Category Archives: CDAA 2017

Gender equality: What would success look like?

The first job I had out of university was as a personnel officer with a large insurance company in Melbourne. There were three of us in the personnel department. Bill my boss, he looked after the important personnel issues and recruited the men. Me, I recruited the women. And Sandra provided stenographic, typing and administrative support. This was a time pre-computers and pre equal opportunity legislation.

The jobs available for men were primarily clerical, actuarial, and sales. The jobs available for women were stenographers, typists and some clerks. Typists had to be good at typing numbers which in the field of typing, is a rarer skill. Needless to say the men were paid more than the women and there was hardly any progression from the women’s jobs to those of men. When recruiting women it was standard practice to ask women questions about their potential marital, childbearing and child caring arrangements.

This is just how it was. Unquestioned, taken-for-granted, normal.

These days, decades later, I look at life differently. My perspective is informed by feminism.

Feminism is underpinned by constructionist ideas, meaning that how we see the world is socially constructed by cultural practices, rather than just ‘given’, and these practices support vested interests. Which is probably why many people don’t like feminism.

Back when I worked for that insurance company I was not a feminist. It took several years of life experience and consciousness raising before I got it and bought in.

It’s a pretty simple concept really, it asks that females be treated as humans.

We all know that gender equality has progressed during the last four decades and we all know there’s still plenty to do.

I discovered that back in 1991 U.S. Congress passed an act which created the Glass Ceiling Commission. This commission investigated the barriers affecting a range of minorities in America. In 1995 it produced its final report about barriers faced by women and the report offered a range of recommendation for action. These recommendations included the following:

  • Demonstrate CEO commitment
  • Include diversity in all strategic business plans and hold line managers accountable for progress
  • Select, promote and retain qualified individuals
  • Initiate work/life and family-friendly policies
  • Improve data collection.

Look familiar?

Gender equality has not been fully realised anywhere in the world. It’s not lack of resources or know-how that prevents greater gender equality.

Anne Summers, in her book The Misogyny Factor, suggests we’re preoccupied with progress rather than success. Evidence of progress is not evidence of success. When the Queen stopped by in Canberra in 2011 she was greeted by three more women – the Governor General, the Prime Minister and the ACT Chief Minister. Delightful though this image was, such blips of progress do not necessarily signify lasting change.

The UN’s current slogan for women is Planet 50:50 by 2030. Certainly much has changed since my work in the insurance company. Yet nearly 50 years on we still haven’t achieved equality and I doubt something significant will happen in the next 13 years.

After our election last year the ACT Legislative Assembly became the first jurisdiction to have equal numbers of men and women politicians, in fact 13 of 25. Fairfax Media did some calculations on how long it would take other jurisdictions to achieve a similar result. On present trends, they estimate it will take another 10 federal polls to go from 32 % to 50%. That’s 2046!

50:50 by 2030 unhelpfully represents gender equality as a numbers game proportional to population. Real gender equality will only be achieved when women regularly make up 100% of a government, council, board, meeting, even a conference program, and no one bats an eyelid. It’s accepted as normal, everyday practice. That’s success.

Let’s be clear, I’m not advocating simply reversing centuries of men holding 100% of the key spots. All I’m saying is that when women can hold a majority or all such positions without comment, only then will we have success.

To give you an inkling of what this looks like earlier this year Sweden’s Deputy Prime Minister and Climate Minister, Isabella Lovin, shared a photograph on social media of herself signing a new climate law. Behind her are seven female colleagues, giving a ‘cheeky nod’ to a recent image of Donald Trump signing an executive order reinstating a ban on US aid donations for abortion counselling.

If gender equality means treating all humans as equally valuable, it’s worth asking, what would success look like?

Here’s some further suggestions:

  • Women would make up at least 70% of the Australia Day awards
  • The final game of the Australian Tennis Open would alternate between the women’s and men’s game.
  • No woman would ever be called a girl.
  • The PM’s 11 would alternative between the women’s and men’s cricket teams.
  • Pink would be banned as a colour reference for women.
  • No woman would be murdered by her present or past spouse/partner/husband.

That’s just for starters.

