Clare McCartin chats with Tracey Slatter, Managing Director, Barwon Water about gender diversity challenges at senior levels in the public sector and why gender targets are important.

You’ve had extensive experience at senior levels across numerous public sector roles. What is the biggest professional challenge you have faced and how did you tackle it?

Moving into new sectors with new content at a senior level is always challenging – there are no L-Plates when you start an executive role and you are expected to hit the ground running.  There have been times when in the first few weeks of working for a new organisation I have resorted to a quick google search to understand a technical term that my team were using!  In new roles you have to back your judgement and intelligence (EQ and IQ) rather than your knowledge.

Tracey Slatter, MD Barwon Water

When thinking back over your career, what significant steps did you take along the way that enabled you to move through the ranks of seniority?

I have always taken up every learning opportunity that has come my way – whether a formal course or an on the job challenge.  I think taking a ‘learning lens’ to work has given me the confidence to tackle new opportunities and challenges without feeling daunted by them.  I have always approached new opportunities from the perspective of “will I find it interesting?” rather than “can I do it?” and I think this has helped me step out into the somewhat unknown.  The other lesson I have learned is that there are always other people willing to provide advice, information and assistance so you are never really on your own. Collaboration is both a necessary ingredient of a good leader and critical to being a successful one.

The push for gender diversity across all industries and sectors is strong but not always effective. What do you feel is the single biggest challenge facing the public sector in achieving gender balance at senior levels?

The public sector is complex and demanding.  I still think we have a long, long way to go to support parents in the workplace.  In office based settings, working parents and their children are separated from each other for long periods of time, often every day.  While part-time management opportunities can help, we probably need to evolve further so that parenting, children and work can interact more seamlessly.  I also think inclusive leadership styles are critical to bring out the differences between people and value these rather than expecting everyone to contribute with a similar style or approach.

What programs or initiatives have you seen to be effective in growing the numbers of females in senior roles?

Leadership programs – particularly in house – not necessarily for women only, really help female leaders to grow their confidence and signal more indirectly their interest in progressing their career.

In some sectors, gender targets are seen as the only way to achieve better representation of women. What are your thoughts on this?

Barwon Water has recently set gender (and other diversity) targets for our organisation as part of our diversity and inclusion policy.  We have carefully managed this policy with input from all our staff and they are overwhelmingly supportive of it.  When implementing any new policy, organisations have to be mature and non-binary in approach.  Does setting targets mean men will not get promoted anymore? – of course not, because merit remains and must remain at the foundation of good decision making.  What it does mean is that an organisation will work harder on its culture, language, systems and processes to overcome gender bias and send a strong message that it is open for business – to all.

Entries are now open and nominations can be submitted for the Top 50 Public Sector Women (Victoria).  For more information go to: