Amnesty boss' local diversity initiatives bolster human rights fight

When you lead an organisation with a mandate to protect and support the most vulnerable people in the world -- young girls forced into child labour in Indonesia, violence against women in Papua New Guinea, and torture victims in Burma, among them -- not every day can be a good one.

"I have days when I could be in tears, but we have wins every day in some way and that's an incredible, inspiring feeling," Amnesty International Australia's executive director, Claire Mallinson, tells Women's Agenda.

It's important to have the best team possible, says Mallinson, and to ensure the workplace values of her 85-strong organisation (with thousands of supporters and volunteers) reflect what it's trying to achieve internationally. In a non-government organisation (NGO), where women frequently account for more than 50% of employees, that means offering support structures to ensure the workforce retains its diversity, from the lower ranks up to senior management.

"One of the reasons I joined Amnesty was the fact we were working on Indigenous rights and a stop-violence-against-women campaign. I thought, 'if we're working on these issues then we need to be leaders ourselves'."

Mallinson fought just as hard internally as she does with her human rights' work externally to make Amnesty an excellent workplace for women. So much so that other chief executives of local NGOs are starting to take notice.

"We didn't have a pro-active approach to ensuring it was a women-friendly environment," Mallinson says on taking up the position in 2007.

She's extended maternity leave from 14 to 18 weeks; introduced a six-week scheme for secondary carers, offers guaranteed part-time options for those returning from leave and will hold full-time roles open for two years. The NGOs also introduced a training and development fund to help extend the skill-set of staff looking to broaden their career horizons.

One in three managers were female when Mallinson joined Amnesty. That number has increased to one in two, with more than 50% of the board, female. One of Amnesty's most senior women, Desley Mather, works part time.

Meanwhile, a quarter of the workforce is working part time, and one in 10 employees is in a job-share role. The organisation also introduced a reconciliation action plan and increased the number of Aboriginal employees.

Mallinson says the fact that so many women are returning after taking leave, and working in part-time roles or entering management, shows that the new system is working.

Such initiatives are necessary to ensure the organisation is best positioned to achieve its mandate: saving and protecting lives. Amnesty has worked on 97 cases over the past year where it was able to improve the conditions of the individual involved, or helped them access family and medical support.

In 2012, the federal and Northern Territory governments adopted Amnesty's recommendations to invest $221 million over 10 years for essential services in remote Aboriginal communities. Amnesty's volunteers organised more than 139 screenings of SBS's Go Back to Where You Came From, and raised enough money to provide 3500 bilingual dictionaries for people living in detention centres. The NGO's school resource on refugee rights was taught in 15% of Australia's secondary schools.

It's difficult work for all Amnesty employees, and Mallinson notes how vital it is for her to demonstrate the importance for work-life balance. "I do things like aqua aerobics and playing golf," she says. "When you're dealing with somebody who's just been electrocuted, you need to be able to have some down time."

Claire Mallinson is a finalist in the NFP/Public Sector category at the NAB Women's Agenda Leadership Awards. Click here to find out more about the finalists and buy tickets to join us at the event. 

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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