Australian Federation of University Women

New South Wales

AFUW - NSW Incorporated is an association of women graduates from universities throughout the world





Deirdre Mason is Deputy Chair of the Premier's Council for Women and is required to stand in for the Minister for Women on numerous occasions. Since graduating from the University of Sydney with an honours degree in Modern History, Deirdre has worked in both the public and private sectors.

Deirdre was a City Councillor in Victoria from 1980 to 1983 and has held executive positions in Telstra and directorships with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the Australian Children's Television Foundation and the National Heart Foundation. She is currently the President of the St John Ambulance Foundation.

Under her guidance the Premier's Council has completed investigations into the housing and transport needs of older women, the increasing incidence of violence and its impact on women and, most recently, has consulted women, who are marginally attached to the labour market, on the effect that changes to workplace arrangements is having on their lives.

Deirdre writes: There's a distinction between education and knowledge that is probably analysed endlessly in the world of academia but my experience of applying my B.A.Hons to the commercial world tells me that one begets the other. I have relied on my reading of Molière and my insight into the causes of the American Revolution to confront commercial and managerial challenges never even dreamed of in those times.

In order to grow rich in capability and experience you need to be equipped with breadth of thought and the capacity for analysis. Then you are open to evaluating new ideas and new opinions. A friend who attended Harvard Business School has told me that this hypothesis is not just mine; it even has a name - Deep Smarts.

And this is where AFUW has a role to play.

The Getting of Wisdom
It's who you know AND what you know

When you sit down to write, you generally use formulae to speed the work along; writing an address or a speech or even a letter adapts easily to a formula. When you're writing a speech - like this one - you start off by thinking of the three most important things that the audience should take away with them. You write them down and then you work out how to illustrate them and expand on them. It's an efficient way of building the speech and at a pinch it can even be done on a napkin during the first course when you have to speak later in the meal.

This formula has stood me in good stead over the years and has enabled me to address diverse audiences on many diverse subjects. I really enjoy the rigour of thinking through ideas and then applying my lens to the challenges facing my audience.

In preparing for today, I thought about the Australian Federation of University Women and about its goals. Fleetingly I thought about myself as an undergraduate and then about my futile attempt to undertake postgraduate studies. Then I reviewed my working career and how well my Honours B.A. in Modern History and French had equipped me for it. At this point I was able to draft the abstract that was printed in the invitation.

However when I settled down to apply myself for this task by tidying my desk (don't we all begin that way?), I came across this quotation from Kofi Annan that turned my usual formula on its head.

On International Women's Day in 2005 he said:

"Study after study has taught us that there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity or to reduce infant and maternal mortality. No other policy is as sure to improve nutrition and promote health - including the prevention of HIV/AIDS. No other policy is as powerful in increasing the chances of the education for the next generation"

Suddenly I understood the importance of this address. Hopefully it will add a new tile to the mosaic of the work that the AFUW does, and by extension it will contribute to the empowerment of women.

And any organisation that contributes to the empowerment of women also contributes to the wellbeing and betterment of our world. For this reason I am happy - and proud - to be here.

Once you start along a train of thought, it is uncanny how relevant comments and stories crop up as if to underline and illustrate your very thoughts. When I started thinking about the relevance of education to the commercial world, I was thinking in a fairly linear way of how to illustrate the value of education to Business. And believe me, this was not only a bit dull, it was also not self-evident since normal "market forces' don't apply. Increasing the quantum of education doesn't always yield more innovative thinking and skilled management - critical components of a successful enterprise. Indeed:

  • Thomas Edison dropped out of school at age seven.
  • Whoever invented the wheel had no school out of which to drop!
  • Socrates didn't go to University (but that was because he was one!)

Education does, however, change minds. And a new mentality is more significant than a new semi-conductor or a new stump-jump plough!

I hope the reference in the abstract to Deep Smarts intrigued you. It certainly did me. It is one of those phrases that one often dismisses as American - or even Californian - but you suddenly realise that it is a piquant description of something that has not been named before. The Harvard Business School protagonists of Deep Smarts say that the term describes a special form of experience-based expertise.

