Ita Buttrose has had a brilliant and groundbreaking career. She is one of Australia’s foremost women journalists, a businesswoman, TV presenter, and author. She was the first woman editor of a major metropolitan newspaper, the first woman on News Limited’s board of directors and most recently appointed chairwoman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In 2013, she was awarded Australian of the Year and received the NSW Award for Excellence in Women’s Leadership in 2014. This year, Ita was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia for her significant service to the community through leadership in the media, the arts, the health sector, and most notably as a role model for women. She spoke to The Symes Report about her thoughts on her early career, women in leadership roles and the workforce.

What was it like for women working in the media when you started out?

I started work at 15 having completed three months at a secretarial college after leaving school. This meant I had shorthand and typing skills. My mother had drummed into me the importance of having skills. Like many girls of that era, I thought I would work for a few years, marry and have children, leave the workforce and become a housewife. Very few people envisaged the changes that Women’s Liberation would bring with it. I did marry and have children but I didn’t go home. I kept working. I did my cadet journalism training on the Sydney Daily and Sunday Telegraphs having started as a copygirl on The Australian Women’s Weekly.

At the time the Telegraph and the Weekly were owned by Sir Frank Packer. There were few women working as journalists in the newsroom. Women were usually employed on the women’s pages. It was only on the Women’s Weekly that women held senior editorial positions: Editor, news editor, features editor, chief sub. Those women were my role models. When I was 21, I moved back to the Weekly as social editor and it was around about that time when I realised I could go a lot further in my career than I had ever imagined possible.

What are you hoping to bring to your role at ABC?

Leadership and stability; with my fellow directors, establishing the direction for a positive future; encouraging everyone – employees and listeners/viewers –  to embrace the changes that technology is bringing and will continue to bring to broadcasting and encouraging Australians to continue to support and trust us, as they always have, as we build an even stronger, more vibrant ABC.

You are a role model for women in continuing a career later in life. What advice do you have for women who seek to stay in the workforce?

Believe in yourself and realise how good you are. So many women fail to appreciate their potential. Age doesn’t take away your ability to do a good job. In fact it brings with it knowledge, wisdom and tolerance which makes you a better employee. Age discrimination is against the law. Don’t be afraid to take action if you encounter it. And don’t let people talk you out of your dreams which you are entitled to seek whatever your age.

I set my sights on becoming the editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly – a goal I achieved when I was 33 – 18 years after starting on the magazine as a copygirl.  I was the Weekly’s youngest-ever editor, a distinction I still hold today. I have been a part of the evolution of the woman in the workplace. It has been an exciting time to be a woman.

I’m sure workplace culture has improved a lot since then, but do you think we’re doing enough?

I am sure most women would agree that the workplace has changed for the better, however there is still much room for improvement. The proportion of female directors in the top ASX 200 companies is almost 30 per cent, the best it has ever been.  There has been a concerted push for women on boards but even so four of the top ASX 200 companies still have no female directors – is that because of unconscious bias perhaps? Do these companies ever ask themselves do they really have a good representation of diverse skills on their boards?  Fifty companies have only one female director. I’d like to urge more women to aim for CEO roles because that’s where the real power is and where change can be implemented, such as the creation of genuine, family-friendly workplaces and flexible hours for working mothers and fathers. Women’s progress in this top leadership role is far too slow. The number of female CEOs in the top ASX 200 companies is only 11.

Women in CEO roles will remain a minority until women make a concerted effort to overcome the barriers to the CEO’s office.  They need to push themselves forward more – like men do – they need strong mentors, who can encourage them to aim high and they need to work together to help not only themselves but other women to crack this particular glass ceiling. Female directors should be looking at the companies they represent and making sure women have the right opportunities in various management roles that will equip them for the knowledge they need for the CEO’s role.

You’ve been a trailblazer in the media, and I’m sure made some very bold decisions along the way. Was there anything you regretted?

No there isn’t. I don’t see the point of looking back and saying “if only I’d done this or done that.” You can’t change any of the steps you’ve taken and everything I’ve done – and not all of them have been successful – has shaped me into the woman I am today. There’s no easy path through life. It is full of detours and challenges and that applies to our personal and professional lives.

What’s the single most important attribute of a good leader?

We’ll assume that the person really passionately wants to be a leader – you’ve got to want the job. Good communication skills are essential. Most people think they are pretty good at communicating – in reality few are. You can’t lead successfully if you can’t communicate in a way that touches people’s minds and hearts.

No one will follow a leader who isn’t able to effectively communicate a message – whether it’s a bad news or a good news message.  People can accept bad news if the communication is authoritative and strong … and honest.

Is now a good time to be a woman?

It’s always a good time to be a woman. Make the most of your woman friends. They are your best support when times are tough. They are fun to celebrate with when times are particularly good. Some of my best holidays have been with my woman friends and that includes my daughter and my aunt. When I’m with my woman friends laughter is never far away.