In 2023 there are more women in leadership roles than ever before and at Sunshine Coast Council, Emma Thomas has made it to the very top.
In support of International Women’s Day, the CEO has reflected on being a woman in the workforce and the many changes she’s experienced over her career.
Before becoming the Chief Executive Officer of one of the nation’s biggest councils, Emma forged an impressive career path in several traditionally male-dominated arenas, including mechanical and aeronautical engineering and a decade-long stint in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
Emma inherited her love of ‘space’ from her father and an interest in joining the RAAF from her grandfather.
“There were a lot of space shuttle launches in the 1980s and they would all get televised,” Emma said.
“I would sit on the loungeroom floor watching all the launches with my dad - we shared a curiosity about all thing’s ‘space’.
“I didn't really know my grandfather that well, but he was a Spitfire pilot during WWII,” she shared.
Emma’s first RAAF posting was at Tindal, south of Katherine in the Northern Territory. She worked on the then very new F/A-18 hornets and loved every moment.
Keen to be part of the small local community, the former WA state gymnast, updated her coaching accreditations and spent many hours coaching at the local YMCA.
She considers gymnastics a great confidence and character builder because it teaches you “to get back up’’ when things don’t turn out as well as hoped.
Emma left the RAAF to join Boeing Australia and then held a range of senior leadership roles with the South Australia and Queensland Governments.
She was also Director-General of Transport Canberra and City Services in the Australian Capital Territory – an organisation of nearly 2,000 staff.
Now at council, she’s still leading by example.
For Emma, International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the many incredible women across all levels of Sunshine Coast Council.
And if we still have inequitable situations, the CEO believes it’s a worthy conversation to keep having.
When considering a promotion, or stepping up, Emma believes women often stop themselves before even giving it a go.
“I’d encourage people to see how it works first, be open about what you need for it to work and let the system build around you.
“I try to say to people, ‘don't have a fixation on what your pathway looks like, because 30 years ago, there's no way I would have thought I would be sitting here today as the CEO of Sunshine Coast Council’.
“It’s important to go and explore and to see what sparks your passion,” she said.
Emma shared her number one quality for any leader is to care about people.
“For anyone who's thinking about being a leader, being a compassionate and caring and kind person is at the core of all leadership endeavours,” she said.
“International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to reflect on that one day a year, to keep shifting the dial, meaning we’ll continue to move towards equity – and get there as fast as we can.”
She said there's a lot to still be done to make people feel that they fit in here on the Sunshine Coast – no matter which angle they come at it from.
With 10 of the 11 Sunshine Coast councillors being men, the CEO acknowledges there’s still work to be done to encourage diversity in local government representation.
“Councillors face a challenging job and it is difficult to get people to put their hands up.
“Our councillors work really, really hard and are very passionate about their communities.
“But I think for us, as council officers, making sure that they're well supported in the job, that they can work for council in a way that's very professional, is a big incentive for more women to also give it a try.’’
“Having women in the workplace – or diversity of any kind – allows us all to explore and understand differences a lot better.
You want to get the best out of your workforce by seeing difference as an asset not a hinderance.”