Bright Sparks: Developing tomorrow’s female leaders

Written for Bright Sparks Women Leadership Program, July 2016

Light streams through the triangle-shaped windows in a classroom at RMIT University, where voice coach Debra Lawrance is speaking with fourteen women.

“This is the most persuasive tool for communication,” says the NIDA graduate and former Home and Away star, pointing to her mouth. “Women who speak in a high voice,” Debra says with a shrill, “are generally not heard in the workplace.”

The workshop is part of the Bright Sparks program founded by Bri Johnstone. An RMIT College of Business initiative, it is designed to inspire, connect and prepare the next generation of female leaders, drawing from students and staff at RMIT. It includes a two-week residency in San Francisco in February 2017, where the women, who vary in age, culture and profession, will work with female mentors, participate in workshops and network in the city of startups, Silicon Valley. Programs like this are timely given the statistics of female leadership in Australia.

According to the Australian Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency, women account for 16.3% of CEOs and 28.5% of key management personnel in the Australian workplace. Female board directors account for only 24.7%. Could programs like these shake things up?

For Eleanor Boydell, a Master of Arts Management student, the program could help her achieve a leadership role in the arts sector. “I believe I have some of the skills to get there, but being exposed to other approaches and ideas around leadership will be very useful.” 

Other workshops include intercultural communication and DISC profiling. Susi Fox, a GP and currently studying Professional Writing and Editing, gained awareness into the potential power of her voice. “By articulating my consonants, I can speak much more authoritatively.”

Shanzeh Reusch, who moved to Australia from Pakistan in 2006, applied for the Bright Sparks program in order to move out of her comfort zone and challenge herself. “In Pakistan, there isn’t really a focus on females working, and there definitely isn’t a focus on women working in leadership roles. Coming to Australia has really opened up new doors for me,” says the Bachelor of Applied Science student. “This program being one of them.”

San Francisco will provide opportunities, particularly to women in the group who have a business idea that needs nurturing. Sarah Betteley hopes to work with her mentor to develop Say When Sarah, an online magazine celebrating women in business, targeting women in their late teens to early twenties, “We need more CEOs, more women in the boardroom”, says the Bachelor of Business student. “I think the world will be a better place.”

Awareness of the power within, and harnessing that power while developing rich networks, is ultimately what the program is about.

“I hope it will open my eyes to some of the opportunities and ideologies available to me in the next phases of my career,” says Eleanor. “And perhaps also teach me some strategies for creating my own opportunities and opportunities for others.”

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