"Elliott, played by Henry Thomas, his brother and friends riding as fast as they can from the police to get "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" back to the forest." Photo: BRUCE MCBROOM
When Jude Kelly took her daughter to the movies to see ET her child was enraptured by the story of a boy who befriends an extra terrestrial from outer space. Until the film, for this perceptive young girl, took a dark turn. In the movie’s edge-of-your-seat finale five heroic children are pursued by descending authorities. Propelled by the strength of their imaginations, the depths of their desire and the magic of their alien friend – their bicycles are launched in to the sky. But something else happens too - it’s only the boys bikes that take flight across the skyline. The sole girl character Gertie is left at home with her pink bicycle to watch the boys in the distance.
Kelly’s daughter began to cry. She asked, “but why can’t girls fly?” Indeed. Kelly is the Artistic Director of The Southbank Centre in London and the creator of a festival called Women of the World (WOW) parts of which were transplanted to Sydney last week as part of the Writers Festival – including the world’s largest (all female) speed mentoring session.
I had a reasonably unsuccessful turn at romantic speed dating in my 20s. Relegated to a small “reserved” section of a local pub we were plied with as much stale Jatz and Jansz champagne as one could consume in an hour. Cold comfort as, at the end of each noisy 10 minute interaction, a man marked your performance down on a card and moved on to the woman beside you.
Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre in London. Photo: Cynthia Sciberras
Being invited to spend four 15-minute-long sessions mentoring women was comparatively like being offered a warm hug and a good whiskey. Sitting in small circles inspiring women like Claudia Karvan, Anna Bligh, Tracey Spicer, Eva Cox and Jane Caro gathered to bestow decades of accumulated wisdom to 100 willing participants.
Kelly addressed the room outlining rules of play (a bell would ring every 15 minutes and the mentees would need to switch seats) and why we were there. “We are continually told we are equal but it is not our lived experience,” she said. “No country has gender equality and we won’t have it until it is the personal belief of every man, woman and child. Until it is as natural as picking up a tea cup.”
Kelly believes that mentoring can be a powerful tool in equalising the gender divide. A way to ensure women aren’t internalising messages that they aren’t good enough and are actively being given the same opportunities and support as their male counterparts. She is a mesmerising speaker, a kind of super-feminist who can articulate the female experience and the importance of equality in a way that makes you frankly feel high with possibilities.
The speed mentoring session at the Sydney Writers Festival 2013. Photo: Cynthia Sciberras
The speed mentoring itself was intense and intimate. I spoke to an aspiring author, a producer making films about life in Sydney’s West, a finance journalist and a well-known Australian actress whose work I very much admire. The text book definition of good mentoring tells you that it should be all about listening and asking questions though as the minutes flashed by it took on a life of its own – there were robust discussions of the right time in your career to have children, the traps of doing work without pay and the intricacies of writing about your sex life.
Mentoring is a powerful tool but it is nothing if we don’t take action beyond our conversations. “Women are over-mentored and under-sponsored,” Kelly said. For mentoring to work then women need to actively look out for and offer opportunities to other women be it jobs or promotions or creating flexible working conditions.
I’ve been the recipient of much generous mentoring throughout my career from both men and women. It comes in many forms not all of them are easy. Julia Zaetta, publishing legend and Editor of Better Homes & Gardens, was also a mentor last week. The women that spoke to her were very lucky indeed.
One day many years ago when I was making an agonising professional decision she took me out for a coffee. She asked me to tell her my problem from the top, every difficult detail. At the end she announced over the buzzing of the coffee shop, “Get up! Stand up!” – l obeyed. “Now swap seats with me, come and sit in my seat!” Again I followed her instructions. “Now,” she said. “What would you say if you were me? If I had just said all of those things what would you tell me?” And the decision, the right thing to do, in that moment was crystal clear.
Good mentoring, the valuable kind, is an immeasurable professional gift. And one of the few that’s free and easy to give. As women it’s an even more important and critical tool. In fact it can be the one thing that stands between a woman remaining stuck professionally on the ground or being able to soar, ET-style, in the professional skyline along with her male counterparts.