And my view is that the term also describes the special way in which women learn and apply their learning to broadening their experience and the experience of others.

You see, Deep Smarts are formed and influenced by who we are - our background, our education and our upbringing - but they also are built and shaped by other people. In my experience of the commercial world, this is where women have true strengths; women are more accessible, they collaborate more in problem solving and they see knowledge transfer as a two way activity. There is therefore a richness that women bring to a commercial enterprise that is not as prevalent in the more linear and hierarchical male oriented hierarchy.

In 2005 a long article appeared in the Australian Financial Review entitled "Women bosses: greatness is not good enough" and I'd like to quote some of it as it's good to remember the 'facts' as well as my personal experiences. I also thereby excuse myself from barefaced plagiarism!

The story began: "after years of analysing what makes leaders most effective and figuring out who's got the 'right stuff', management gurus now know how to boost the odds of getting a great executive; hire a woman". Sounds great, doesn't it?

It explored this idea further, noting that it was stumbled on accidentally, (the subtext being that it wasn't a bunch of women academics seeking to justify themselves!) The statistics quoted - and it doesn't really matter which ones -are all of the 'feel good' variety. Of the high level executives studied, women executives won higher ratings on 42 of the 52 skills measured. Not bad eh? Even the researcher is quoted as saying "we were startled by the results".

Funnily the very skills that scored so well in this research often are the target of jokes about the way that women work.

  • Getting results from teamwork was the pre-eminent skill that was so highly regarded. (Think about the jokes about hen parties, Koffee Klatches, tea parties, women's clubs)
  • Communication and not controlling information tightly was another key skill. (Jokes about gossiping and chatting spring immediately to mind)

The conclusion was that companies undervalue women - and indeed themselves - by not treating people skills as business skills although they absolutely are.

Let me give you a non-business example of this. I was at our local polling booth last Saturday - as indeed we all were - and an elderly lady tackled the Greens worker saying that she wanted to vote Green but that she didn't want her preferences to go to the ALP. (This is a true story!) So the Greens worker told her that she had to number all the Green squares and five others. She suggested she numbered five from Group F who were the Climate Change party. Our Greens worker's L Plate must have been showing because her Expert Booth leader bustled over to the conversation demanding to know "what the problem was". There was no problem as the Greens worker, a school teacher, assured him; it was fixed. He clearly didn't believe her so he interrogated the hapless voter displaying his extensive knowledge of preferential voting but leaving her absolutely confused by explaining that after her first 6 votes her vote would exhaust itself anyway.

The voter asked what that meant but Dear Leader was off to do more important things! I reassured her but I also needed to comfort the Greens worker who felt she had been run over by a large truck. She had been totally across the situation and had the Deep Smarts to understand how much information the voter needed to know and how best to convey it. The expert had proved his expertise but had not delivered his message. Unlike a school teacher he did not have the experience of how to transfer his knowledge!

So how do experienced people transfer knowledge? While there is no straightforward answer to this, it does seem to me that when the management gurus talk about needing a framework for growing and nurturing expertise, they really mean that we need also grow and nurture people.

Expertise isn't just about content; it's also about understanding oneself as an operator within a society. Experts do know more but they also know what they don't know. Sorry if this sounds a bit Donald Rumsfeldian, but I mean that experts know the limits of their knowledge and their educational experience has taught them that they can always push further and bravely to expand those limits. That's what is exciting about being educated to know how to learn.

Importantly too experts rely extensively on their experience to recognise patterns and then to apply those patterns to problem solving. And that's another opportunity for women because women are far more observant of other people than men and they build up patterns of behaviour in response to those observations.

Pattern building like this is often termed 'women's intuition' but few people connect it to a successful management style because too rarely are women given the opportunity to display it. I do know that men don't understand how women in business operate - they say so, they ask about it - though more with incredulity than with sincere curiosity. No wonder male managers need to pay big bucks to commission research such as that I have quoted above!

