She was scaling the ranks in a global investment bank, earning a great income, living and working between London and New York and in line for a significant promotion. Some might have said Cassandra Kelly had it all. But at home, Kelly looked at herself in the mirror, with a comment from a colleague ringing in her ears, and decided it wasn’t for her.
“I just thought ‘This isn’t me. It’s not who I am.'” Kelly explains. “The prospect of the promotion made me really think – why have I been successful? What will they value? And what they’d value wasn’t me. If I couldn’t bring the real “me” to work – what does it matter? So I quit.”
The comment that stuck in Kelly’s head was some praised for being able to “bang heads together” which wasn’t a quality she wanted to be incentivised to cultivate.
“I behaved in a way that was deemed “successful behaviour” which men and women still do. If you’re told certain characteristics are desirable – it’s sensible that you emulate those,” Kelly says.
But just because certain qualities are desired, and possible to emulate, doesn’t mean they necessarily correlate with your personal beliefs, values or strengths. In the world of investment banking ambition, competition, determination, persistence and independence were celebrated whereas words like engagement, collaboration or compassion weren’t even used.
“That type of language around “He or she is great at collaborating or engaging the team” wasn’t present so it was clear it wasn’t valued,” she says. “There are men and woman who possess those characteristics but they’re not called out as successful attributes.”
Kelly, the co-founder and joint chief executive of corporate advisory firm Pottinger, was fortunate enough to field a job offer soon after her moment in the mirror.
“I had a chairman from America call me and say “I think you need to look at a different job and I want you to work for me. I believe in you, you’re incredibly capable and that’s what I need”,” Kelly recalls.
She accepted a role with GMAC Commercial Mortgage and set about turning the business around in Asia and growing its footprint. Having spent her early career in the male dominated field of investment banking and then running a business in Asia, she returned to Australia with certain expectations about what it would be like to be a woman in business.
“I lived in Japan where a woman in leadership is very rare, let alone a foreign female in a leadership position and I got to Australia thinking it would be much better,” Kelly says. “I was shocked that my home country had made such little progress.”
Even more startling was the fact that then, back in 2003, it wasn’t even being discussed.
“It was worse than China,” she says. “When I walked into a room in China it was very normal that there were women in the most senior positions. That was expected. Back here, it was much less common and we weren’t even having the discussion.”
A decade later, the conversation is well and truly happening, but Kelly says that dialogue alone isn’t enough to create change.
“It’s really important that we make the case for gender inequality being unacceptable but it isn’t the only action,” she says. “We can sit around and wait for people who aren’t necessarily inclined to change the rules or we can make the changes ourselves. And that starts with looking after each other.”
She says looking after each other isn’t onerous and says the benefits of doing so would create a ‘positive pyramid’.
“I don’t want women to look around and not be able to see female role models they can relate to. I don’t want it to be as hard and lonely for other woman,” she says.
On Sunday Kelly will be co-hosting a session at the All About Women event at the Sydney Opera House on the topic of how women can support other women.