While gender equity strategies cover a range of useful actions, little addresses the core of the issue: the social construction of masculinity and the pressure to conform to this limited model, with its restrictions on sophisticated communication and interpersonal skills. Having men champion gender equality will not achieve success. What will move us towards 50:50 by 2030 is men taking responsibility for changing themselves.

[You may also wish to read my article ‘Hold off the celebrations: gender equality ‘progress’ is not ‘success’, published in The Canberra Times.]
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.

Encourage creativity in career stories

Career development practitioners encourage clients to build a personal narrative of their lives, and their career history, often tracing development from the past to the present. Tools used to prepare such stories may be based on writing.

Clients’ creativity can be encouraged by using other mediums, such as from the arts and media. By using existing material clients can express something about their story without having to start from scratch.

To illustrate, here are three examples of how a life story can be expressed using song lines, book titles, and television programs. While somewhat tongue-in-cheek, these examples do reflect something of a person’s lived experience.

Song lines [this can be performed, singing each line]

“When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother what should I be?”

“I wanna be Bobby’s girl, I wanna be Bobby’s girl, that’s the most important thing to me.”

“To dream the impossible dream”

“I am woman hear me roar”

“I can see clearly now the rain has gone, I can see all obstacles in my way.”

“I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair.”

“I’m leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again”

“Climb every mountain”

“Lord, we don’t need another mountain”

“It’s been a hard day’s night, I’ve been working like a dog”

“It’s the wrong time and the wrong place”

“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away,  now it looks as though they’re here to stay”

“And now, the end is near”

“If you don’t know me by now”

“Oh yes I am wise, But it’s wisdom born of pain”

“These boots were made for walking”

“Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye, cherio, here I go on my way”

Book titles

Born 1955 of Oscar and Lucinda, address Bleak House, siblings Les Miserables, prized pet The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Off to school: Great Expectations. My first teacher Jude the Obscure. I made friends with the Girl with the dragon tattoo, mucked around with the Three Muskateers, didn’t like Tom Jones, and Tristram Shandy was a bully. I thought I was going to learn The Jitchhikers guide to the galaxy, turned out to be One hundred years of solitude. Mostly played the Hunger Games and discovered Where the Wild Things Are. The Mayor of Casterbridge came and opened the new science wing, Nightmare Abbey, and then he was Gone with the Wind.

Gap year was full of Gullivers Travels, I took A passage to India, followed by Pilgrim’s progress, listening to Canterbury Tales. Visited Treasure Island, but Th  e Tempest turned it into the Wasteland.

Scored a management job, a 50 Shades of Grey, War and Peace combo. Led my team known as – Animal Farm. It was like Waiting for the Barbarians, with Crime and Punishment.

My main challenge was The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, then I discovered Dangerous Liaison with Lolita. No Pride and Prejudice. I recorded every detail in Bridgit Jones’ Diary.

My boss, Frankenstein, who had a Heart of Darkness, tried to build a Brave New World. His Boss, The Godfather, skilled at weaving Charlotte’s Web, was part of the executive team, Slaughterhouse Five, creating 1984.

But now, As I lay dying, Waiting for Godot, I’ve succumbed to The Plague. Finally The Big Sleep.

TV programs

This life story is an Australian story, even an Inside Story, offering Insight into My Crazy Obsession. While there’s no Q&A you’re in for some Entertainment Tonight as I reveal My Great Big Adventure as Dora the Explorer.

I tried a range of jobs, Bondi Vet, Highway Patrol, and Border Security. Then I applied to work in The Office. The interview, held at Sunrise, was a Millionaire Hot Seat, with Winners and Losers. Their opening question, Who Do You Think You Are? really stumped me. I thought I had an Outside Chance and closed with my clincher, Deal or No Deal.

I joined the Office and met my colleagues. Never Mind the Buzzcocks, this lot were a Brady Bunch engaged in a daily Family Feud. Staff came in pairs – Arthur and George, Mike and Molly, Clark and Dawe, and Crash and Bernstein. I later discovered Mike and Molly, known as the Bold and the Beautiful, had Grand Designs on each other, and were having A Current Affair. I met the Nerds and Monsters in IT, living Life in the Undergrowth. The finance staff were an Endangered Species, with Extreme Phobias, forever getting up to New Tricks.

