Minister Rishworth interviewed on Future Women Leadership series with Helen McCabe


Topic: Women in politics and empathy.

HELEN MCCABE, HOST: Empathy is a bit like authenticity, a term that is possibly overused on this podcast; and it’s difficult to define. Women are often described as more empathetic leaders and modern leadership theory now encourages us to lead with more empathy. But what does this really mean? And can you be too empathetic to the detriment of being a good leader?

In this episode, I wanted to explore true empathy versus performative empathy, and how both relate to running a team. Today's guest knows a lot about this subject. Amanda Rishworth was elected to the Parliament at the age of 29. She has a Bachelor of Psychology from Flinders University and a Masters in Psychology from Adelaide University. She's practiced as a psychologist delivering mental health care to her community. Today, Amanda is the Minister for Social Services, the portfolio which manages welfare payments to millions of Australians. In this episode, we explore how Amanda manages empathy with just getting the job done.

Amanda Rishworth, welcome to the Future Women Leadership series and Happy International Women's Day, or week as it really is these days.

AMANDA RISHWORTH, MINISTER FOR SOCIAL SERVICES: Absolutely. Well, thanks so much for having me, Helen. And it is a really big week and there's lots of events going on all week. But it's a really important time to stop, celebrate, but also look at where we've got to go into the future.

HELEN MCCABE: So how do you spend the week?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, this week I'll be spending it in Parliament. So I hope with the passage of our first tranche of changes, improvements to paid parental leave, so that'll certainly be something worth celebrating [now passed]. Also, there'll be a number of events on in Parliament House. But on Friday there's a big, big breakfast in Adelaide in which Senator Penny Wong has hosted for a very long time, and I look forward to attending that.

HELEN MCCABE: Do you despair, like I do, that there are just not enough men attending these events?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, it is really great to get women together and celebrate, because of course this is about celebrating women's achievements. It would be nice for men to share, you know, the goals, aspirations and of course, the responsibility in how we improve gender equality. So it will be nice to see a few more, and I'd encourage any listening out there to go along, because it's actually really encouraging for many women if you're able to attend.

HELEN MCCABE: Yeah, I mean, there's no issue turning up for World Pride events, and yet when it comes to a room full of women for International Women's Day, the men look like they're a couple of kids at kindergarten holding each other's hands, standing at the back of the room wondering whether they're invited. I'm like, we've got to move on from that.

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Absolutely. I mean, I can imagine, especially at this Adelaide breakfast, where there's like thousands of women, it could be a little intimidating walking into that room. But look, there's events happening all around the country and so get along, enjoy it. It's a really, really important time.

HELEN MCCABE: There's no doubt there's something about Penny Wong that is intimidating, so I can take your point - all in a good way, of course. You have a background in psychology. What made you make the leap from psychology to politics?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Look, that's a really excellent question, because I get asked a lot about that. A lot of people sort of say they are completely different jobs, but actually they're not. I was working as a psychologist, and one of the frustrating things is when you work as a psychologist you can help an individual improve their lives, you can work with them. But then you've got another person and another person lining up waiting to see you. And so one of the things that became evident to me is that if I wanted to help more people, then by changing public policy, by investing in programs or changing things for whole communities, that I could help a lot of people at once.

So a lot of people think they're very different, but I see them both very much as helping professions. But for me, politics really gave the attraction of making more widespread difference. And I loved working as a psychologist, but to be able to help more people with one decision or one thing that you do really attracted me to politics. It is though, sometimes like banging your head against a brick wall in politics. Every now and again you crash on through, but when you do crash on through, making that difference is incredibly rewarding.

HELEN MCCABE: So empathy must be very much part of your everyday experience, because as the Minister for Social Services, you administer billions of dollars of welfare payments to Australians. Tell me in your own words what your job actually entails.

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Yeah. So the payments section of what the Government provides, that really important safety net for those people that might have found themselves without a job, they've retired with not enough superannuation so they go on the pension, and whether it's the disability support pension, all the rules around that is part of my job. And so I've got to understand the rules around that and make sure that that's fit for purpose. It's always hard, because there's always limited budgets, et cetera, but that is really important.

And one of the things I've come to this portfolio is, I'm not going to demonise someone that is on income support, because we've seen that play out on the front pages of papers, and it's just not fair. There is a safety net here in Australia and we need to make sure it's fit for purpose and that's part of my job.

