RECENTLY named one of Victoria’s best female leaders, winning a spot in the Institute of Public Administration Australia’s (IPAA) prestigious Top 50 Public Sector Women list, Bass Coast Shire CEO Ali Wastie has no hesitation in identifying herself as a passionate advocate for gender equity in the workplace.
Starting out as a secondary school teacher in Melbourne and overseas, then working in various senior policy roles in the Victorian public service, before settling in Bass Coast, Ali’s had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the role gender plays in being respected as a leader.
We sat down with Ali following the IPAA award win to hear more about her journey to becoming Bass Coast Shire Council’s first female CEO, and how she’s using her position to inspire more women and other underrepresented groups to pursue their career goals.
The IPAA Top 50 recognises and celebrates women who are making a difference “at a time where gender equality and empowerment are dominating the headlines” – why is it important to keep talking about these issues?
“It is important, especially for public institutions, which I’m part of – they really need to reflect the society that we’re in.
“We’re still not there in terms of equity. I think we’re getting there, but we’ve got a long way to go.
“And our next step is looking at diversity in general. So, having more people of different backgrounds, different belief systems, come to be recognised and honoured and feeling like they can bring their full selves to work.
“So, we have a role here in Council to keep on acknowledging and improving our diversity as well.”
Do you think being a woman has ever held you back in your career?
“I’m not sure whether it’s held me back because I suppose you don’t know what you might’ve missed out on.
“That said, there were behaviours that I saw, in the 1990s, that I look back on and think- ‘that’s archaic,’ so that reminds me of how far we’ve come.
“But I know those behaviours are still out there and women are still experiencing discrimination; women still experience sexual harassment that’s unacceptable and other types of harassment that are unacceptable.
“And now I’m in a position, as a leader, where it’s my responsibility to call that out.
“When I was in my early 20s, I probably didn’t feel empowered to call it out.
“But I think the women coming through now, they are calling it out, and more power to them.
“And being older, my responsibility is to support that and model that, as well as thinking about other ways I can help make the path easier for women to navigate.
“One of the things we’re really committed to here in Council, for example, is keeping in touch with women who are taking maternity leave because there’s still a barrier there. You talk to women who are re-entering the workforce after having considerable time off – it’s really hard.”
What about the idea that women can ‘have it all’ in terms of career and family?
“I don’t necessarily subscribe to that because it just puts on a ridiculous amount of pressure that women have to carry.
“Sometimes something has to give – don’t beat yourself up, because there’s no perfect path.”
As a female CEO, do you ever feel extra pressure to prove yourself?
“Well out of 79 councils [in Victoria], I think currently there are 17 CEOs that are women, and it’s my understanding that that’s the highest it’s ever been.
“So, I don’t feel that I need to prove myself as a woman. But I know, statistically, that I have had to work very hard to get where I’ve been, and it is likely that I’ve had to work harder than males to get where I’ve got to.
“But there were trailblazers before me who did it a lot harder.”
What gave you the confidence to go for roles traditionally dominated by men, and what would you say to encourage more women to go for these sorts of roles?
“I’ve always had an innate drive and this characteristic that’s said to be more common in men than in women, and that is: if I look at a job, and I think I can do 50 or 60 per cent of it, I will have a go. And then I will back myself that I can learn the rest on the job.
“But I didn’t leave high school and say, ‘I want to be the CEO of a local government authority’.
“For me, it’s always been about the role, not the position or the title. It’s about doing your job as well as you can, and the reason for doing that job is because you want to make a difference, not because you want to get that next promotion.
“So, follow what your dreams are; follow your passion, and that success will find you.
“And also, don’t fear failure. You always learn things. So, if you go for a job and you don’t get it, changing the mindset from ‘I failed’ to: what did you learn from that experience? So, for the next time, you will be better equipped.
“Having the resilience and the courage to keep on having a go, will get you there. And that’s about supports as well, so being able to draw on people who’ve been there before: mentors, friends, colleagues, people who have those connections that you may not have at your level but who will actively advocate for you.”
Out of all the achievements throughout your public sector career, what are you most proud of?
“My legacy will be people – the leadership that I’m able to provide to the people that I’m lucky enough to work with.
“I worked for a long time at a previous organisation and my leaving speech wasn’t about the major capital works projects or reforms that I delivered; what I talked about were the people who I worked with over that time and how we were able to achieve great things together.”