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In conversation with former Australia PM Julia Gillard: why diversity on the board matters

25 Jun 2021 | Advance HE As applications open for ‘Success on the board’, Advance HE and Wellcome’s new programme to encourage board diversity, Jenny Tester, Head of Business Development at Advance HE, speaks to Julia Gillard about her experiences.

Julia Gillard, Chair of Wellcome, the global charitable foundation which supports science to solve urgent health challenges, and former Prime Minister of Australia, shared her own experience of what it is like being a woman in male-dominated boardrooms, what advice she would give to her younger self and her thoughts on why is it so important that decision making boards are diverse.

Julia said, “It’s incredibly important to have diversity because all the research tells us that diverse groups of people make better decisions, and intuitively, we shouldn't be surprised by that. Obviously people bring different skills, experiences, aptitudes into a decision-making board and so the broader the set of experiences the more that going to come to the table and play into the decision-making.”

When asked to reflect on the early days of her career and how that set her up for her career today, she said, “From those early days I think what I learned was, number one, you do need to be prepared for the discussion. You know board papers, committee papers, go out for a reason and so it is important to read them and be across the material. Then it's important to be present in the discussion, and by that I mean truly listening to what others have to say and evaluating it. 

“I think meetings can go very wrong when people come in with a fixed view and they're not really listening to others or they are distracted by things happening outside the room.”

Julia spoke of what she gained by being on a board that really interests her. “I’ve chosen to involve myself in board or advisory council structures and usually I've done that because I'm interested in the topic matter, in what the organisation does, I'm interested in the people. I feel that they're people that I want to spend time with, learn from, share perspectives with and I can see that me being involved is going to help make a difference. I think people can sometimes underestimate their own individual contributions.

Asked what advice she’d give herself she said, “People might look at someone like me who's been a prime minister and said ‘oh well, you know she obviously has got the skills and capacities to do the things she's done’, but I didn't know that on the way up. I only knew it by doing and trying and then trying the next bit and seeing if I could do it and then learning and reflecting, failing, and then rebuilding and working out how to do it better.”

Success on the board: unlocking the power of underrepresented voices in research is a new one-year pilot development programme to encourage board diversity with 10 fully-funded places for women, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals or disabled people  in research. Advance HE and Wellcome are working in partnership to design and run the programme which aims to help researchers and professional services staff from underrepresented groups be appointed to boards and governing bodies.

The first woman to serve as Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister (2007-2013), Julia Gillard was central to the successful management of Australia’s economy following the global financial crisis. She delivered nation-changing policies, including the reform of education, emissions trading, and the provision and sustainability of healthcare.

Julia also serves as the Chair of Global Partnership for Education, a leading organisation dedicated to expanding education access and quality worldwide, and Beyond Blue, Australia’s leading mental health awareness body.

“Given the life I've lived, I think I've got lessons to share on gender discrimination and my experience in those structures, particularly very male dominated ones, is that it's important that the group stops and reflects on how it's going to run its affairs, so that this doesn't become a contest of the most talkative, the loudest, the people who are prepared to interrupt and butt in, but it becomes a decision-making style in which everybody is asked to contribute.”

Wellcome has put diversity, equity and inclusion at the heart of its new strategy and equality, diversity and inclusion is a fundamental part of Advance HE’s new strategy to help shape the future of higher education, which makes particular reference to improving board diversity. 

Find out more about the Success on the Board programme and how to apply here


About Wellcome

Wellcome supports science to solve the urgent health challenges facing everyone. We support discovery research into life, health and wellbeing, and we’re taking on three worldwide health challenges: mental health, global heating and infectious diseases.

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We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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