Education provides all of us with knowledge but it is how we learn that provides us with expertise. The building blocks of my development as an expert come from my studying rather than the content of my studying; I have never needed to mention anti-disestablishmentarianism since I left university but studying it and the knots that the church twisted itself into over the 18th century finetuned my mental receptors.

In my view the hallmark of a good tertiary education is that equips its graduates to be psychologically open to new experiences. I laughed when I discovered that I was actually going to be studying the longest word in the dictionary!! But I was also by then equipped with sufficient mental scaffolding to turn this into knowledge - not just information (like the Booth captain!) I can still spell anti-disestablishmentarianism but I also understand the passions that are ignited in the face of unwanted change. Experience builds knowledge but you need education to understand its value and the tricky ways to apply it.

My father was a Professor of Physics and he always held that medicine and law didn't belong in a university because they were very much disciplines where knowledge was transferred rather than questioned or digested. Needless to say, this view has never prevailed and law and medicine are still taught at University and not at TAFE colleges. I often wondered at his fervour on this subject and whilst apologising now to all the doctors and lawyers in the room I must say that I am beginning to understand that it was based on the nature of learning how to think as opposed to acquiring knowledge.

I believe that my tertiary education provided me with the wherewithal to be responsive to developing expertise. I didn't learn what I needed as a senior executive in Telstra at university but how I learnt allowed me to understand how to achieve results with people with campaigns or with products. It reminds me of that famous Warren Buffet quote of 'the harder I work the luckier I get'. The more experiences you have that challenge you, the more you learn and this adds to your pool of understanding.

I read your November newsletter with Deep consideration about what was happening in AFUW and in particular the need to confront just why membership is dwindling and what this means for the future. Be assured that the AFUW is not alone in this self-examination. Nowadays groups that were established with intellectual purposes such as debating or advancing ideas and attitudes have membership problems which I think stem from a feeling of limited purpose - just ask the political parties.

I think in part this is the effect of the avalanche of information that is available without requiring the person-to person interaction that groups provide. And I do think that this is a shame though there is not much point wasting time in mourning it. As Joe Hill famously said, don't mourn, organise!

I think that personal interaction is essential to the development of fully rounded people - whether they be business leaders, teachers politicians or gardeners. We need to work to identify what is lacking in the new way in which knowledge is being transferred and I think that the brief primer on Deep Smarts that I have just taken you through shows this quite clearly. There is a clearly defined niche there to be filled by people - such as the members of the AFUW - offering personal experience to supplement and expand the information provided by the myriad of channels available through the internet.

The issues that the AFUW is grappling with resonate with me too. Human rights advocacy and advocacy on educational developments are integral to a civilised society but it is a crowded space. I have been involved in the former from the perspective of a different NGO and in fact one that tried to coordinate all NGO's working on refugee issues; that in itself was a minefield so I can't quantify the value that I brought to the refugee issue itself. What can one group add that is not only of value but also serves as a standard for others to rally around?

Barbara Williams and Dalma Jacobs write that "why not … concentrate our efforts in one program (e.g. education) where other NGO's are not so passionate or focussed and where AFUW has a strategic advantage." They go on to say that education is the key to progress and therefore support for the IFUW work in under-developed countries is axiomatic.

The authors quote an older generation of AFUW members who often said that" the privilege of an education brings with it the responsibility to see that others have the same opportunity". Maybe I have mistaken my generation or maybe I am one of them but I sincerely believe that this still holds true.

Can I suggest that maybe this could be your expert niche? While in no way belittling the enormous contribution that you make, it's a truism that anyone can raise money for bursaries and scholarships. My limited analysis of the AFUW in preparation for meeting you today has revealed to me that you do indeed have a USP - the well known marketing lingo for Unique Selling Point. You have the Deep Smarts of being educated women who want to advance other women and believe in the role of education in achieving this goal.

I think that there is an unfilled niche here for providing person to person interaction for those who are acquiring knowledge so that they can do it in the most fulfilling way. Maybe you can train an army of young women who are sophisticated thinkers who understand how they learn and how they can transfer knowledge so that the battle front is broadened (and possibly your membership too!).

