What I've learned about human rights and gender diversity

Thursday, 01 July 2021


    Professor Shirley Randell AO FAICDLife has enjoyed a career spanning seven decades, across nearly as many continents, in pursuit of women’s equality.

    In 2006, after publishing multiple reports on gender mainstreaming (integration of a gender perspective into policy) in the Bangladesh Public Service Commission, I was invited to be senior gender adviser for the Netherlands Development Organisation in Rwanda. I remember asking our secretary about her parents and children. She looked me in the eye and said, “Shirley, don’t you ever ask any of us about our families.” That really brought home to me that every person I spoke to in that post- genocide period had a difficult and tragic story.

    When the initial three-year contract ended, I was 67 and apparently too old to insure. Fortunately, the Kigali Institute of Education offered me a chance to establish and direct the Centre for Gender, Culture and Development Studies. It’s written into the Rwandan constitution that women must hold at least 30 per cent of all decision-making positions and when I arrived in Rwanda, there were more women in the parliament than men. It was an extraordinary change in what had been a strongly patriarchal society.

    I continue to encourage young women to say yes to an opportunity, even if they don’t think they’re quite ready for it. Looking back on my life that’s where I see two common threads — a willingness to take risks and to say yes to every opportunity.

    Early days

    My parents encouraged me to participate in everything from Brownies to music. At Perth Modern School, I edited the magazine, performed in plays and concerts, and was a member of the debating team. I’m sure all these activities helped build the courage and self- confidence that supported my career.

    That career began in Nullagine, Western Australia. My husband, Alan, and I had married at 18 and worked together when the Department of Education appointed him to establish a school for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. We had our first baby three years later and moved back to Perth to be closer to medical care.

    I had four children, aged from one to four, when we moved to Papua New Guinea to work at the Gaulim Teachers College in Rabaul. My mother told us we were “bloody stupid”, and she was probably right, but I never regretted the decision. Childcare can make a huge difference to a woman’s career and I was fortunate to have the help I needed to work almost full-time at the college. I gained a degree in teaching from the University of PNG and, for the rest of our nine- year stay, ran the university’s Teaching Methods and Materials Centre.

    Looking back on my life, I see two common threads — a willingness to take risks and to say yes to every opportunity.

    Shirley Randell AO FAICDLife

    Asking hard questions

    Back in Australia, I spent 15 years with the Commonwealth Public Service, including senior management roles. I also sat on my first board.

    A director of the Australian College of Education told me they needed more women in the boardroom, was I interested? I said yes, although, at 34, I knew little about governance. One week later, I was sitting at a table with just about every director general and professor of education in Australia — and one other woman, Eva Eden, the college’s first female president.

    I was the second.

    Eva and I kept asking questions about women because no-one else did. I focused on changing the position of women in educational leadership, running four conferences on the subject in consecutive years, and the rest of the board supported that. Good mentors are also crucial to progress. I’ve been lucky to be mentored by inspiring women like Eva, along with [educationist] Jean Blackburn and [former premier of Victoria] Joan Kirner, as well as some very impressive men.

    When [former premier of Victoria] Jeff Kennett led the 1994 restructure of local government, I was appointed CEO of White Horse City Council, one of the newly created cities. I loved working in local government but, after 12 months, my contract was terminated. I was disappointed, but I’d learned a lot — and was immediately invited to work on the reform of vocational education and training with the Asian Development Bank in PNG. This led to other projects in the region. The Australian government asked me to work for a year on public sector reform in Vanuatu.

    I stayed for another four, working with the United Nations Development Fund for Women and its development program (UNDP).

    Finding human rights at home

    The best thing in the world for me now is my family. I have four wonderful children, 13 grandchildren and four great grandchildren. I’m an ambassador for organisations supporting girls, women, homeless and older people, as well as deputy chair of the Sport Matters Board, where we have developed a physical education degree for teachers in the Pacific.

    My latest position as president of the Independent Scholars Association of Australia maintains my lifelong interest in continuing education. I’m also a member of the Union, University & Schools Club of Sydney, which has helped me to grow a new network of friends in Sydney with a common interest in human rights.

    During my leadership journey I’ve learned how important it is to have a group of people around you that you can trust.

    Shirley Randell’s bio:

    Role: Deputy chair Sport Matters board, president Independent Scholars Association of Australia.

    Educated: Universities of Papua New Guinea, Canberra, New England and London (education, philosophy).

    Worked: University of PNG, Commonwealth Schools Commission, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Public Service Commission, Australian College of Education, White Horse City Council, Asian Development Bank PNG, United Nations Development Fund for Women, Netherlands Development Organisation, Centre for Gender, Culture and Development Studies Rwanda.

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