The 2017 Australian Women’s Leadership Symposium: Katherine Teh-White on building coalitions

July 24 2017

Hugo Hodge


See profile

Futureye managing director Katherine Teh-White gave this keynote presentation at the 2017 Australian Women’s Leadership Symposium on 20 July in Melbourne 

I am going to tell you a very personal story about how building coalitions has changed my life, made me happier and given me a sense of purpose.

My grandfather, Nigel Hinchcliffe Bradbury, was a war hero and came home after the war for the air force as a test pilot.

He was doing acrobatics in the air at the Royal Laverton air show when his plane blew up.

He was just 24. Watching was my grandmother, Doris Elsie Bradbury. She was 8-months pregnant with my mother and had her 2-year old on her hip.

When my mum was just 13, my Nana was raped by her best friend’s husband in a brutal attack – crept into her room late at night

In the 1950s and 60s women were raped regularly. Even in public places like trains. No justice was sought despite the laws in place. Women were too scared of the consequences of prosecuting a rape. No one had in Victoria.

Nana decided to move forward with prosecute the first rape case in Victoria’s history.

She wasn’t called a war veteran. She wasn’t called a widow. She was called a single mother, a slut, a whore.

She withstood all the abuse, and her best friend’s husband was jailed. Her community was split and she felt extremely isolated.

Till her death, she would never speak of it even when asked. She would tear up slightly. But her pain was evident.

Our family learned the hard way that a demand for justice fought alone early in the process of social norming has high costs.

My mother learned from her mother, so when she saw injustice, she still wanted to fight it, but she made a major step forward.

She created a movement around her that meant she was not as isolated and they were able to establish new norms.

There were still huge personal costs that I noticed. I never imagined that I would be an activist of any sort.

Real personal costs

From 15 years old I planned on being a journalist covering war zones.

By 20, with 2 and half years’ experience as a journalist, I had been shot at and tear gassed and saw people killed.

I was the junior reporting for The Age on China in 1987. It struck me that reporting the conflict was dangerous and less meaningful then stopping conflicts from ever occurring.

So I began my journey of discovery about how conflicts occur between companies, governments and communities. I became A-graded by 22 years old at The Australian.

By 23 I found my first job out of journalism as a major project where I managed the policy, community, government, industrial relations and media.

We took a controversial proposal and made it into one that met everyone’s expectations and we had a project free of political, regulatory and social licence risks.

I felt so satisfied. It ticked the commercial box and we improved the economic prospects of the town at the same time without damaging the environment and society.

I had found my calling. That’s what I ended up doing for the next 6 years for inside corporations as head of public policy, government relations and community.

I developed solutions at a local level when commercial licences were restricted and returned them to 100% where political patronage didn’t have standing, I analysed what the risks were for upcoming projects, I set up a global function, undertook national and international environment and social policy and sat on steering committee to develop the mining industry’s first tri-partite commitment to globalised social and environmental standards.

Women in mining

One night after a work function one of my colleagues attempted to physically draw me into a kiss.

I refused politely. He became very angry. I thought I was able to deal with it.

Six months later I discovered he had lied about many things about me to my bosses, and it was now going to affect my career.

I was astounded, and confused. I still thought I could fix it. I had (and probably still have) an overly developed sense of being able to fix everything!

I asked him about why. He asked me if now I knew he could ruin my career, would I now have sex with him.

I don’t think I have ever been more angry and frightened at the same time. He was right (he could ruin my career) but he was wrong (if he ever thought that meant I would sleep with him).

With much counsel from my friends and mentors, we developed a great plan.

As scared as I was, I had a vision. I didn’t want to let him get away with it. But I didn’t want to ruin my career.

I didn’t want to have huge personal costs like my grandmother and mother. But I did want to challenge the status quo of silence.

In 1997 women averaged $3000 payout and most people didn’t get work after due to the impacts. You were a victim and that disgusted me.

It required me to become an activist, set up a movement. The big, strategic difference I had was that I wanted to help establish a social norm.

To do this I would find another job, which I did – I became the CEO of a global reputation risk management company.

Then I would pursue a case at VEOC till I received a settlement. I would use some of that money to invest build a coalition of women’s organisations.

Together with Garcia Baylor from the NWC, Marg D’Arcy from CASA, Dure Dara and Mary Crooks VWT, WEL, Amnesty, Di Sisley, Priya SaratChandran we built a movement with more than 1 million women represented that was a bipartisan effort to build awareness about sexual harassment and to catalyse action.