The boss’s assistant, Marsha the Bear, operated a Spyforce, and wanted all her requests met within 60 Minutes. Failure to do so unleashed the World’s Scariest Animal Attacks – clearly she needed Anger Management. The marketing staff were a bunch of Misfits, one day the Scream Queens, the next Animal Squad, daily demonstrating How not to Behave.

The Nowhere Boys in HR were The Undateables, constantly Bewitched as they Dream of Jeannie, making them the World’s Craziest Fools. Here’s The Drum. I was working in the Loony Tunes Show. I should have chosen The Checkout. So, What would you do?

I consulted several specialists, Doctor Who, Father Brown, Doc Martin and Dr Phil, even Judge Judy, but they were all Eggheads.

My only escape was Huey’s Kitchen that offered Ben’s Menu. The Master Chef swung between Good Chef, Bad Chef, and was a Catalyst for Insiders becoming Offsiders. I had to Getaway.

So The Chase was on for a new role. I figured becoming The Restaurant Inspector would be Totally Wild. But that came to an end with a Glitch on a Food Safari when an Undercover Boss disguised as A Foreign Correspondent faked a Medical Emergency and accused me of being Billy the Exterminator.

Now I’m at World’s End, about to enter Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom. I Shouldn’t be Alive. But I think I’ve been Touched by an Angel, even if some of my life’s been spent on Devil Island. Some of this story may sound farfetched, But Would I lie to you? Life is more than Play School. What’s important is – Have you been paying Attention?

Other options are:

  • Film titles
  • Song titles
  • Art titles
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.

21st Century skills for career practitioners

During the last 12 – 18 months a range of reports were published highlighting the skills people need for the 21st century.

Putting aside the issue of whether it makes sense to talk of any one set of skills remaining valid for 100 years, what 21st century skills do career practitioners need for meeting the challenges of our communities?

I suggest three skills:

  • Transdisciplinarity
  • Advanced critical analysis
  • Sense making
1. Transdisciplinarity

Many problems are too complex to be solved by one specialised discipline. Career development would benefit greatly from an expanded discipline base. I’ll give two examples where we should tap a wider range of disciplines.


When I examine the development of theory in career development, I am struck by how much of that theory comes from one discipline – namely psychology. The bulk of career development journals, articles, editors, references, are based in psychology. Psychology has made a major contribution to career development and continues to play an important role in influencing the profession. Valuable though this is, it does present limitations.

Take constructionism, the theory that underpins sense making. There is plenty of material available in other spheres dating back well before it was articulated in career development.  Disciplines with something to say about constructionism include: sociolinguistics, cultural studies, semiotics rhetorical studies, gender analysis, discourse analysis to name a few. Yet most of this material is not referred to.

Labour market dynamics

Career development has rightly given increased prominence to labour market information.

To fit into the labour market we know there is a clear image of a desirable worker: autonomous, individual responsibility, work ready, branded, Me, hyper-connected, 24/7 availability.

We readily accept this view This is part of our taken-for-granted knowledge.

Yet, this is a transactional, commodified view of workers, and there’s a risk that career development is complicit in cultivating it with clients.

Having a workforce that is convinced that it’s their responsibility to be autonomous, work-ready, with the burden of adaptation placed entirely on their shoulders, and promoting an education system as there to develop employable people, means employers can get away with little training, and not hiring entry level staff.

Training doesn’t create jobs. Businesses need demand to justify employing people, and growing industries train the staff they need.

Some knowledge of economics would help us assess labour market dynamics. For example there’s a small body of work that analyses the discourses of skills gaps and employability skills, raising questions about how valid these terms are, whose interests they serve, and what impact they have.

We need some understanding of economics so we know:

  • What really causes unemployment
  • How labour markets really work
  • Whether economic growth needs to be sacrosanct.

Our knowledge of labour market information needs to be complemented by labour market intelligence, an ability to identify vested interests, and to decode econobabble so as to offer clients an informed and realistic perspective on the labour market.

Hope comes from realism not denial or uninformed optimism.

An alternative worker image, one more likely to contribute to a civil and just world, is a person who is: self-reliant and interdependent, civil, concerned about reputation, mature, self-controlled, reflective, socially aware, caring and care giving, active citizens.