But I also am responsible for leading the government in a number of other areas that very much can be difficult areas. One is family and domestic and sexual violence; very difficult space and an area we need to address. And I'm very much, with my state and territory colleagues, have made a commitment to address that and a real- a lot of effort.

But also disabilities, so supporting Australians with disability. Not the NDIS, that's Minister Shorten's role, but the rest of the area, and I think that's such an important area, because it goes to the heart of inclusion. How do we create an inclusive society? That we're not just a tack on thing for someone with a with a disability, but how do we make sure that society is much more inclusive? So it doesn't matter whether you're able-bodied or you might have a communication- a different way of communicating, that society's inclusive. So that's also part of my role.

HELEN MCCABE: One of the impressions that I have of your brand of politics is that you are most interested and focused on the most disadvantaged. Do you think that's a fair characterisation of the way you carry out your political obligations?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Yeah, look, I certainly am very much focused on those that are most disadvantaged. But I see government not just about support, but enabling. And I think if you think of the word enabling, governments have a role. So I'm not this, government's get out of my way. I see government's not getting in the way either. It is a real sense of enabling people. And so that obviously has a role for our most disadvantaged in the country, but it also is relevant to people that have other struggles, whether that is young people having struggles, whether that's in mental health. Might not be- they might not come from the most disadvantaged cohort, but they need a government to enable them.

And so I really see an interventionist role of government, but not in one that gets in the way or causes more difficulty, but really lifts people up and enables them. And when you take that lens to what you do, there's no doubt that those that face the most disadvantage, you know, really do need government to help them and lift them up.

HELEN MCCABE: How would you describe your leadership style in the community that you represent?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Yeah, look, my leadership style has always been one that's been very connected. Being connected to my local electorate, for example, has always been incredibly important to me. So being accessible, listening, understanding and being part of the community, and working collaboratively on solutions. I think that has always been the way that I've led and always the way that I see that you get the most out of people.

There's just no point in lecturing people or not actually paying attention to them. So for me, I've always led in a very collaborative style. I've always led with a style of connection as well, I think that's just so important and I have to say people have really responded to that.

HELEN MCCABE: The Prime Minister’s said a few times now that he has been underestimated all his life. Do you relate to that in any way?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: I do relate to that. I think back to I think it was in Year 6 or 7, I think the teacher told my mum that I might not get very far in high school. I'm not sure what led to that. So I do think from time to time people have been surprised. I was preselected for a marginal seat and I think a lot of people thought that I would just see out the term of the Rudd and Gillard Government and, 15 years later, I'm still there with a margin of about 16 per cent

So, I do think there's been a lot of people that have underestimated me. But I think over time they're learning not to.


HELEN MCCABE: Well, absolutely. And that's right, it’s a very marginal seat and a very tough one to win, and you have been there a long time. What characteristics do you need in life, therefore, to push through in a situation where you are underestimated?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, look, I think it's all in the doing. It's demonstrating to people that you can get a job done and I think that's really important. I think, also, making sure that you deliver on what you say you're going to do. I think there's a lot of- you know, it can be a lot of rhetoric and a lot of, dare I say, promises made in politics. But not just- I'm not talking about the big election promises, but when you're talking with individuals it's easy just to promise them the world and not deliver.

So I've always been very focused on doing what I said I would do. And whether that's just following up, for example, a tree that's fallen down in someone's street - it seems very minor, but if I've said I'm going to follow that up, I will follow that up. And I think following through on what you say by the doing is really important.

HELEN MCCABE: I'll come to empathy because I do want to understand that. But I imagine there's a lot of advantages as well in being underestimated. Has there been a time in your career or life where it's really played to your advantage?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: You know, we've got a bit of a tall poppy syndrome here in Australia. And so, sometimes if you're underestimated, you don't become the target of ripping that down. So, I definitely think that that tall poppy syndrome can make you a target - not that I agree with it, and I think being underestimated means that you are able to not be the target and just get on with your job. And that's not just in politics, that's across the board, I think.

HELEN MCCABE: Yeah. Like if you think about Penny Wong, for example. I mean, incredible career, but she's had such a huge name and presence that with that comes a downside. I think for what it's worth, being underestimated is a very, a very positive thing and the Prime Minister is an example of that. Let's talk about empathy. I feel like it's a word that is massively overused and women are constantly referred to as having stronger soft skills and they show more empathy. What do you hear when someone says I'm an empathetic leader?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, when I hear that, what I think it should mean is that you're able to put yourself in someone else's shoes. So I think sometimes empathy does get confused with sympathy. And being sympathetic is great, you know, you feel sad or upset for someone, but it's not real empathy. Empathy is about putting yourself in someone's shoes.

