My Brilliant Career: An interview with Catherine Yeomans, CEO of Mission Australia

Posted on October 25, 2016 at 10:52 am
Catherine Yeomans

As the first female Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in Mission Australia’s 155-year history, it goes without saying that Catherine Yeomans joins the ranks of the comparatively few women to reach the career heights of CEO in any organisation.  She assumed leadership of Mission Australia following a series of executive roles with major publishers including Thomson Reuters, LexisNexis and Butterworths.  

However, as she told Ruby Connection, Yeomans started her career facing pronounced sexism – back in the early 80’s, being told she would never progress beyond bank teller because she was a woman, and upon landing a role with the Attorney General’s department, being informed by a male colleague she was only chosen because of “affirmative action.”

“The legal profession definitely had a glass ceiling,” Yeomans observed, who put this down to firm culture created over many years of being a male dominated profession. “When the measure of impact is influenced by the number of hours that are clocked up, it can work against women who need to take time out to have children and then work within childcare arrangements upon their return to the workplace.”

“It’s a highly networked profession and women may not invest as much time into networking as men can often do,” said Yeomans, alluding to unequal expectations placed on men and women regarding commitments like raising families. Such unequal expectations reflect a long-standing structural inequity which tends to benefit male career advancement. “Continued efforts to create the workplace flexibility that’s required for women and men to thrive for their whole working lives, including when raising families, is vital in order to nurture the diverse culture necessary where everyone can develop their careers.”

In an observation likely familiar to female executives, she feels one of her most significant career achievements has been “to juggle – I don’t think we ever actually ‘balance’ – the competing demands of busy management and executive roles with raising a family.”

“Taking some risks early on in my career, both in terms of changing ‘track’ and also taking on some projects that others weren’t prepared to, gave me an opportunity to influence and achieve outcomes that stood me in good stead for advancement throughout my career,” said Yeomans.  

Being appointed CEO of Mission Australia, one of Australia’s largest community service organisations was for Yeomans, “definitely a career highlight.”

Reflecting on her career to date, Yeomans had this advice for those seeking to lead at the executive level. “A willingness to step-out and take some risks is essential for anyone wanting to move into a leadership role, which often requires creating the vision of the future, not all of which is known at the time,” Yeomans said.

“Organisations could create secondment opportunities and ‘on the job’ learning experiences, with specific targets for participation from aspiring women, so we can make sure there are women included in succession plans when leadership opportunities arise. Keeping the pressure on the need for gender equity targets and for flexibility in the workplace are essential to lay the groundwork for women’s career progression.

“Individually, I think women need to cultivate high level communication skills, be able to collaborate effectively, deliver results and to drive change.”

Yeomans said she was “still surprised” that gender equality in the workplace has yet to be achieved, but noted how far society has progressed.

“There is no doubt that sexism was considerably more blatant in years gone by, but we still have a long way to go. For example, Mission Australia is a community services organisation with a high proportion of women employed, and yet I am its first female CEO in its 155-year history.

“We don’t limit young women’s aspirations in quite the same way as we did in the past, but the reality of whether women will in fact be able to achieve their goals proves a little harder to evidence. However, we do have institutions now setting targets which personally I think is a good thing. Some affirmative action to accelerate the gender equity on Boards, in leadership teams and in representative functions, such as Parliament, would be beneficial not only in terms of outcomes and performance for those organisations and institutions, but also to change the culture and create inclusiveness.”