2. Advanced critical Analysis

A popular approach to issues is to start a conversation. I’m torn between two places here.

On the one hand, I am just so over having a conversation. Absolutely. So often a conversation is a slinging match between fixed positions. It’s very easy to think that something has been achieved by having a conversation. Often though we don’t need more conversations. What we do need is more action.

On the other hand, our profession gains from exploring its knowledge base. However, we need to be far more critical in selecting and assessing material and resources to share. Rather than the ‘click and flick’ approach, meaning something looks interesting and it’s flicked onto discussion boards, stop to consider whether the material is in fact worth sharing. There’s a lot of questionable material out there.

As an example, there’s a vast volume of generation-based material, that rarely expands our knowledge. Rather, it fuels the politics of difference, ignores variations within generational categories, and often serves marketing ends, masquerading as thought leadership.

If I’m going to look at what’s shared I need to be convinced of its value. Before sharing, ask some questions:

  • Author/s: who wrote it, what is their expertise? Are they reputable? Is the organisation aligned or independent? Is it well written? Did you write it? Then it’s likely self-promotion.
  • Audience: who is the target audience of the report? This will influence the style of writing [e.g. academic, general public, business, government]
  • Methods: what research methods were used, are they sound? [An Internet-based survey is not necessarily statistically valid]
  • Funding: who funded the research, have they influenced the research, do they have a vested interest in the results?
  • Purpose: what is the stated purpose of the research, is it convincing, likely to generate something useful, or is it camouflaged PR or marketing material?
  • Evidence: does the research provide useful and sound evidence of results? Does the research provide facts, or are prophesies, opinions, beliefs masquerading as facts?
  • Conclusions: what conclusions were reached, are they well founded. Does the report tell us something we don’t know, confirm something we’re not sure about, or retell what is already known? Are there flaws in the theory, reasoning, assumptions?
  • What is raised that could be further explored? Are useful references listed?
  • Application: what practical application is there for career practitioners? How have you made use of the information?
  • Gaps: what are the gaps in the research, are these filled by other research?

For example:

The Mitchell Institute released a report in March 2017 titled ‘Preparing young people for the future of work, a Policy Roundtable Report’. The Mitchell Institute at Victoria University “works to improve the connection between evidence and policy reform. We promote the principle that high-quality education, from the early years through to early adulthood, is fundamental to individual wellbeing and to a prosperous society.”

The report informs us that “in 2016 Mitchell Institute brought together a group of leaders from across Australia to consider a challenge which is putting our nation’s wellbeing and future prosperity at risk: preparing young people for the future of work.” While the Roundtable is described as made up of education practitioners, government leaders, policy specialists and researchers who put forward two ideas about how Australia’s education system can change to accelerate innovation and improve transitions to employment: [Transforming senior secondary education; and Revitalising apprenticeships], there is no information about who these people actually were, and whether they included young people or career practitioners, leaving open the question of what range of expertise did they bring to the table? Were they primarily educationalists, or was a diverse range of expertise tapped?

The report briefly outlines known challenges facing young people as they navigate their way into the world of work. The focus is on how to reform Australia’s education system, which is central to the Institute’s mission. The potential need to reform the labour market is not raised.

What is of interest in this report is the reference to the education goals stated in the Melbourne Declaration on Educational goals for Young Australians [2008], namely:

  • Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence, and
  • All young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, active and informed citizens.

Two issues are identified with these goals: poor measurement and a narrow focus on NAPLAN and ATAR scores.

The conclusion is that: ‘In general, we have successfully boosted educational attainment, but Australia’s education system is not succeeding at excellence, engagement, equity or equipping young people for the future.’ This last phrase, equipping young people for the future, is commonly used in reports about work and education, but is given little clarity or definition, other than by inference, that the world of work demands something other than what is currently offered.

The report usefully discusses the unhelpful separation of academic and vocational learning and problems with the VET sector. The report states that: ‘There is a persistent tendency for many parents, students and schools to view VET as a much less prestigious and valuable pathway, compared to the academic pathway that leads to university.’ Suggesting that different forms of apprenticeship models be researched will not address the ‘prestige perception’ issue.