So to be an empathetic leader, you need to be able to suspend your own views for a moment in time, suspend your, at times, very strong perspective on the world and try and put yourself in someone else's shoes. That's actually a lot harder to do than people say it is. And so I think sometimes for me, a really empathetic leader is not just to show sympathy, but try and understand someone else's perspective to help them inform their decision making.

HELEN MCCABE: I have a number of members on my team that are extremely empathetic, and that means, in a practical sense, that it's actually difficult for them to do the job some days because they feel just too greatly the pain of either a colleague or a family friend or even a news story. That strikes me as a tough characteristic to have as a leader. Do you feel that sometimes?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Look, I think while empathy does sometimes make you feel very strongly and want to act and want to do something, I think sometimes it might be confused with indecision. So I'm very conscious that you can be very empathetic, but it shouldn't be confused with or leads to indecision. Because as a leader, I do believe you can be empathetic and decisive, but that that can be the trap that people fall into. If you're constantly just feeling and constantly thinking about from someone else's perspective, that gets in the way of making the final decision. Because as leaders, you do have to be decisive.

In my role, I'm making decisions on a daily basis. I try and think about it from different people's perspectives. Often there's competing perspectives as well. What you can't let those competing perspectives lead to is indecision. And that's where I think the key is, is being decisive as a leader while understanding, and being empathetic is critically important once you've weighed up all the different points of view.

HELEN MCCABE: So I want to go to that, because you're the Minister for Social Services, right? So you do see and hear some incredible cases. How does that impact you?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Look, it does very much impact me because I do feel responsible for, at times, difficult situations that people are in. Even if it's not directly responsible, you feel the responsibility that you should be able to help. And so that, at times, does make you feel, you know, like you need to take action.

I like to channel that and look at what I can do to make a difference. Comes back to that, what actions can I take? What can I do to actually make a difference? Because if you get stuck in just, I feel sad, this awful situation - I call it a bit of hand wringing, then nothing's going to get better. So it's about channelling that feeling, that perspective to try and do something - knowing that you can't fix everything and accepting that, I mean, I think that is really very, very important is that sort of acceptance that you can't do anything or can't do everything, sorry.

But really looking at what can you do and getting some level of, I've done everything I can to try and improve these things. And so that's how I've approached it, is channelling that feeling to, actually, action and I think that's, that's really important.

HELEN MCCABE: Do you ever worry that, and this is something - I was only talking to one of my colleagues the other day - we're doing a podcast on family violence and we're doing hundreds of hours of interviews with people who've had, you know, very, very difficult stories to tell and experiences about the impact and the reporting on that - and I was talking to a colleague about how some of us respond differently. So, I can do a new story of that magnitude and I can park it and I can do the next one, and I can do the next one again. Some people can't. It affects them too greatly. Do you see some of that in your role and in people that you work with? That it just- That they can't move past the sadness of a particular circumstance easily?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Yeah. Look, I have seen that. I am someone that is able to, as long as I've been able to lead to some action, do something, you know, about the situation, then that allows me to resolve it. And I guess that's why I like politics, because you get to do stuff. You get to, you get to try and help. But I do see that in people becoming overwhelmed.

And I think certainly in my previous career as a psychologist and in the helping environment, there a lot of attracted because they do really want to help, but they do find the stories, the emotion paralysing. And I think that is really difficult. I think often that does contribute to burn out as well, and it’s about getting those techniques from time to time. I mean, I must admit I was saying before that I find looking at some mindless shopping on the internet that- before I go to bed at night as a way to kind of, I guess, disassociate. I don’t mean disassociate in a way without feelings, but to separate properly.

HELEN MCCABE: [Talks over] Clear your mind.



AMANDA RISHWORTH: Probably separate is probably a better word to use, but I do see where people cannot leave it behind. The other thing I see – and I’m very conscious of this – I see people that the separation that the urge to constantly separate from this leads too much the other way. And that the desire to not feel all those emotions leads to sometimes callousness, sometimes a kind of disregard and turning off of empathy – even if they had empathy at the beginning – without being able to manage it, actually turn that off. And I am very conscious that I don’t want to develop a tin ear because, you know, turn off from those cases, put everyone in the same boat, go, oh, and because that can be really dangerous on the other side as well. And so I’m very conscious of checking myself around that, around sort of that disconnect and try and check out because I really think sometimes you stop listening to feedback, you stop empathising, you stop listening to those other voices that help you make good decisions. And I do think that happens from time to time as well.

