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 it became obvious very quickly that my opinions and ideas were often different from my fellow councillors.
It is really important to listen to what is being said and clarify what you hear. So I ask a lot of questions, both inside council meetings and between the meeting.
Sometimes, instead of asking a direct question, I will moderate my head-on approach by prefacing with “Can I clarify…”. 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.
Having mentors has helped me to reflect on many issues, and it is especially useful when a tough decision is coming up.
Both male and female mentors provide different perspectives on a range of issues. And participating in training programs also helps to build knowledge, skills and confidence.
Since 2008, I have put forward agenda items at both councillor briefings and council meetings that have not always been popular, such as family violence, gender equality and marriage equality. The range or opinions on these issues was amazing, and I had to ensure I stayed focussed n the issue, did not become emotional, and used real examples when debating motions.
Convincing a male councillor that we do not have gender equity or equality in Australia (even though his aunt was the local farming group leader in the mid 20th century!) was an interesting experience. Dealing with letters, emails and pages of the local newspaper arguing against the marriage equality motion took time, but the support from my partner, my family, friends and others helped to get through that month. Even ensuring gender equity and family violence were included in our council plan took effort and a good debate. Staying focussed and debriefing afterwards are so important.
Of course, it’s not just local government that needs to sharpen up its act. We still don’t have pay parity, not all boards include women, and gender inequality is visible everywhere. But there are more female councillors, and more female mayors.