Also of value is the suggestion that educators cultivate young people’s capabilities within both academic and vocational learning streams, that both streams equip young people with technical and academic knowledge and mindsets.

Among the potential solutions offered in the report is one relevant to career development practitioners: ‘improving career exploration and career guidance options for school students to expand young people’s understanding of the variety of pathways available, the core skills and attributes needed within various job clusters, and a focus on developing young people’s ability to identify their strengths and interests.’ Not knowing whether the career development profession was represented at the Roundtable means we don’t know whether changes in government policy and cut backs in resources which directly impact the availability of practitioners, was discussed. Without this information the solution is a motherhood statement, one that appears in many documents.

Referencing for the report is based largely on education-related sources. An interesting reference relates to how the ‘4Cs’ do not exist without the ‘3Rs’, which in turn links to an article about how critical thinking cannot be taught as a stand-alone set of skills but is linked to content knowledge. In order to, for example, think like a scientist, you need to have deep knowledge of the concepts, facts and procedures of a scientist.

This raises questions about asking people to list knowledge and skills separately, and job descriptions which list skills and knowledge requirements separately.

We would all benefit if our approach to sharing material was more critical, and nuanced.

3. Sense making

The third 21st century skill for career practitioners is sense making, the process by which we interpret the world and decide what it means.

Sense making is under-pinned by several beliefs about how the world works:

  • Sense making is about creating plausible (workable) rather than accurate understandings.
  • Language is central to sense making. Language is not a neutral, transparent medium. Rather it reflects systems of values, beliefs and social practices.
  • Some interpretations of how the world works are privileged over others. Power is expressed in acts that shape what people accept, take for granted, and reject.
  • Taken-for-granted knowledge needs to challenged so as to understand how conventional understandings come to be regarded as ‘natural’ or ‘true’.

As sense makers we need to pay attention to our own and our client’s ‘mental pantries’, notice what meanings are being used, suspend judgement, and have sophisticated questioning skills to unearth understandings.

If we’re to play a role in building a better future, we need to challenge our own thinking and practices and help our clients to challenge their taken-for-granted views of how the world works.

Ours is not an apolitical profession nor is it value-neutral. How we construct reality, particularly through our language practices, has consequences.

Career practitioners use a variety of tools to help clients explore who they are. Some care is needed with our labels. For example, several of these tools apply labels across the introvert-extrovert spectrum. These tools tell me I lean towards the introvert end of this spectrum However, this is not a label I claim as part of my identity,

And why would I. I live in a culture that values extroversion.

People think it’s okay to comment to me: ‘You’re quiet’, ‘you’re not saying much’. Have they been tracking how often I say something? What is the benchmark for measuring my frequency? While I might notice a person taking up lots of air time or talking in order to think, it never occurs to me to say to them –‘Gee, you’re talking a lot today’ or ‘When will you stop talking to allow someone else to say something?’ I might think these thoughts, but I never say it. Yet people think it’s okay to comment on my absence of commentary.

The label ‘introvert’ tells me something about how I do me. But it doesn’t define me. It’s not part of who I am.

When exploring identity with clients, take care with the choice and use of labels and categories. Offer generous lists of terms, expanded well beyond those qualities required by employers or categorised by our practice. Such generosity opens possibilities and expands our sense of who we are or could become.

When it comes to offering clients hope for the future, possibility and realism are where it’s at.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.

Stop feeding body language myths

Career development practitioners need to stop feeding wrong and misleading ideas about body language, particularly in the context of job interviews. Much of this misinformation is based on misinterpretations of Albert Mehrabian’s research, much of which continues to be repeated in texts on communication skills.

Advice to applicants is seriously skewed when myths, like these four, form the basis of services to clients.

Myth 1: Body language is the main form of communication

Communicating is the process by which we relate with those around us, through speaking, listening, reading, writing, and non-verbal behaviour.

In any given context, the components of communicating will vary. It is not the case that body language always has a major impact in inter-personal communication. Consider these cases:

  • A bullying text message.
  • A feedback conversation with a manager.
  • A racist rant on talk-back radio.
  • A phone call to make a complaint.

