Councillor Ellen White has been on the Buloke Shire Council in Victoria’s north west since 2008. In her work and at council she is used to working in the male domain and has some advice to offer.
“In local government and in life, I place a high value on building relationships with people and communities, not only in my role as a councillor, but also in my business and volunteer work. I think women in general put effort into relationship building, and the strength of those relationships allows trust, collaboration and partnerships to develop.
I am not shy about standing up for what I believe is right and in the early days as a councillor I found myself confronting voting blocs on every question, it seemed that everyone voted the same way on every issue. I’ve had to change the way I do things, especially in how I ask questions.
Sometimes, instead of asking a direct question, I will moderate my head-on approach by prefacing with “I’m only just asking…”. I’ve been told I’m a breath of fresh air for I’m happy to work collaboratively and feel I have a responsibility to advocate on behalf of the community. Other strategies I use when working in a male dominated environment include researching issues so that I have facts figures and ideas and opinions ready to back up my argument, talking to community members to find out what they think, using mentors and debriefing with someone after meetings. These strategies also work when I go outside the Shire, it’s certainly not just my Shire, it’s local government in general that’s male dominated.
My approach to council is consultative, but not all councillors share all that they know, which can be very frustrating. I stood for council because I am passionate about governance and transparency in decision making, which are difficult to achieve if fellow councillors refuse to engage on these questions.
Of course there are councillors who have been very kind and I have a lot of time for them. One man has mentored me in the past couple of years. He has a broad range of experience and he is the voice of reason and often the councillor who suggests the way forward on a difficult issue.
Of course, it’s not just local government that needs to sharpen up its act.
I was the first woman to join the local CFA brigade as a firefighter. On day one I was told, and it wasn’t a joke, that I could be the secretary and take the notes at the meetings. I declined the offer.
For me the challenge is not just working in the male domain, for I am a migrant from Scotland who grew up in a big city, worked as a teacher in Europe and the Middle East, and emigrated to Australia in 1991. I lived in Melbourne for over 7 years then met my now husband who was born here in the Shire, and moved to his farm. I guess you could say I am seen by some as an outsider, and feisty to boot, but that said I was elected unopposed in 2012, despite my background and my accent.
In this day and age we should not be talking about gender issues. It should be expected that decision-making should be about representing the community regardless of their gender, age, cultural background or anything else.”