In 2015, Gabrielle Upton FAICD became NSW’s first woman Attorney-General, embarking on a series of important and enduring professional experiences. Upton, a speaker at the 2024 AGS, reflects on her career and the parallels between boardrooms and cabinet. 

    Most recently Parliamentary Secretary to the NSW Premier, Gabrielle Upton FAICD retired from politics at the 2023 NSW state election. She is currently a strategic adviser to King Wood Mallesons and medical biotech investment fund Proto Axiom, and an advisory board member of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence in Quantum Biotechnology.

    In March 2023, Upton joined a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association study tour of the US, Canada and the UK to identify possible models for a practical induction program to better equip new women MPs in the NSW parliament.

    What has prompted this research?

    We need a critical mass of women in parliaments — it serves democracy well to have their voice there. Parliaments have traditionally been male- dominated institutions. That is changing, but you have to deal with the here and now. It’s not as easy as hiring more women with more budget. In politics, you only have the electoral cycle to change composition of parliament.

    We have good programs training women to run for parliament, including the Pathway to Politics program supported by Carol Schwartz AO FAICD’s Trawalla Foundation. However, there aren’t specific programs for new women MPs. My firm belief is that it’s not enough just to get women into parliament, you also need to equip them for success. My own experience validates that.

    How does parliament differ from other traditionally male institutions?

    Parliament is unlike other organisations — it’s a daily contest of ideas about how to create a better community. MPs have strong and different ideas on how you achieve that so there is robust debate. It may not always be respectful debate, but we’re lucky to live in a democracy where we can have them. Not everybody wants to behave in that way, but the force and assertiveness of your argument is a measure of your impact and competence.

    There is virtue in explaining that to new women MPs and giving them practise time in the parliamentary chamber, coaching them to find their voice and physical space. To project, simplify their messages. They’re pretty simple things, but it would have helped if I knew that as I began my parliamentary career.

    Have you experienced imposter syndrome?

    To this day, I ask, am I worthy? Do I deserve a seat at the table? There’s a socialisation factor for women that can make you feel less confident. I tell other women they have everything they need. Sometimes, I wish I could take my own medicine. There is that generalisation of women wanting to be 110 per cent prepared for a role, whereas men might put up their hands when they’re 50 per cent prepared, but willing to have a go. That attitude suits politics because it’s all about having a go in such a free-form environment. Politics built my confidence and resilience, but it was very harsh and unforgiving at times.

    What is the “glass labyrinth”?

    The Women and Public Policy Program faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School introduced me to this concept. Separate from the well-known glass ceiling, the “glass labyrinth” is represented by the various intersecting pathways to top leadership that can bring expected and unexpected challenges. While daunting, the term “labyrinth” acknowledges that women can also navigate a pathway and that successful leadership is ultimately possible. A career is not just in one direction, up or down, or sideways, or out. It can have many twists and turns.

    What was your labyrinth experience?

    I made and learned from costly mistakes. I learned, because I got up there and thought, “Look, I’m a lawyer, I’ve sat on boards, I’ve spoken in public before. I can just get up there and do that.” I was wrong. I had to learn to be a bigger version of myself and tailor my messages.

    What surprised you about jurisdictions you visited on your research tour?

    There was no bipartisan induction program for women into those parliaments. I was frankly shocked. The closest I got to understanding was a program run by the Conservative Party in the UK — Women to Win — where they call for applications for women who would like to run for parliament.

    The bespoke program I’m proposing would create a fellowship of women and run within the first three months of women going to politics in parliament. It would have a very practical kind of approach, through a gendered lens. As Julia Gillard AC said to me, “Forearmed is forewarned”. Unlike other work environments, like the big law firms or banks I’ve worked at, there’s a professional culture and there are also ways in which you can remunerate good behaviour and team behaviour. In politics, there aren’t those markers at all.

    Were there unique challenges as NSW AG?

    As AG, you have to balance the roles of chief law officer of the state and a minister. Decisions can’t always be pragmatic; they must consider the long- term impact on the justice system and rule of law. My voice had to defend this system even when the politics meant it would be easier not to.

    How do politics and directorship compare?

    The skills you develop as a minister are transferable as board skills. Like a board director, you are part of the collective decision-making process in cabinet and sit on cabinet subcommittees. You set the strategy and monitor management delivering on the strategy.

    In making decisions, you apply an ESG framework, asking does it make sense for the community? Is it legal and is it ethical? I understand how things can be viewed by different audiences and have learned to bring broad perspectives to decision-making. That’s what boards are grappling with. In my experience of talking to directors, there are issues that arise and have an unanticipated stakeholder reaction to them. What 12 years in government has taught me is to anticipate what those reactions could be. If I’d stayed working as a lawyer and a banker, I wouldn’t have learned that.

    How can business better work with government?

    When I now talk to businesses, I say, reach out to government, build the bridges before you need them. It will be easier to get your point across if you have regular communication with government. Operational people who can talk from experience are the best ones to talk to government. When you are at the pointy end of policymaking as a minister, you probably want to hear from the people who understand the practical impacts.

    Are diversity targets/quotas crucial?

    As AG, I saw a lack of women Senior Counsel [King’s Counsel] getting in government briefs, failing to meet our 30 per cent target. I started inquiring if women were available for these appointments. This prompted the department to consistently include women, ensuring we exceeded our target. It’s not just about setting targets, it’s about actively enforcing and sweating them to get a real outcome.

    What were your best wins as AG?

    A really important outcome was expediting a Bowraville retrial application for the alleged murder of three young Aboriginal children — giving the families access to justice.

    As NSW Environment Minister, I had unique opportunities to make a significant impact, like the rollout of Return and Earn, the state’s first container deposit scheme. Despite initial challenges, it has now recycled more than 10 billion drink containers. It’s a testament to the heavy lifting required in government that can lead to long-term benefits.

    I also led the state’s first R&D Action Plan, Turning Ideas into Jobs, guided by an advisory council chaired by David Gonski AC FAICDLife. The strategy accelerates the translation and commercialisation of R&D to create new jobs and industries and drive NSW economic growth.

    This article first appeared under the headline 'Hon Gabrielle Upton FAICD’ in the February 2024 issue of Company Director magazine.

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