The role non-verbal communication covers a wide range of behaviours, and what role they play will depend on details such as the medium used, the emotional state of the people involved, the nature of the information shared, and importantly, how the person on the receiving end interprets the information. Non-verbal behaviour cannot be interpreted in isolation from the context.

Myth 2: Body language can be expressed in specific percentages

The biggest myth that people perpetuate is that communication can be broken down into precise percentages, namely:

  • 7% spoken word
  • 38% voice, tone
  • 55% body language.

These figures come from Mehrabian’s research, however his research was based on narrowly defined laboratory tests using single words. These figures related to where there was a contradiction between the word uttered and body language. Certainly, where we perceive a contradiction between words and non-verbal behaviour, we do interpret the person as being, for example, insincere, ironic or sarcastic. The figures were never meant to be generalised to every communication situation.

To suggest to clients that during a job interview these figures apply is just plain wrong.

Myth 3: Body language is the main focus of job interviews

A person’s non-verbal behaviour will certainly influence how they are perceived during an interview. Research confirms that we all quickly make judgements about a person when we meet them. For interviewees, details like how they walk and sit, their handshake, what the year, and nervous mannerisms, are likely to be noticed and noted. But this is only part of the experience, and not necessarily the most important.

Where the interview is merit-based and informed by selection criteria, those interviewing are obliged to listen carefully to responses, paying attention to structure, content, and relevance. Suggesting to clients that body language outweighs the value of responses to questions is misleading.

Myth 4: Interviewers pay most attention to body language

While research shows that interviewers can and do make quick decisions about a person’s suitability, it cannot be assumed that these people lack the skills to work with their perceptions, suspend judgements, and seek evidence of suitability.

Not all interviewers are trained in interviewing, including the need to be aware of unconscious biases and unfounded judgements. Many are trained and highly skilled and therefore take steps to ensure that body language is not the deciding factor.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.

Soft/Hard Skills: A false dichotomy

A popular distinction in the jobs/career literature is hard/soft skills.

In general usage, soft skills refer to interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, communication skills, emotions, and characteristics such as friendliness, empathy, social graces.

Hard skills refer to a person’s knowledge and occupational skills.

For example, according to this distinction, a doctor’s bedside manner comes under soft skills and their ability to diagnose illness and know what medicine to give are considered hard skills.

While the literature often refers to these skills as complementing each other, no one questions their continuing use. Here are six reasons to stop using this distinction.

1. False connotations of difficult/easy

The hard/soft distinction carries connotations of difficult/easy due to the ambiguity of the terms. There is nothing easy about dealing with people. Most managers, no matter how technically skilled and knowledgeable they are, will spend most of their time on demanding people issues. If their interpersonal skills are poor, life will be unbearable.

2. False connotations of serious/frivolous

The hard/soft distinction carries connotations of hard skills being serious and soft skills being somewhat frivolous, easily dismissed as not warranting the same attention. This built-in derogatory flavour does nothing to encourage people to take these skills seriously.

3. Employers want staff with interpersonal skills

Any list of most-wanted skills includes teamwork, communication and customer service. Some businesses choose to take people with ‘the right attitude’ and train them on the job, in technical, hard skills, in order to find quality staff. While qualifications are essential, they are useless without the ability to get along with people.

The Core Skills for Work Developmental Framework has ‘Interact with others’ as one of the three skill clusters. The Framework points out that while Skill Areas within each cluster are related to each other, ‘there is also interaction across clusters’. In other words, you can’t get work done if you can’t get along with people.

4. The skills are inseparable

There is no point having qualifications and extensive technical knowledge if you don’t also have interpersonal skills. Even on projects with huge demand for a range of technical skills, such as building a dam, if people in different trades and professions can’t talk to each other and cooperate to solve problems, the project won’t be completed.

5. Disadvantages women

Soft skills are traditionally associated with women. Women are seen as better at interpersonal matters, use language more effectively, have the emotional basis for doing soft skills better than men.

While there is some basis for this generalisation, it is neither true that all women are good at people skills, nor that all men are hopeless in this area. Women are disadvantaged by being seen as best suited to people-rich roles, which are often those that are poorly paid, offer mainly part-time work, and have few promotional opportunities.