HELEN MCCABE: Yeah, I think about the immigration debate in that context. I feel like a lot of people at the heart of the immigration debate found it easier to forget that there were people who were trying to escape horrific circumstances. Whatever your position on that debate, Jacinda Ardern is like the pin up for being an empathetic leader. What are your thoughts on the way she led?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: I do think she demonstrated some moments that demonstrated empathy. And of course, after that horrific mass shooting, she was there. But I think it wasn’t just empathy. She turned up. And I think for me, it was seeing her go to difficult places with people that were really hurting and share that with them. Not- I don’t know if that’s just empathy. I think it’s more than that. It’s almost like it’s turning up at the right time and making sure that you’re there when people need you.

HELEN MCCABE: And knowing the right thing to say and the right- and the right thing to do.

AMANDA RISHWORTH: [Talks over] Absolutely.

HELEN MCCABE: I mean, she had a gift for that.


HELEN MCCABE: And yet, in a way, it was the thing in the end that people struggled with because there was a lot of empathy, but there were a lot of policy decisions that in the end disappointed her constituents.

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Look, and I think that’s right in saying that once again, when you set expectations, you’ve got to deliver on them, and that is a big challenge. And I think when you demonstrate empathy, the person receiving it may feel that you completely agree with me. So if I empathise with you, I might not completely agree with you, but I’m trying to understand it from your perspective. And I think that is the challenge in politics, is empathy because person B over there could be just I could empathise with them on a- on the same issue from a different perspective. So I think it’s about being able to really understand from people’s different point of view. It doesn’t mean you agree with those points of view, but you understand them. And I think that that is pretty fundamental.

HELEN MCCABE: Yeah, that’s excellent advice. So do you think that there is still a different expectation on women to be empathetic than there is for men to be?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: I do. I think that women are expected to be empathetic, but I do think sometimes that’s correlated with being weak. And I think men are often not expected to be empathetic. And if they do show empathy, they are considered weak as well. So I do think there’s a different expectation of how much empathy each gender has to show. But I do think it’s probably more of a challenge for men at times, because if they show empathy, then actually that challenges the perception that they are not strong leaders, probably even more than women at times.

HELEN MCCABE: So what advice do you have for young future leaders in this country listening to this podcast today?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, first, don’t trust the inner voice that says that someone else can do it better than you. I’ve heard that voice lots of times. The assumption that people can do it better than you is often not right. So don’t listen to that voice. Listen to the voice in your head that directs you in an area of passion, directs you in an area of purpose, and strive for that. And I think you may be at times told you’re a bit pushy. You might be times told that, you know, wait your turn. Don’t listen to those voices either.

HELEN MCCABE: How often have you been told you’re a bit pushy?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Oh, a few times. A few times. I’ve been told that. And you know, I think that just comes with men don’t get told that, women get told that much more frequently. So I do think that’s important. But I’ve had that voice in my head many times, assuming people were better than me or could do it better. And look, I’ve learned to actually push that voice out.

HELEN MCCABE: Want to finish by just asking you because it is International Women’s Day. If you had a magic wand and you could have whatever you wanted as a female leader in this country to change the lives of women, what would you do? I know that’s a tough question.

AMANDA RISHWORTH: [Talks over] Oh, that’s such a hard one. But one of the things I think is create a society – and you know, this is not just what politicians can do – but create a society where when a baby was born, people would ask, is mum or dad having the first three months off? Is mum or dad having the second three months off? If we- hopefully we don’t have another pandemic, but it’s not just assumed that Mum will stay home and do the home schooling, that when the next ABS census comes out that the home duties are equally shared between partners. I mean, that’s for me that we have a true equal division of paid work, unpaid work, that the burden is equally shared because we know if that happens, then many of the other issues that result whether that is violence against women, whether that is women’s economic inequality, whether it’s the super gap, a lot- if we have a society where those questions- those roles aren’t assumed, then we will actually solve many of the other issues. So I know that’s a very broad answer.

HELEN MCCABE: That’s a great answer.

AMANDA RISHWORTH: But I really- that’s what I would really like to see that when my husband takes the first 12 months off, both times we had babies for people not to be surprised and say what a great daddy was where I’m not sure they were saying that to the mum that was taking the 12 months off. That’s the type of attitude change I’m really keen to see.

HELEN MCCABE: Amanda, thank you very much for joining us.