Dr Shirley Randell AM

on Tuesday, 22 May 2012. Posted in Leadership Interviews, Interviews about the Glass Ceiling

Dr Shirley Randell AM

Shirley Randell was born on 8 March 1940 in Perth. She was educated at Perth Modern School and the Universities of Papua New Guinea (UPNG), Canberra, New England and London where she took degrees in education and philosophy. 

After teaching Aboriginal children in isolated schools in Western Australia she had four children before moving with her family to Papua New Guinea where she lectured at Uniting Church teachers colleges and was Director of the Teaching Methods and Materials Centre at UPNG. 

Returning to Australia, she began a 15-year career in the Commonwealth Public Service, including the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Public Service Commission. She was made a Fellow of the Australian College of Education for contributions to the administration of major national initiatives in rural education, disadvantaged schools and professional development as Director of Commonwealth Schools Commission Programs. While Director of Programs in the Australian Capital Territory Department of Education she became a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management and the Australian Institute of Company Directors and was awarded membership of the Division of the Order of Australia for contributions to public service, particularly in education. Her appointments before starting her own business in 1997 were Chief Executive Officer, City of Whitehorse, Director and Chief Executive of the Council of Adult Education and Dean of Academic Affairs at the University of Ballarat.

As a leading expert in Public Sector and Institutional Reform in Developing Countries, Dr Randell has provided specialist technical assistance to several governments in the Asia Pacific Region over the last five years. In 2001 she was Advisor to the Vanuatu Government’s Decentralisation Review Commission and undertook training assignments with the Departments of Agriculture and Forestry. She also lectured Thai and Indonesian students at the Research Institute of Asia and the Pacific at the University of Sydney, and wrote a book on Ni-Vanuatu Role Models: Women in their own right funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). In 1999-2000 she was Performance Improvement Advisor with the Public Service Commission in Vanuatu after completing a project in Solomon Islands as Local Government Consultant with ADB on a Provincial Government Review for the Solomon Islands Department of Provincial Government and Rural Development. She has undertaken projects with the UniQuest, Philippines Center for Development, Management & Productivity, InfoTechs-I/D/E/A/S Sri Lanka, WD Scott International, Overseas Projects Corporation of Victoria, and IDP Education Australia. These include ADB studies in skills development for the PNG Government as a Women, Youth and Non Government Organisation specialist in 1997 and the Sri Lanka Government as Quality Assurance and Gender & Development (GAD) Specialist in 1999, and an AusAid funded project for the Fiji Government’s Department of Customs & Excise as Performance Management Systems, Business Process Re-engineering Training, Human Resources Management, and GAD specialist in 1998. 

Dr Randell has spoken at a wide variety of Australian and international conferences, given talks, occasional addresses, openings, launches, lectures, seminars and workshops for parent associations, teacher organisations, industry groups, community groups, universities, schools, adult education centres, neighbourhood houses, government departments and service organisations, and been a frequent speaker at luncheon and dinner meetings about international, educational, ecumenical and women’s issues. She has written extensively on public sector reform, education and human rights and been a regular broadcaster, particularly for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 

Among the many government, community and university committees she has served on are as President of the Australian College of Education and Phi Delta Kappa Australian Capital Chapter; Chairperson of the Australian Council of Churches Commission on International Affairs, Healthy Cities Canberra and the Sexual Assault Working Party for the Central Highlands Wimmera Region; foundation member of the National Board of Employment, Education & Training and the Schools Council; and a company director of the YWCA of Australia, the National Foundation of Australian Women, the Sir John Monash Business Centre, the Institute of Public Administration Australia and the Australian Institute of Management. In 1999-2001 she was President of the Rotary Club of Port Vila.

Dr Randell has businesses in Sydney and Vanuatu. In 2002 she has assignments in Niue with the New Zealand Overseas Development Agency and in Solomon Islands with URS Asia Pacific. She is co-founder and mentor of the Vanuatu Association of Women Graduates, and has interests in physical fitness, cinema, theatre, music, scuba diving and travel, and four adult children and their families living in Sydney, Townsville and Balgo Hills.

Interview with Dr Shirley Randell

Do you think that there is an invisible barrier preventing women from reaching the highest level in your profession regardless of their accomplishments and merits? 

It is very unfashionable to say this now but it seems to me that for inexperienced people the barriers are still invisible, and are just the same as they were when I was an inexperienced person. Many younger women are full of confidence in their ability and are sure that things are different now and will be different for them, but the statistics give lie to that. The community too takes refuge in, for example, the higher results of girls at the end of schooling, more female undergraduates and more women entering ‘prestigious’ professions like law and medicine. They rush in to support the boys, which is not politically difficult in comparison with paying attention to the struggle for girls. Women still have to have exceptional accomplishments, merits, role models and mentors, more so than men to achieve. Women still have to be consistently and extremely high performers to get to the highest level in their professions. 

For experienced people the barriers are no longer invisible. They are visible but just as tricky to negotiate. 

If yes, why do you think this exists in your profession? 

There is more diversity now in the highest levels of education, but so much depends on leadership style and role models. It is easy for leaders to be co-opted by politically conservative attitudes that have been fanned in the community. This makes it difficult for people interested in equity issues to make a difference. In my view, the still conservative raising of girls means that only a few will bubble to the surface and run the risk of speaking up. Those who would like to provide support but who cannot or will not lead, are left without direction, support and courage. 

There seems to be a natural tendency for people to respect men in higher positions and not be as critical as they are of women in these positions. Working in the Pacific and Asia, regions which have some aggressively male dominated societies there is a perception, both within and outside these nations, that men will be more acceptable than women to work alongside people in these societies.

Is this barrier in your profession penetrable? How can the barrier be dismantled in your profession? 

Barriers are penetrable by leaders who have the right attitudes and skills in managing political requirements. There are far too few of these people who can lead in ways that allow them to introduce change that is evidence based, morally defensible and politically acceptable. There are many people who would be courageous followers who grieve the lack of such leadership and are less fulfilled because of it.


Do you consider yourself to have broken through the Glass ceiling in your profession? If yes, how have you done this? 

To an extent yes, by working exceptionally hard, getting broad experience and qualifications, and being very supported. The main factors that supported me in high level positions in education and local government and continue to support me in international technical assistance are expertise and reputation, the willingness to take risks, spirituality and a sense of self, personal conviction and courage, forthrightness, political savvy, strong people skills arising from a genuine interest in people, some excellent mentors and friends, and some powerful connections, although these are diminishing through working alone. Part of my success may be due to a perception that I possessed qualities that induced ‘fear’ in some, which has perhaps limited the extent to which people in powerful positions might have sought to do me professional harm. But I do not believe it is paranoid to say that the tall poppy syndrome and the green-eyed monster are never far away and they often get you in the end. 

In general, what do you see as the underlying cause that must be addressed to shatter the glass ceiling in corporate and public Australia? 

There is an underlying resentment associated with changing accepted community values. Gender roles and expectations begin with children in families and are reinforced by the media and by schools and society. The last six years has shown what a fragile issue equity is. People can very easily be turned back to rest secure in a comfort zone. Fortunately a good number of these people seem to be beginning to feel that things are not quite right. Hopefully they are regaining the strength to take on the battle for change again when the wheel turns around and the time presents itself.