The soft skills/women link means that men may not be considered for such female roles and can potentially get away with poor communication skills because, well, they’re men.

6. False belief soft skills can’t be learnt

Some of the literature implies, even states, that interpersonal skills are part of a person’s personality, and therefore are not subject to learning and improvement. You either have them or you don’t.

This too is a false belief. People can increase their self-awareness about how they communicate and interact and identify behaviours to incorporate into their repertoire so that they are more skilled. Yes, it takes practice, as does any behaviour that needs to become habitual. But it is learnable.

What’s the alternative?

First, stop using the hard/soft language.

Second, focus on talking about core skills, employability skills, transferable skills.

Third, treat interpersonal skills as equal in value to technical skills. I’d go so far as to say that in many cases interpersonal skills are more important than technical skills once a certain level of competence has been achieved.

Fourth, make sure the inter-relatedness of interpersonal and technical skills is explained to staff.

Fifth, be consciously aware of how soft skill talk can disadvantage women and save men from building these skills, and take action to prevent these discriminatory practices.

Sixth, Check assumptions that these skills are gender-linked. Notice messages that show women as the skilled people person and men as the people klutz. Voice objections.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.

Take care when using online career resources

There is a wealth of career information, advice, and tools available online. These resources need to be used with care.

Here are four types of resources and what to look for.

1. Qualities

Career guidance often starts with exploring who you are so you gain some sense of what your interests, values, sense of identity are. This information in turn, informs career choices.

Part of understanding who we are is to examine what qualities we might use to describe who we are. Qualities include terms such as determined, honest, friendly, organised.

Employers prefer staff who have certain qualities, such as reliable, honest, punctual.

There are many qualities apart from those preferred by employers. If the tool you are considering only reflects qualities preferred by employers, you could well miss many qualities that are vital to describing not only who you are now but also who you might wish to become. Qualities such as idealist, rebel, versatile, flamboyant, vivacious, bolshie, exotic, suave.

Before using a qualities list check how generous the list on offer is.

2. STAR model

The STAR model is a simple approach to writing a response to a selection criterion. It covers:

S = situation

T = task

A = actions

R = results.


For entry level and lower level roles, this structure may well be enough. For more senior roles, that is, roles that carry a salary of $70,000 or more, the STAR model is too simple.

It doesn’t convey the strategic complexity of the example.

Using the STAR model risks considering the selection criteria in isolation. While this may have worked two decades ago, it is no longer the case. An applicant must consider the total context of the role and tailor examples to match that role. To do this the applicant must conduct research into the organisation, the role, and the level of seniority in order to fully understand what they are applying for.

A more useful model for either responding to selection criteria or giving examples to support a statement of claims, is the CAR model: Context, Actions, Results. The context of the example is the critical component as it conveys information about:

  • The strategic context: what goals, policies, strategies was the situation supporting?
  • Complexity: what factors added complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty?
  • Risks: what risks needed to be considered?
  • People: who was involved – colleagues, clients, stakeholders, senior executives, staff etc?
  • Role: what was your role in this situation and what were you setting out to do?
  •  Actions are limited to the most critical, relevant, senior.
  • Results take account of not only the immediate output, but also any outcome and unintended consequences.

Replacing the STAR model with the CAR model is likely to result in much stronger, more tailored responses.

3. Job Guides

Most job guides, listing the many occupations available along with their required qualifications and skills, and main duties, are categorised according to a set of six personality types established by John Holland. The six are summarised as RIASEC, each letter referring to a type. While useful in distinguishing jobs of interest that match who you are, this typing approach has limitations.

Occupations are treated in isolation and technical jobs [Realistic] tend to focus on the technical skills needed with little information about the need for communication and interpersonal skills and how these are used both in the short and long term. Missing is information about how different trades, professions, occupations need to work together to solve problems.

If you are hoping to find a job that doesn’t require you to talk, read, listen, write, you might be misled by job guides that reveal little about using these skills.

4. Fear-based labour market information

Many media reports, research reports, and general commentary alerts readers to trends in the labour market and the economy. Such reports can convey the impression that mass unemployment is imminent due to automation, factory closures, globalisation, trade agreements.

