a facilitator.

Queensland has, ever so quietly, overcome its reticence towards women in power. Future Queenslanders will encounter a much more progressive state – and, most importantly, not think any different.

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