Women rising: career insights from influential female leaders

Three women, three leaders, from three different fields. Meet a trio of La Trobe’s most successful alumni as they share their insights into their paths to success and advice to future female leaders.

Women make up more than half of the world’s population, but you wouldn’t know it with how under-represented they are in leadership roles. Although women currently hold fewer than 35 per cent of senior leadership positions internationally, there are rising female leaders who are paving the way for gender equality at the senior level for the next generation of women.

We sat down with three influential women leaders who studied at La Trobe – the Maldives' first female assistant auditor general, a member of the Senate of Pakistan, and Victoria's most senior solicitor – to understand their path to leadership and what they believe is key to women’s career success.

Shirumeena Hussain is not afraid to fail

Shirumeena at her appointment as the Assistant Auditor General

Aged 17, Shirumeena Hussain (Master of Professional Accounting, 2011) joined the Auditor General’s Office (AGO) in the Maldives as a trainee audit accountant. After working her way up the ranks through her commitment and the power of education, Shirumeena became the assistant auditor general in 2021.

Today, Shirumeena is the first Maldivian woman to hold the assistant auditor general role and oversees a major part of the AGO’s workload. Her goal is to become the first female auditor general of her country.

‘As a leader I’m responsible for achieving the strategy and goals of the AGO. To do this effectively, I’ve developed my strategic, innovation and critical thinking skills. I’ve also improved my ethical values of honesty, integrity, and impartiality,’ Shirumeena says.

Along the way, she’s strengthened bonds with her staff.

‘It’s important to clearly communicate with your staff and to acknowledge and respect different communication styles. There are different kinds of employees and I’ve worked hard to understand their emotions and to have empathy.’

To increase women’s participation in leadership, Shirumeena believes organisations need greater gender diversity – especially at the senior level. Offering flexibility in the work environment is key.

‘Providing flexible working hours and opportunities to work from home will encourage more women to participate in senior levels,’ she says.

‘Organisations can provide extra benefits for women, like increasing maternity leave, so more women come back rather than leaving the job to look after their kids. Organisations can also provide childcare facilities to encourage more women to stay in their jobs.’

Shirumeena’s advice to women starting their careers is to think positively.

‘Your thoughts are the root to your destiny. If you want to achieve something, you must start with positivity. From the very beginning of your career, if you set your mind to become a great leader, chances are high that you’ll become one,’ she says.

‘Also: take risks, don’t be afraid of failure, learn from your mistakes, and maintain your ethical values throughout your career.’

Senator Palwasha Khan learned to stand her groundPalwasha Khan

Senator Palwasha Khan (Graduate Diploma in Economics) is a successful La Trobe alum who, after graduating, pursued a career in politics in Pakistan. She was elected to the Parliament of Pakistan from 2008 to 2013, and in 2022 was appointed as senator.

Palwasha’s journey to leadership is an extraordinary one in a country where, she says, women have had few opportunities to succeed in the political arena.

‘As a young legislator, I learned many lessons. The hardest to inoculate within myself was to not back off when faced with fascist opponents,’ Palwasha says.

‘I learned to fight for what I believed was right, no matter how long the battle lasted. I learned to not cede space, no matter how hard it was to stand my ground. I learned to fight back, no matter how proverbially bloodied I became.’

Palwasha is passionate about increasing women’s grassroots involvement in the political process.

‘There are still many areas in Pakistan where women can neither participate in election campaigns, nor contest for a seat,’ she says.

‘In some areas, women are denied the constitutional right to vote. Reforming the electoral process with provisions made especially for female participation should be the first strategy a country like Pakistan can adopt.’

For female graduates, Palwasha’s advice is to remain true to who you are.

‘It’s not necessary that women travel on the path carved out over centuries by men. We must believe that our empathy, our unique perspective, and our abilities will be enough to carve out our own roads. And, crucially, we must believe that the way ahead we forge for ourselves is better than the patriarchal roads we leave behind.’

Abbey Hogan believes leaders aren’t born, they’re raisedAH Award

Abbey Hogan (Bachelor of Law, 2003) was appointed as Solicitor for Public Prosecutions in Victoria in January 2020. The role is considered the most senior solicitor position within Victoria’s Office of Public Prosecutions.

Abbey has been recognised as a Victorian Public Sector Established Leader in the 2022 Public Sector Women Awards. The awards recognise exceptional women leaders in the Victorian public sector and their contributions to their teams, communities, and organisations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘One thing that I’ve developed as a leader is clear communication skills. The larger the size of the organisation, the harder it is to ensure that your messages reach everyone in the way that you intend them to,’ she says.

‘I have learned that you really need to think about how a message might be perceived and often need multiple formats and numerous repetitions to ensure everyone receives it in the way it was intended.’

Abbey is also passionate about empowering women’s voices from a young age.

‘The opportunity to build leadership capacity in women starts early on. It’s about giving women of diverse backgrounds and personalities the opportunity to be heard so they can be the best version of themselves,’ she says.

The solution to increasing the participation of women in leadership, Abbey believes, is to raise them with opportunities that encourage their self-assurance.

‘If females are given leadership opportunities early, it nurtures confidence, growth, and an appreciation that leaders can come in many different forms and styles.’

Abbey’s guidance for women at the start of their leadership journey is to take everything as a learning opportunity.

‘I would encourage aspiring female leaders to really do the essential groundwork. Work hard, learn from experienced people around you, and try to get as broad of an experience as possible,’ she says.

‘Take the opportunities that feel right for you and accept the inevitable setbacks as learning and growth opportunities. It sounds clichéd, but the little – or big – bumps in the road will serve you just as well as the high points, and it’s in those moments that you will grow the most.’