Questions for Julie McKay.
Executive Director of the National Committee for UN Women
How do you avoid burnout? Are there days where you feel the world is so full of horrors and injustice that it’s hard to keep striving forward?
These are slightly different questions for me. With regards to the horrors in the world, they exist — no one can deny that. The violence that is perpetrated towards women every day, here in Australia and around the world is horrific on anyone’s measure. But for me, the courage and strength, the optimism and hope that women have for their futures and for their families is inspiring and encouraging. Meeting women who have lived through experiences that would make most people lose hope, and hearing their passion and compassion — it is hard not to remain positive and determined in this work.
Gender inequality is not inevitable. It is achievable — if we put our minds to it.
With regards to burn out, this is definitely something that I am very conscious of. I am someone who does work hard and try to fit as much in to every day as I can — who wouldn’t doing work they love? But I do notice that there is a cycle — months of crazy work followed by an illness or injury, as if my body is trying to tell me something. As I am getting older (and hopefully wiser) I am trying to carve out time for myself, for health and fitness — but it is an ongoing challenge for me.
What do you do in your spare time?
I don’t have a lot of spare time, like many of us. With a lot of my spare time, I am engaged in numerous boards and committees which are focused on the advancement of gender equality — which sounds really boring given how closely related it is to my work, but I love the work and the challenge.
My favourite things to do all involve spending time with friends and family. I am loving this current phase of my life which involves playing ‘auntie’ to lots of my friend’s children — a role I adore. I can be found on the weekends walking with friends, enjoying brunches and reading books. My absolute favourite thing to do is go on road trips — exploring beautiful parts of our country. Just this last weekend, I went exploring with a wonderful friend — we were only an hour out of Brisbane and discovered a whole region I had never heard of before!
Did you receive excellent advice from a mentor when you were in your early twenties that helped you progress your career? When you first became ED what was your biggest challenge? Was it overwhelming?
In terms of advice — I had many mentors early in my career. Working for a start-up effectively, I knew I would need to surround myself with brilliant people, so I asked almost everyone I met if they would mentor me. From those people, I received all manner of advice — some of which I took, some of which I ignored, but I always felt that I had tested my ideas.
The best piece of advice I got back then, was ‘surround yourself with people who support you and challenge you in equal measure’. Often I think we seek out mentors and advisors who we know support us and agree with our view. I have definitely learned the most from the people who vehemently oppose what I am trying to do and how I go about it. But from those people, I have learned courage and resilience in a way I am not sure I would have without them!
One mentor gave me advice which has stayed with me all these years. ‘You can achieve anything in the world, if you don’t care who takes the credit’. While I know we should be encouraging women to own their successes, I think the point of this advice is slightly different. My role is to make a contribution to advancing gender equality — whether I get the credit for a great idea, or for sparking a CEO to think differently matters not at all — as long as the outcome is achieved!
When I became ED, my biggest challenge was to make the National Committee financially viable and to do that, we needed the community to be aware of the amazing work that UN Women (then called UNIFEM) did in our region. I knew how impactful the work was, but with very limited budget it was frustratingly hard to communicate that work and the power of investing in the organisation. We had some amazing companies, including PwC invest in our work back then — and that really transformed the National Committee in the early days. Personal relationships were critical — and so I became very comfortable spending my days building relationships, trying to understand what made people tick (and my nights doing all the admin work that needed to be done!).
I knew that I had been given an incredible opportunity. I also knew that women’s lives in the region depended on us being able to mobilise support for UN Women from the Australian Community and the Australian Government. I was busy — but I don’t think I ever felt overwhelmed — I just didn’t want to fail.
Did you gain a degree and if so what is it?
I have been very lucky to have had the opportunity to undertake a range of study — and I am a passionate advocate for the importance of educating women and girls.
I completed a Bachelor Business Management/ Bachelor of Arts at the University of Queensland. I went on to do a Masters in Public Policy at ANU and more recently, an Executive MBA at the University of Sydney. I love studying, but I also recognised that growing up in a very small organisation, I needed to continue to expand my leadership skills and networks.
