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Some tough lessons in leadership… and what we can learn

I’ve spent time over the past week supporting the campaign to ban the live cattle trade to Indonesia following the ABC’s Four Corners expose into the horrific conditions of cruelty faced by Australian cattle in a number of Indonesian abattoirs. I was horrified and distraught by the investigation led by Animals Australia that revealed countless beautiful Australian Brahman cattle receiving the most intolerable treatment in these foreign destinations.  The cruelty included having their feet tied so they could be tripped over onto wet concrete floors, their legs broken and leg tendons cut so they couldn’t stand, tails broken, eyes gouged, heads kicked, water sprayed up their noses, their bodies beaten repeatedly and their throats ultimately cut with blunt knives in multiple strokes – all while the animals were conscious and braying out in pain and distress. As a cattle farmer and animal lover, it was a great relief to hear the announcement yesterday that the live cattle trade to Indonesia has been suspended – at least for now – until the highest standards of animal husbandry can be assured throughout the supply chain. (While the suspension announced yesterday is a good start, there is more work to be done to protect our cattle so if you haven’t already done so, you can help by signing the petition  So what has this got to do with women and leadership?  Quite a lot, it seems.

In fact I think this is a stellar example of the change women can achieve and how it is often women who mobilise the most significant change movements – which is exactly what we need to do in our campaign to see women equally represented in leadership roles.  Some of the key lessons as I see it from the cattle trade contrast are:

  1. Women are well connected with the community and understand how to tap into values and beliefs of the broader population.  One woman – Lyn White from Animals Australia – has led this campaign with the fundamental belief that the live meat trade was inhumane and had to change. She risked her own personal safety to give the animals a voice because she suspected that Australians would find the treatment of our cattle in these slaughterhouses unacceptable.  She was right – with over 200,000 people signing the online petition to halt trade of live animals in just one week. Now that’s connectedness to the community.
  2. Women are often the moral compass or whistle blowers in organisations, and Sarah Ferguson of the ABC falls into this category.  She took a huge risk in taking on this story for Four Corners as the investigative journalist, and did a stellar job of unveiling a huge cover up of atrocities known by Meat and Livestock Australia (and presumably its board comprising 9 men and 1 woman) for more than a decade.  In the past this type of reporting may have been labeled “emotional” – in fact some lobby groups and our own Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig made that claim until it became obvious his own Caucus were prepared to make a stand.  Emotional? Yes. Valid? Yes. Worthy of public consideration? Absolutely.
  3. As women we have the power to be financial gatekeepers and use the power of our purse strings to make a stand. My small contribution to the Live Export campaign involved simple things like signing the petition at Animals Australia and GetUp, sending letters to my member of parliament and the Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture, and writing to the CEO of Australian Agricultural Company (as a shareholder) demanding action on their behalf as one of the suppliers of cattle that featured in the story.  Others made a stand at the supermarket – with national meat consumption reported to have dropped by 10 – 15% in one week.  None of these activities take a lot of time or effort – but when 200,000 people act in synchrony all these very little acts can and do have a huge compounding impact.  That’s what we must never forget when we’re lobbying for more gender balance in business too – many voices singing to the same hymn sheet is what will really ensure we are heard.
  4. It was easy for people to take action.  One of my biggest bugbears is people who complain about the status quo without taking action – so it’s great that Animals Australia, the RSPCA and GetUp made it easy for us to voice our complaints about this process.  The lesson here is that if you want people to act on an issue – including getting women to provide feedback about their experiences in your firm – then you need to provide the mechanisms for them to do this easily.  Too often that’s not the case – and we confuse frustration with apathy. The lesson here is make it easy, and people will voice their concerns (like the 200,000 people who signed the petition at in just the past 8 days).
  5. Change takes time and can only be achieved by changing the people, which means winning over their hearts and minds. Animals Australia have been campaigning for over 10 years to improve the conditions of Australian animals who are subjected to the cruellest of treatment as part of the live export trade.  Against the assurances of industry and trade authorities, they have documented the facts and revealed the first hand accounts of what is actually going on in the Indonesian slaughterhouses where 4.6million Australian cattle have met their fate over the past decade.  Now that Australians are actually aware of what’s going on, a movement has begun to truly make change.  In our own endeavours to improve gender balance in business we must remember that awareness of the need to change is the starting point… and only then can we look to make the change.

Many lessons, many parallels.  I don’t know about you, but for me it’s also a reminder to keep focused on the things that really count.

Christine Hawkins commented on 10-Jun-2011 09:33 AM
Jennifer, I’m not advocating the live animal trade, but there are some extremely important issues here that are being ignored. 1. There have been significant improvements in this industry in recent years, perhaps not enough, and public pressure for change
is good, and should continue, but the improvements should not be ignored. The 4 Corners story was totally one-sided. 2. The livelihoods of many Australian farming families have just been destroyed. They weren’t doing anything illegal, they were running efficient
farm businesses and suddenly they have no market. I have heard comments along the lines that these cattle will be absorbed into the Australian market and now we’ll all eat cheap beef. Well, think of the impact of “cheap beef” on the incomes of these farmers.
Do we want our farmers to be peasants? 3. This is a populist, political reaction to a tempest created by affluent, urban Australians. It’s not a new issue, it’s been around for many years and is being addressed by the industry. It’s all very well to sit in
some lovely city suburb, with income unthreatened, and play around with people’s lives, but some consideration of the consequences would be more admirable than claiming that women can make a difference.
Wendy commented on 12-Jun-2011 06:34 PM
Thank you so much for this post. I have to admit the material on the live exports to Indonesia was horrific and it has created a storm – thank goodness it is now stopped albeit temporarily. We as a nation have to make a stand. Farmers are already saying
they are affected but cruelty to an animal is terrible.
AB commented on 12-Jun-2011 06:38 PM
Thanks Jen for bringing the issue of the live stock being exported to your blog. I was mortified and sickened by the footage and was so happy to have the information to write a letter expressing this to the PM. As usual, you are always there with the information
to help us time poor women be able to help make a positive impact!
The SheEO commented on 14-Jun-2011 10:28 PM
Christine your points are valid and no i don’t want my fellow farmers to be peasants. Most farmers I’ve cspoken with agree that animal welfare has to be addressed and like the CEO of AACo, I’m confident that trade to those facilities with humane standards
will resume in the short term. In the meantime you might direct your frustration to the Meat & Livestock Association who had no qualms in taking $60million from farmers – and countless more from taxpayers – in the past 12 months while sitting on their hands
and taking the easy options in Indonesia. They’ve now been caught out and will certainly have a case to answer here.


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