How can women best support each other? What can future female leaders learn from those who came before them? What does gender equality look like now and into the future?

In a recent YPO Australia/New Zealand presents Ask the Experts, Donna Cooper, CEO of TSB New Zealand, Pippa Hallas, CEO of Ella Baché, and Tania Austin, Founder and CEO of DECJUBA ,tackled these questions, covering their journeys to the C-suite and female-focused initiatives they are passionate about. 

“[Women] don’t need to fix ourselves to fit in,” says Cooper. “We can absolutely embrace the skills and personality traits we’ve got and find ways to support, encourage and uplift one another.”

This can be as simple as mentoring, creating funds for up-and-coming female entrepreneurs, and advocating for benefits that can aid women in starting families without sacrificing their careers. 

And in the Australia/New Zealand region, these are areas where changes can be made. According to the 2021 YPO Global Pulse Survey, Australian executives are more likely to have taken family leave or sacrificed career advancement for family purposes, less likely to offer paid paternity leave voluntarily, and more likely to not have interest in offering subsidized childcare as a benefit than global counterparts. 

For current and future female leaders alike, their conversation was filled with great advice — watch it now

Here are just a few takeaways:

When faced with challenges, stay true to yourself

Austin gained invaluable experience as the co-owner of the Cotton On Group with her now ex-husband. But when she struck out solo, she admits it was a different experience than she’d faced as part of a powerful duo. 

“I had to really find out who I was as a person on my own,” she remembers. “Coming out of Cotton On, which was such a large business at the time, there was a spotlight on, ‘what is she going to do next?’… I felt this pressure to do something as big or bigger, but that’s not what I wanted to do.” 

Rather than succumb to other’s expectations, she instead looked at what she was truly passionate about: empowering women and building a brand that gave women (and men) powerful choices in how they present themselves. She used that focus as her compass when she purchased DECJUBA, a leading fashion retailer in Australia.

Hallas’ company Ella Baché is all about making sure women feel confident in their skin. So, when social media and celebrities started to usher in what Hallas calls the ‘fast fashion’ of beauty products, where the accompanying beauty standards encouraged conformity and being something you weren’t, she was faced with a decision. 

“I struggled for a long time. How is the big commercial opportunity in one segment, but my values, our legacy and who we are in our DNA as a business in another?” 

Hallas says she ultimately decided to turn left when everyone else was turning right. She created a vision and business model all around making the best of every type of skin product and service, focusing more on skin health rather than quick fixes such as fillers and Botox. 

“I learned sometimes you have to be brave and make bold moves even when the industry and the growth is going another way,” she says. “I’m really proud we did that.”

Design your life with intention

A challenge that all professional women face is the struggle for work/life balance, something Hallas admits she thought she had to throw out the window a long time ago. But the group discussed that it’s less about finding balance and more about being intentional with your time. 

“It’s about setting that roadmap. I spend a lot of time each week designing my lifestyle through my calendar because it’s really easy for someone else to start controlling it,” she says. “It’s a constant work in progress, but I think it’s quite simply about asking yourself what your vision is and what you want out of life, out of this year. Then you can break it down into daily or weekly actions.” 

Austin agrees. “Everyone struggles with balance to a degree. I’ve sort of come to peace with it by saying it’s not about a work/life balance; it’s about choosing and prioritizing the things you love.” she says. “I try to lead by example, so I make no excuses or apologies for what goes on in the rest of my life. I bring my full life to work; I’m a single mom with three children. I’m clear about what I need to do and when I need to do it.” 

Show up strong

For Austin, something she stresses to her team and females she works with is to take up space. 

“I think it’s something that’s probably more of a masculine trait … but you’ve got to make yourself heard,” she says. “When I walk into the room, I make sure I walk in with presence. I take that moment to settle myself physically and mentally to take up the space I think women deserve.”

Some easy ways to do this are: take deep breaths, stand up taller, put your shoulders back and physically carve out a spot for yourself and your materials at the boardroom table, rather than a safer spot in the corner, according to Austin.  

She also advises her team to consider themselves as the grownups in the room: the people who aren’t shy about answering questions when they come up, or about pressing the people in the room to make sure questions are answered with solutions, not just empty statements. 

For Cooper, the future of gender equality comes down to finding opportunities to shift the dial and leave a collective legacy. 

“And I encourage people not to be fooled into thinking you need to run a multi-million dollar business to do that either. Every one of us has the power to affect change by taking that stand for yourself, being yourself, not being afraid to think about what matters to you and calling it out,” she says. “It’s only by working together and empowering each other that will genuinely really make a difference.”