QBE chair Belinda Hutchinson pens Australian foreword to Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’

If you pick up a local edition of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, you’ll hear from QBE Insurance chairman Belinda Hutchinson who shares her own ideas on what women can do to get ahead in the workplace.

Hutchinson says she “dropped everything” to act on an invitation to write the foreword for Sandberg’s Australian release.

She writes that all aspects of the book resonate with her own experiences and that she knows plenty of women who’ve faced often-subtle obstacles to getting ahead in the workplace that Sandberg outlines.

Hutchinson cites the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report which ranked Australia number one in terms of educational attainment, but 45 for workforce participation, as showing gender diversity is still a serious issue facing corporate Australia. “The ‘fair go’ that we like to think is in Australians’ DNA often does not apply to women at work,” she writes.

While her parents always supported her, Hutchinson writes that her own business career may not have progressed as much as it did if she’d listened to her father when he questioned why she wanted to go to university when she could travel and get married instead. “The driving force throughout my career was to prove myself to my dad – to show him that it was not just my brothers who should, and could, aim high.”

And she may not have reached such career heights if she never learnt to speak up – for the promotions, salaries and bonuses that she deserved. It’s the skill of personal negotiation that Hutchinson admits she didn’t always have, and a skill she believes women may just learn a little more about from reading Sandberg’s book. Hutchinson cites her own example of asking for nothing in a salary review because she thought her boss would simply recognise her contribution and offer it.

Hutchinson also uses the foreword to urge women to speak up about any feelings of guilt associated with being a working mum, and the “myths of doing it all”. “This is a hard one. Regrettably, you just have to learn to live with it and, eventually, you will live through it,” she writes, noting that her own children gave her grief when she was “missing in action”. She says with so many women entering the workforce we need to better address cultural and societal issues around how we’re raising children.

Meanwhile, women need to speak up about the realities of juggling work and life. “Senior women might seem serene and unruffled in media interviews and at general meetings, but believe me we are all like ducks, paddling furiously beneath the surface,” she writes. She recommends working with sponsors who can help you with promotions (not necessarily mentors), and to speak to bosses about how you can better navigate the conflicting pulls of work and home.

She writes that powerful men who can influence culture in business and society can make one of the most important contributions to gender diversity. “Imagine if men’s voices were added to women’s and gender equity became the norm.”

As for her father, Hutchinson says she received plenty of satisfaction in her 30s taking his calls when he’d ask her opinion on business and economic issues. “I would smile from ear to ear,” she writes. “I only wish he had lived to see me lean in to take the chairman’s seat at QBE. He would have loved that.”

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In will be published in Australia next week. This article first appeared on LeadingCompany’s sister site, Women’s Agenda


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