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Leaving ACTCOSS wiser, grateful and nurtured by a community of women

On 15 November, I will work my last day as the CEO of the ACT Council of Social Service (ACTCOSS), the social justice peak body for the ACT.

The highlight of my work with ACTCOSS over almost seven years has been the people with whom and for whom I worked. It is no exaggeration to say that community services are provided and led by people with not only some of the biggest hearts in our city, but who also have some of the sharpest intellects and capacity for creative problem-solving in any industry.

It is challenging to keep any small or medium enterprise solvent, relevant and effective. Managing a service delivery organisation with an ambitious social transformation vision is never matched by the resources available to deliver on their ambitions. Working in a constantly shifting operating environment is a relentlessly hard slog. It takes tenacity, strategic foresight and a generosity of spirit that talent acquisition teams in more lucrative industries would pay big bucks to secure.

Many people know that community services is a highly feminised industry. More than 60% of senior executives are women and women aged 25-40 are the largest group in the workforce. This fact is often cited as a negative trait – such as being the reason for relatively low pay compared to other work requiring similar qualifications and judgement. However, my experience has been nothing but positive.

Catching up with the female CEO of an ACTCOSS member organisation last week we discussed the rare situation of being the only women in a meeting with three men. She was the most experienced person in the room on the business development idea they were discussing and had initiated the meeting to explore partnership opportunities. Despite this, the men spent most of the time engaging with each other. We were able to laugh but only because this is such a rare experience.

My work life has been enriched by my relationships with talented women. Of course, I have valued wonderful working relationships with men as colleagues and allies. But during my time at ACTCOSS, all my bosses have been women. My governing body has always had a majority of women. My national colleagues have more often been women than men. My staff team has been comprised of more women than men. Many of the people who shared their lived experiences of poverty and exclusion were women. The majority of CEOs of ACTCOSS member organisations have been women. It has been a privilege to grow as a leader surrounded by women from whom I can learn so much.

As I leave ACTCOSS, I reflect on how many reasons I have to be grateful; the primary one being that I had the opportunity to work in a highly feminised industry with so many women who looked out for me when I felt vulnerable and supported me to be ambitious.

Susan Helyar is the outgoing CEO of the ACT Council of Social Service, a peak body that advocates for social justice in the ACT and represents not-for-profit community organisations.

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