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When it comes to female leaders in corporate Australia, you would be hard-pressed to find someone with a resume as accomplished and diverse as the brilliant Jo Scard.
Jo is the founder and CEO of Fifty Acres, Australia’s leading for-purpose communications and engagement agency for NGOs, peak bodies, social enterprises, industry associations, not-for-profits and government agencies.
Following her early career as a political adviser and journalist working in the UK and Australia with ITV, Associated Press, Seven, SBS, ABC, the British Labour Party and Fairfax, Jo moved into a consulting role at leading public affairs agency Gavin Anderson, before becoming a senior adviser to the Rudd and Gillard Governments.
In 2010, Jo established Australia’s first virtually operated strategic communications and engagement agency, with the vision to collaborate strictly with the for-good and not-for-profit sector. Jo prioritises a flexible working structure, and leads a team of ambitious women paving the way in the communications space.
On the eve of International Women’s Day, GovConnex’s William Wright sat down with Jo to talk all things politics and gender equality:
In the late 80s you worked as an advisor to the British Labour Party. That must have been a fascinating time to be a woman in politics given the political landscape (Thatcher). What were the biggest challenges women faced in the 80s in British politics?
Jo: I actually found British politics, perhaps as you’d expect, very polite. I really enjoyed being there, I was acknowledged for my skills rather than my political/factional background or who my friends were, especially compared to Australia, It was just more diplomatic and professional. I felt more pigeonholed as a woman in other roles in Australia far more than the UK. That said, like all of politics it was still a brutal fight.
After your UK stint you returned to Australia in the early 90s, do you think Margaret Thatcher’s time in office had any effect on how women in politics were treated in the UK compared to Australia? Especially given it took us until 2010 to elect a female prime minister?
Jo: Yes potentially, look, Thatcher was never overt about portraying herself as a woman or a man, she was an incredibly strong person and there’s so many pictures of her as the only woman in a room full of political men. Interestingly, when she was first elected there was a video of her speaking to a group of school children and they asked her if she ever thought there would be a woman prime minister to which she replied “not in her lifetime”. Now nobody would say that, but tell me who the next female prime minister is going to be in Australia? It’s not obvious. When you ask male politicians, they point to themselves.
You were an advisor to the leader of the government in the Australian senate when Julia Gillard became Prime Minister, can you give us any insight into what that historic moment was like internally?
Jo: The morning of the leadership challenge I was in Parliament House having coffee with a senior journalist that had flown down to do a front page profile on Julia for one of the major papers. She’d just had a meeting with her Chief of Staff and Julia’s team was racing to get the profile to press, because they knew she had the numbers and would be Prime Minister by the end of the day. It was a very exciting time.
Julia is very down to earth and lovely, not at all pretentious. She gave that important speech directed at Tony Abbott and had to put up with some foul comments like “ditch the witch” and remarks about her hair and appearance. I can’t recall anyone talking about Scott Morrison’s weight or whether he’s attractive. Those things shouldn’t be in politics, but they are directed at women when they’re in positions of power.
More recently we’ve seen the tremendous social movements led by Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins. What lessons can we take from both of them?
Jo: What they’re both campaigning for is to take action and be aware of the endemic inequalities in Canberra. I myself was the victim of bullying in Canberra by a very senior individual and I really didn’t have many options to deal with it, there was no system in place. And when it’s never happened to you before, and it hadn’t happened to me, you’re like oh ok what do I do now and these bullies take advantage of you and it can be quite scary. I suppose it’s a stressful world and Canberra is a stressful environment and all the people are stressed. This stress manifests itself in bad behaviour. What I really question as well is why men don’t seem to bully other men, it’s very much focused on women. My experience of bullying was particularly gendered, he knew I had two young kids and would for no reason schedule meetings at 6:30 am, sometimes not allowing me to leave until 2 am. Ultimately politics is about power and control, some people take that too far.
Do you have a message for female political staff members or government relation professionals given your experience, and in recent years, Brittany Higgins advocacy?
Jo: Talk to others, even back then I didn’t do that, for fear of rocking the boat. You really didn’t know what was going to happen when you did complain. So yes, reach out to other colleagues, your union, your support network. Now that the Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins discussion and the Jenkins report has taken place, there’s some really strong support groups available. It’s ok now to say something and that’s what I’d do if I was in the same position.
Looking across industries, you have experience in Journalism, Politics, Not-for profit, and you sit on the board of a sporting organisation (Hockey ACT). What are the unique barriers women face in these industries? Does any industry stand out to you in terms of being ahead of others with respect to women's issues like closing the pay gap and increasing workforce participation?
Jo: The not-for-profit space, it’s a massive group of people who are working together to affect change. By its very nature, organisations which are set up to help people are usually more broadly minded. So I think all purpose organisations, because while they may not be paying well, they are not discriminating between women and men. And there are more women working in these industries. I think flexibility is especially important for women. Having flexibility as a CEO is important, work life should move around human life, that’s what I try to achieve.
From a sporting point of view, sport has a long way to go in general, Although Hockey at an international level does have equal pay.
You are currently the CEO of Fifty Acres, an all female company providing public relations services to a range of businesses but with an emphasis on Non-For Profits. Can you tell us a bit more about the work you do?
Jo: We’re a full service communications and government engagement agency, we only work with not-for-profit or for purpose businesses, we’ve engaged with hundreds of these businesses to solve social issues.
You also sit on the board of Fitted for Work, a non-profit helping disadvantaged women get into the workplace. What are the main difficulties women of disadvantage face when entering the workforce?
Jo: There’s a lot of people that are long term unemployed and for women this can be uniquely challenging. You know, if you’re a man you can always seek a labouring job, which is just not a reality for a lot of women. The range of jobs available to women that are long term unemployed are just not the same as men.
You co-wrote “The Working Mother’s Survival Guide” with Melissa Doyle, a book aimed at helping new mothers keep their careers on track. What are the big pieces of advice you have for women that want to start a family but not at the cost of their career?
Jo: Think about what’s going to work for your family, for example my husband did the lion share of school runs. But you also must remember that you can’t get your time back with your kids and you need to make decisions about how you want to spend that time. That’s not to say you should feel guilty about putting them into child care but you have to be happy with where you are in that balance.
To end on a positive note, one of the main goals of International Women’s Day is to celebrate women’s achievements. Is there anyone at Fifty Acres that you’d like to shout out?
Jo: Yes, let me shout out Dasha Romanowski. Dasha is someone that has this enormous brain and intelligence, she’s able to do all this strategic thinking but also has really strong integrity. She’s been a leader internally, really challenging us on the briefs we take. She has a huge amount of integrity and she demonstrates this every day, she has quite a few rescue dogs, so she walks the talk in terms of her life.
Thank you Jo, it has been an absolute pleasure.
Jo Scard is the CEO and Founder of GovConnex customer Fifty Acres.