I guess I am talking about a kind of mentoring here. I am not proposing that you stop the funding of excellence through bursaries or the progress of gender equity through lobbying and advocacy but I think there is an opportunity to be seized.

You all have a lot of skills and Deep Smarts that you can extend to younger women who may not have the social context and framework to really expand their learning capacity. Deep Smarts are enriched by social contact and by social influence. You can give Deep Smarts to those without easy access to experience-based expertise and give them the opportunity to shape their lives differently. People talk about know-how, but some also talk about know-who! At first I thought this was just a transliteration but then I realised just what a valuable this comment was. AFUW can concentrate on giving young women know-who!

At this point I begin thinking about when I studied Romeo and Juliet in 1961. Poor Mrs Jenkins! My cohort of bright young girls who lived for school and school sport were most taken by the dirty bits. And we were too innocent to even know what the headline dirty bits were. No, not us! We giggled at the Nurse talking about suckling Juliet in her infancy - that was really dirty! We never gave a thought to what Romeo and Juliet actually did between midnight and that fateful dawn when Romeo left Verona.

My mother however took on the responsibility of giving me the context, albeit in a very puritanical manner. Her brief lesson on the essence of tragedy was interwoven with a lesson on sex education - namely that pre-marital sex attracted punishment. Even at that tender age I felt that it was a very dire punishment indeed. But she enlisted the example of West Side Story which was playing in London at the time to teach me about the meaning of tragedy - and told me that Romeo and Juliet wasn't pure tragedy because they both died. In West Side Story of course Maria lives on to mourn her lost love.

Now you may feel that I have lost my way here but my point is that for the rest of my life my moral compass has been framed by that lesson about tragedy. I know that I was fortunate to have a family that was able to provide experience-based expertise that enriched my learning and my future. Not everyone is so fortunate.

But I want to point you to what I believe that women do best; they work with people to achieve joint and shared outcomes and they expect to grow in the process. In the process of preparing this talk today I thought about two possible courses of action that the AFUW could consider.

Firstly, how about adopting a few disadvantaged girls schools and delving into the year 12 curriculum and choosing a topic that they will be studying. Work through this topic yourselves over coffees and even lunches until you feel you have something to talk about and then run a discussion group on the topic at each of the schools. Engage the year 12 girls by demonstrating that all shapes and sizes of women are interested in what they are studying - -learning is not just a bitter pill to be swallowed before life begins. Surprise them with odd angles and comparisons - broaden their grasp of the material and its context. They will assimilate some of this learning and at the very least understand that learning is not just homework, essays, projects and notes.

Or you can accompany some girls from school through to university. Set up a learning environment and provide 'tutors sans frontières', so to speak. I am sure that first generation university students would appreciate genuine interest in their work and unconditional support for their progress. Their 'real' tutors are assessing them, their peers are not really well placed to assist; AFUW members could add real value here.

And for both of these ideas there is the added collateral of providing opportunities to meet with each other and share your ideas and to get back to those old days of the university union where the meaning of life was endlessly debated. A friend of mine who has worked on the East Timor campaign tirelessly since the early seventies once referred to his campaigning efforts as socialism through socialising. That's a slogan that can be modified for use by the AFUW!

Sometimes organisations get to the stage where putting out the newsletter is the key achievement of the year. I belong to one such organisation and when I received my "summer" newsletter - at the END of MARCH, I felt like writing to them to say: I do support the organisation and what it is doing; I am happy to continue paying my subscription but please don't worry about the newsletter.

But given your objectives and your capacity to contribute, I hope that you feel that there is something that you can do in real time to further those objectives in a non-pecuniary fashion, but in a way that enlivens your members and brings them together with a common purpose.

Small contributions will lead to a momentum that achieves critical mass in the workplace and in society. When women put their minds to it, they can bring about the changes that will finally lead to equality of opportunity and therefore to equality of success.

Membership Contact Details Scholarships Diary Notes Newsletters Branches Home