Kerryn Phelps: ‘Sometimes You Have To Lead When There Is No-One You Can Follow’

At our first ever executive summit, independent Member for Wentworth Dr Kerryn Phelps gave a keynote address on the power of female role models.

By Lara Robertson


At our first ever executive summit, independent Member for Wentworth Dr Kerryn Phelps gave a keynote address on the power of female role models.

By Lara Robertson

Throughout her wide-ranging and illustrious career, Dr Kerryn Phelps has been a disruptor, not an imitator.

As she knows, it’s a position that can be difficult to navigate. Those who are breaking the mould rather than sticking to the status quo are often left without clear role models – whether male or female – to look to for guidance.

“Sometimes you have to lead when there is no-one you can follow,” Phelps said. “I have found myself in this situation many times throughout my career, which over the years has involved medical practice, health communication, aerobics instructing, writing books, social justice activism, medical politics, local government and now Federal government.”

At our first ever executive summit held in Sydney earlier this week, independent Member for Wentworth Dr Kerryn Phelps spoke of the importance of having strong female role models. As Phelps revealed, having a number of strong women around you not only provides much needed support and guidance, but can also encourage others to step up and achieve their own goals. Here, we’ve rounded up the key takeaways from her keynote address.


Without A Role Model, It’s Tough To Do It On Your Own

Sharing a story from a part of her life she admitted she “always glossed over”, Phelps spoke of the loneliness she felt during her early years in the medical profession.

At the age of 23, Phelps had not only just graduated from medical school and had started her training, but was also pregnant with her first child. This posed a dilemma, as the hospital she was working at had never had an intern or resident have a baby during their training and so did not offer part-time work.

Although Phelps was able to come to an agreement with her hospital administrator, she said it was a very isolating experience to have no-one to turn to who was in a similar situation. “There wasn’t even the internet to check my experience against an online community,” she said.

“If I had known other professional women who had faced a similar situation, even if they were not in medicine, if I had been able to identify a role model or a mentor at that time, someone who I could ask for guidance or look to as an example or to point me in the right direction, even just to show me it would all work out in the end, I expect it would have made things a lot easier at the time.”


Women Need To Help Other Women

In stark contrast to the isolation she experienced during her early career in medicine, Phelps said the support she received from other female politicians during her campaign during the Wentworth by-election last year was a formative moment in her political career.

Having never run an election campaign before, Phelps received two phone calls, one from Rebekha Sharkie, the member for Mayo in South Australia, and Cathy McGowan, the member for Indi in Victoria, who offered to meet with Phelps and share their experiences of running as independents. Then, when Phelps won the by-election, the two women accompanied her to Canberra to learn the ropes before Parliament sat, and stood beside her as she was sworn in to Parliament.

“The support from Rebekha, Cathy and the other crossbenchers, including Andrew Wilkie from Tasmania, made all the difference to my first days as a Federal parliamentarian without the resources or the infrastructure of a major party in the transition to this new phase of my career,” she said.


Gender Quotas Are Needed To Improve Representation

Phelps also emphasised how female leaders influence the attitudes and ambitions of young women. Referencing a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Phelps argued that simply increasing the number of female politicians using gender quotas boosts the aspirations and educational achievements of young women.

In the study, researchers focused on the West Bengal region of India, where quotas for female politicians in local governments have been in place since 1993, increasing the representation of women in leadership to more than 40 percent. Families living in the region were surveyed for their attitudes on education and achievement, which were then compared to the attitudes of those from villages who had mostly male leaders and did not enforce gender quotas.

Families from villages with more long-standing female leaders were 25 percent more likely to have more ambitious goals for their daughters. The researchers attributed this result to a “role-model effect”, where the very act of seeing women in leadership roles encouraged others to aspire to the same.

On the other hand, families in villages with mostly male leaders were 45 percent less likely to want their daughters to graduate from school compared to their sons, and girls were 32 percent less likely to want to finish school.

“This study speaks to the powerful and inspirational effect of women leaders everywhere, and makes a compelling case for female quotas on corporate boards and in politics,” Phelps said.

“In light of this report’s findings, the under-representation of female leadership is hurting young women. It makes a case for gender quotas to speed up change and stoke the ambitions of the next generation, making the unlikely finally seem possible.”


A Strong, Positive Role Model Can Change A Life

Female role models not only allow girls and other women to see themselves in the same position and create their own personal and professional goals. Sharing a moving story about a young woman who once reached out to her for help, Phelps revealed positive female role models can also “change a life or save a life”.

“I remember when Jackie and I spoke about our relationship in a biography many years ago, we received a letter from a young woman who had made the decision to take her own life the next day because she did not know anyone who was like her, attracted to other women,” she said. “She told us she walked past a bookstore and saw the cover of the book and took it home. She stayed up reading it all night, and the next day she said she felt different. She could see a life for herself. We caught up with her some time later in Queensland. She had come out to her family, had a job in her father’s company and was happy with her life.”


Role Models Can Be Found In Many Places

As Phelps knows from her own career, women in pioneering roles face the challenge of finding any role models at all, whether they be male or female. In such cases, Phelps said, one has to look beyond their own profession to find examples of the skill sets and professional possibilities to aspire to and emulate. Here are the women Phelps revealed she admires and looks up to in her personal and professional life:

  • Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand
  • Quentin Bryce, the first Governor of Queensland and the first female Governor-General of Australia
  • Marie Bashir, the first female governor of New South Wales
  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democratic Party politician
  • Tayla Harris, AFLW player
  • Angela Merkel, German Chancellor
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
  • Wendy McCarthy, businesswoman and activist

#HerVote is our new campaign created to elevate women’s voices and inform women’s opinions ahead of the 2019 federal election. Don’t miss out on our first #HerVote event in Sydney on Friday April 5, featuring today’s leading female politicians as well as upcoming female candidates.