I do also recognise that with privilege comes obligation. Throughout my studies I have been very mindful that I need to give back to the communities that have supported me to gain an education and that I need to use my education to advance the issues I am passionate about. I was the recipient of a scholarship to complete my EMBA, and while at that point in my life, I could not have completed the degree without a scholarship, I now try to contribute to other scholarships as a donor, because I believe in paying forward those opportunities. (Find out more about scholarship opportunities here)
If you could give your 23 year old self a piece of advice, what would it be?
If I could go back and give my 23 year old self advice, it would relate to doing the things that make you happy. Like many young women, I made choices back then considering a range of factors — what I thought I should do, what I thought my parents wanted me to do, what society expected of me. I didn’t have a lot of really honest conversations with myself about what I wanted to achieve, and where I wanted to be.
I don’t for a second regret the time I had working in banking, because I received amazing training there, but had I been really honest about what I wanted to do in the world, it would not have been banking.
So I think what I would have said to myself — is think about what you love doing — what excites you, what are you passionate about? Who are you passionate about and who brings out the best in you? When you answer those questions — I think it helps to decide who to spend your life with and what sort of industry you want to work in.
Despite having an incredibly exciting and busy (though I hate the word busy) job, for me, my family is my highest priority. I love the time I spend with them, and make sure it stays a priority. For me this is about doing what I love, but it is also about not having any regrets. We all assume we have 80–90 years on the planet and hopefully that is true, but a great question to ask yourself once in a while, is would you live your life differently if you only had 35 years? If the answer is yes, then I would encourage you to make those changes sooner rather than later.
When I was 25, my brother Scott, who was my idol and best friend, passed away very unexpectedly. I still can’t fully articulate what losing him meant for me and for my parents, but what I know for sure, is that none of us should assume that we have endless time on the earth. Scott was someone who lived every day as if it was his last, and it meant that at the age of 27 — he had no regrets. I admired that at the time, but it means the world to me now to know that he took lots of chances, achieved amazing things and was a very special person to everyone he met — even in that short life.
So, to 23 year old Julie, fight hard to be happy. Chase your dreams, take risks and stop worrying about what other people think.
I want to make a difference but I don’t know how. How did you start your career and how did you evolve?
There is no one way to make a difference to the world. I encourage you to think about the sort of difference you wish to make in the world — what are you most passionate about?
I am deeply passionate about gender equality — and about contributing to a world that fundamentally sees women as equal to men. I am also passionate about supporting other women to achieve their dreams. I love the challenge of fundraising and the innovation that a small business allows for. These things came together very nicely with the opportunity to be the first Executive Director of the Australian National Committee for UN Women.
You might want to make a difference through providing brilliant administrative support to someone, or through being a major donor, or as a business leader or politician. I think regardless, the first step is identifying what you want to do.
If you are passionate about social equality and want to work in the NGO sector, I encourage you to get involved with organisations that you love as a volunteer. Sometimes under-resourced organisations struggle to get back to people, struggle to reach out to volunteers — so you need to be persistent and make it easy for them.
I got involved in the UN Association when I moved to Canberra. I could see they needed administrative support and could improve their reach with better communications. Becoming the volunteer Secretary of the Committee and offering to redesign their publications, demonstrated that I was willing to work hard, add value and that I had something to contribute. After 6 months of volunteering, they offered me an opportunity to go to Argentina to a world conference of UN Associations — and I was hooked! Volunteering and using that time to gain experience and building your networks is really critical in this sector.
Have you found people to biased towards you (for or against) because you work for UN Women?
I think most people are fascinated about working in the not-for-profit sector — many people understand employment in government or the private sector, but haven’t heard of UN Women or the sort of work we do. I really enjoy raising awareness of the amazing sector that I am proud to be part of — the people I have met in the last 8–10 years have really had a huge impact on me personally.