It is not possible to give certainty about what will happen in the near, let alone, long term future. Nor is it possible to accurately predict what jobs will disappear or be created.

There are many factors affecting our economy, they are complex, interrelated, and what happens much depends on political will and vested interests.

Before becoming alarmed when reading these reports, best to gain some basic understanding of economics, statistical analysis, trend and chart interpretation, and ask some questions about who wrote the report, what is their vested interest, who funded the report, what methodology was used, are the conclusions sound, what are the gaps?

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.

Shining a light on occupational inter-relationships

Research to Discover, Think, Explore: Shining a light on occupational inter-relationships.

Abstract: Four Canberra-based projects were examined to explore the significance of interpersonal skills in technical occupations. The importance of interpersonal skills and demands for teamwork, cooperation and collaboration during projects was confirmed. The implications of skill terminology, career practitioner advice, occupational information, and gendered career choices are explored. The research points to the need to shift thinking about skill distinctions to give greater recognition to interpersonal skills in technical occupations. Read the ResearchReportFinal

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.

What is respect?

Showing respect is much applauded yet hotly contested. One person’s respect is another’s insult.

The word carries two main meanings.

Respect as in admire deeply, as a result of abilities, qualities or achievements. For example, ‘she is a respected academic’. Another way of expressing this is to hold someone in high regard, or high esteem. In this case the person is looked up to, praised, even revered.

Respect also means to have due regard or show consideration for a person’s feelings, wishes or rights. This is the meaning that is used when public service values refer to respect. In the APS, Respect refers to considering people’s rights and their heritage, treating all people with dignity, recognising that all people have value, and fostering diversity.

While easy to subscribe to this value, complying with it in practice is not so simple. The behaviours that I think show me respect might be inconsequential to you. You may not give much thought to those behaviours that are of vital importance to me, and even consider them “so PC” as to be not worth considering.

A useful exercise is to make a list of those behaviours that mean Respect towards you, then compare them with others’ lists. Here’s a list of 20 items that would appear on my list:

  1. Extend everyday courtesies such as opening doors, saying thank you.
  2. Check what title I wish to use, don’t assume I’m Mrs.
  3. Use titles if I have one.
  4. Don’t use any expression that states or implies I am lesser, other, or deficient in some way.
  5. Refer to me as an adult [i.e. woman not girl] unless I give you permission to call me something else.
  6. Don’t shorten or alter my name unless I give you permission.
  7. Spell my name correctly.
  8. Shake hands at our first meeting.
  9. Don’t assume I want to be kissed as a greeting.
  10. Choose colours other than pink and blue, particularly when implying gender.
  11. Check your assumptions about me.
  12. Ask questions about what I’m thinking, rather than assume you know.
  13. Take an interest in my experiences and what I do.
  14. Don’t hog the conversation.
  15. Engage in give and take, turn-taking when conversing with me.
  16. Accept that I don’t have to be talking all the time.
  17. Don’t refer to me as a ‘guy’ or ‘guys’.
  18. Don’t interrupt me or talk over me.
  19. Look at me when we are talking to each other.
  20. Don’t play with your smart phone while talking to me.

Some of these may appear on your list. Some might appear strange or unimportant from your perspective. The point is, that showing regard for my wishes, rights and dignity means taking into account what respect means for me.

Several on my list refer to gendered language, what some may label sexist. The APSC’s gender equality strategy provides some useful information on how language is gendered. In their Lexicon of Gender, they write:

“Gendered language is so deeply entrenched in our everyday speech that many people don’t even hear it anymore. Even if they do, it is understandable to question what the big deal is. Words are just words, aren’t they? Well, yes and no. Literally taken, words are just letters on a page but more importantly they are also symbols of meaning that can convey our prejudices, fears and anxieties. This can affect a wide range of behaviours and lead to subtle biases. In that sense, it is worth taking a critical look at the words we choose to use and the social implications behind them.”

Words are powerful. Don’t be fooled by sayings like ‘It’s not what you say, but how you say it’ or most communication is non-verbal. These are misleading and in the case of the latter, based on Mehrabian’s research, just plain inaccurate. Respect will be shown when words are chosen wisely.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.