WASH did research, held discussions and seminars with many women’s groups, unions and businesses we discovered the issue was not just harassment (three in five women had been harassed), but also workplace violence – one in 1000 were being raped in the workplace.

Seven in 1000 had observed someone being raped and were too scared to talk about it.

It was a workplace violence issue that affected women who were casualised labor in professions like health, aged care and disability that were impacted.

The goal was multi-fold – change the social norm so it was okay to discuss it, building awareness of the rights of a worker, ensuring that the victim wasn’t a victim twice by increasing the penalties, supporting them legally, not finding it acceptable for the company to represent the perpetrator, capturing the data and driving for ongoing policy improvement.

Many organisations undertook and are still undertaking projects to drive the change since our decade of activism.

DAVE in the background

Key design features:

  1. Shared sense of the dilemma – do it with the broadest possible group and redefine the dilemma till it captures the insights of all those highly involved.
  1. Acknowledge the current and past issues – many women came to the topic with a lot of emotion, anger, distress and unhealed wounds. We needed to deal with this, the culture, the incoming norms, the role of government, community and companies.
  1. Unifying vision – we needed to bring together a vision that helped align people no matter how they would achieve it, towards the same goal.
  1. Developing the key ideas of how each group would measure success so we can common goals. Backwards plan to achieve the vision.


Sexual harassment

I am proud to report since that the number of cases are trending down and the costs for employers not responding adequately is catapulting up.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not claiming this. I am actually proud of the efforts of everyone involved because it takes guts to take a case through to the public.

Across three recent high profile cases, $1.93 million has been paid out.

In each case, the employers of women that suffered sexual harassment were found to have handled the situation poorly or ignored it entirely.

The harsher penalties we see in three prominent sexual harassment cases are evidence that the courts will not look favourably on employers who fail to respond adequately.

I won women’s honour roll for my contribution to women’s rights, am now gender equity ambassador.

Part of movement that aims to:

  • Promote and improve gender equality (including equal remuneration between women and men) in employment and in the workplace
  • Support employers to remove barriers to the full and equal participation of women in the workforce
  • Promote, amongst employers, the elimination of discrimination on the basis of gender in relation to employment matters (including in relation to family and caring responsibilities)
  • Foster workplace consultation between employers and employees on issues concerning gender equality in employment and in the workplace
  • Improve the productivity and competitiveness of Australian business through the advancement of gender equality in employment and in the workplace.

However, I want to issue some warning notices.

Backlash against feminist

Treasurer Scott Morrison experiencing discrimination for opposing marriage equality – said he had experienced the same sort of “hatred and bigotry” which faces LBGTIQA people striving for marriage equality.

Furthermore, men’s rights groups have started cropping up threatening progress made toward gender parity.

The male backlash against feminism has to be dealt with. We have to pursue the equality agenda, but mitigate their outrage or it will become a vortex that can undo 170 years of work

Negative and powerful audiences

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbot rolled back gender lens on budget. Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull didn’t bring it back. Budgets cut. Tampon tax.

Internationally Trump with his abhorrent ‘Grab her right in the pussy’ comment.  Abbott’s tampon tax comments.

Words and actions like these mean women’s groups need to take their concerns seriously in messaging, and not let the next generation of women get caught in vortex thinking it’s better to side with men against fellow women.

Create a multi-age multi-discipline community

We can’t let feminism seem so unwelcoming to young women and boys that they think it’s not representative of them.

They have to be able to learn and engage without fear of repercussions and they have to be able to work out where they fit in a movement so they can contribute. It needs to be a consensus making exercise not an adversarial one.

We’ve tested three engagement models that build to consensus. We hope to one day soon do one on worker rights, in particular on the role of equal pay for women now and at the end of life.

Don’t underestimate the need for cultural and structural change

The Uber equivalent in China is trying to solve the problem by having women drivers and women on the board, assuming the cultural and structural changes for fairness occur through our gender rather than a specific set of organisational and structural change transformation skills.

You are the next generation. You can shape your experience in corporations by navigating your position as they know they need women.

They need diverse views. You can learn these skills. Build coalitions. Deal with concerns of all stakeholders. Assert and cooperate.

Get in touch with us

We’re happy to arrange a consultation with you to better understand your needs.