I have been called a ‘Femi-nazi’, a ‘man hater’ and a ‘Gender Banshee’ more often than I care to remember, but to be honest, these sorts of criticisms only make me stronger in my resolve to challenge the societal norms that see women continuing to face inequality at work. I often think — if I wasn’t upsetting people, then we wouldn’t be challenging them!
I have been told that I shouldn’t stay too long in the women’s sector for fear that I will become one of ‘those’ people. To be honest, I hope that one day I am one of ‘those people’ if that means — some of the most courageous, outspoken advocates who have dedicated their lives to changing the fundamental structures and norms in our society!
Be bold and brave in your chosen field. Haters are always going to hate — but usually only when you are doing things that challenge their existence! It is important not to hear the disparaging comments louder than all the positive ones.
What has been your biggest obstacle in getting to where you are, and how did you overcome it?
I am the first to say that I have had a very privileged upbringing and so in terms of obstacles that I have overcome, mine have been comparatively small. But there are a couple of things which I thought it might be useful to share. It is not my intention to complain though, perhaps just to make it more ok for people to share what they struggle with.
The first, I mentioned in one of the previous questions. Losing my brother, and having my parents devastated has changed every day of the last 6 years. I cried recently reading Sheryl Sandberg’s piece about losing her husband and having to find a way to accept and to love what she described as ‘Option B’ — she is a much wiser woman than I, but if you have ever lost anyone, I recommend you read her piece. It articulates how you start to think about changing your life to a new normal. Grief is a very powerful emotion. I know that my brother would want me to go on with my life, and live for us both — which I try to do. But I will never stop wishing he was here to share it with me. I re-live what happened every single morning when I wake up, but as the years go on, I am more fierce in my resolve to make a difference in the world, to honour his memory. I am not sure you ever overcome losing someone you love — but I try to channel my grief and his passion into the way I live my life. Being supported by a wonderful employer and surrounded by wonderful, kind and caring friends and family has made the world of difference.
The other thing which I thought might be of interest here, is seemingly trivial in the context of what I said above…. But as a young manager, one of the biggest challenges I faced personally — was needing and wanting people to like me. I don’t think any of us ever are comfortable with people disliking us, but in a small team — it was a real derailer for me, when I struggled to make difficult decisions, especially ones about staffing, worried about the people involved and their lives outside work.
Working with a coach, I realised that in fact what I really value and care about — is being fair and respectful always. This may manifest in similar ways to being nice and being liked, but actually it is quite different. When I have to make a difficult decision, I try to ensure that I have considered all the facts and the different opinions involved, and then try to make the decision that is best for our organisation and ultimately fair to all involved. I think being respectful is one of the easiest things in the world to be, but you do have to remember that it trumps sometimes telling someone how you really feel.
Regardless of what the obstacles you are facing, I really encourage everyone to get a coach — someone who they can lean on to provide support and advice when they are not sure where to turn next. I think good, sound advice is critical for any emerging leader!
What do you personally consider to be your greatest accomplishment during your time at UN Women?
Over the last 8.5 years, we have raised a lot of money for UN Women programs in the region and we have built a well-recognised, sustainable organisation that I am very proud to lead. That being said, my greatest accomplishment during my time at UN Women, is watching our staff, volunteers and interns grow in their roles and go on to achieve amazing things. We have always had an incredibly loyal, talented group of staff who have committed 110% during their time with the National Committee. But seeing them go on to work for the UN, for DFAT and for a range of different companies that continue to challenge them and expand their horizons, is very rewarding. I don’t mind how long people stay with us, as long as they give their all to the job and the team while they are here — and as long as they take a wonderful next step. I see that as being a really critical part of my role.
Last week I had the opportunity to go up to Fiji and visit one of the projects that we have been funding for a number of years. Meeting women whose income has doubled as a result of the training they have received from UN Women and seeing the safe accommodation facilities that have been built in the marketplaces, I was reminded of why we do what we do each day!