Councillor Samantha Dunn has lived in the Dandenongs for 20 years with her partner and young son. She was first elected to the Yarra Ranges Shire in 2005.
It’s a very rewarding role, those terms on council go very quickly and all of a sudden it’s election time again and there’s so many great projects that I want to help deliver. It’s terrific to be able to participate in the community whether it be delivering the big projects or the small, and it’s often the little things that seem to matter most to your constituency. This big picture of my role helps make some of the frustrations tolerable in the end.
Women generally have a different approach to decision making. It’s about our life experience, it’s different and that’s what we bring to the decision making table, a different perspective on the world. I also find that women are generally far greater users of local government services and so have first hand experience . In my experience there’s a greater focus on good governance and getting to the core of issues and looking for a fair and equitable outcome.
There are so many long-standing networks that men have traditionally had access to, whether via education, family or business or sporting networks. These networks prove to be very useful in terms of ongoing employment and professional development. If you aren’t part of the network it makes it harder to advance. As women gain access to these networks more and more, this will change and is already changing.
I think it’s traditionally been seen as a male domain I think things are slowly changing as more women enter local government. But even now, it’s good to realise there’ll be lots of time when you are likely to be the only woman in the room, and this can be a new experience for many women. It’s always important to start as you want it to go “from the get go”; start those new working relationships with the goal in mind!
If you come across behavior that’s inappropriate you need to call it from the start. But not in ways which burn your bridges, e.g. if it’s your style, humour can be used wisely in a low key way to keep relationships on a positive.
I will generally use humour as a way to negotiate through difficult and challenging behaviours. That’s not for everyone, but for me it’s rare that it doesn’t work, it’s usually a good ice breaker and makes people feel at ease.
A time I can remember is when a councillor walked in to the meeting room and greeted us with “Gidday girlies”; I called it right then and straight to the point. But then we did have a pre- established relationship, so that made it easier to work out how to act. You can do it nicely – and assertively rather than aggressively or defensively. Remember it’s important to distinguish when you have a pre-existing relationship with the people in the room or have not met them before. In these cases humour for example, just might not work.
The most difficult thing to deal with is when you are completely unprepared for something, a comment or action, which comes your way. It may not even be directed at you personally. I think it’s wise to always have your radar out there – but just “be alert not alarmed!”
The best resource for dealing with sexist behaviour is really speaking with other women who’ve been in the role for a while. They will often be able to help you find your own way through the challenges.
As a community leader you do become a role model whether you want to be or not. My approach has been to model good behaviour, empathy and understanding, diligence and good governance and at all times act with integrity. The best part of the job is learning so many new things and using your knowledge to empower yourself and communities. That’s what makes it all worth it!