'I'm a huge supporter of quotas because you need a jolt to change the status quo'

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Carol Schwartz is a fervid believer that more women should enter Australian politics.

And with a federal election not far down the track, she is optimistic that female parliamentarians will emerge as a force to be reckoned with even if they disagree on specific issues. Just three new members need to be elected, she says, to combine with existing independent parliamentarians to potentially deliver the balance of power.

Clearly, Schwartz is excited by the prospect. After all, she has spent considerable time and money over many years to bring about a balancing gender voice in the halls of power. The surge in the influence of the #MeToo movement in recent times provides an impetus for her convictions.

Carol Schwartz women in politics

"One of the amazing examples of this happening is the election of Zali Steggall," she says.

In the 2019 federal election Steggall beat former prime minister Tony Abbott in his Sydney stronghold of Warringah.

"A group of women organised a strong campaign to oust the incumbent and install an independent candidate. That woman supports climate change action, an anti-corruption body at the federal level and gender equality as her platform. I am politically agnostic.

"Women of all ideologies need to get involved in politics for the diversity of background and of how we make decisions. You want different people with different ways of approaching problems to represent their constituencies."

Known as a Melbourne property investor and philanthropist, Schwartz also sits on the powerful Reserve Bank board and is the founding chair of the Women's Leadership Institute Australia. A long-time advocate for women's leadership in business, she was first galvanised as a political activist after Abbott appointed just one woman to his federal cabinet.

"I was completely outraged that could happen," she recalls.

"I approached a colleague I met by being on the board of Harvard University's Women and Public Policy Program. 'Did she think it could be adapted for Australia?' " The answer was yes, and Schwartz asked her alma mater, Melbourne University, to become involved. The program was adapted and has since been taken up by the University of NSW and Queensland University of Technology. "Alumni are now in federal parliament, state parliaments and local government," says Schwartz.

"We're really making a difference." Its workshops include fundraising, solving ethical dilemmas and understanding the party machinery. Some 220 women have completed the course after its fifth year.

"You have to be passionate about what it is that you want to do," she urges.

"You have to be somewhat tenacious and courageous. And you really have to put forward in an authentic way."

Does that come naturally?

"There is a generalisation that women lack confidence. I don't think so. What happens is that they are exposed to a lot of situations and experiences that teach them how to hold back, as opposed to putting themselves forward. You only have to have a few of those experiences to be more reticent about the way you approach opportunities and people.

"I'm a huge supporter of quotas because very often you need a jolt to change the status quo. The structures we live and work under have been around, basically, since Australia was discovered. And they were set up by men over 200 years ago.

"Look at our parliaments, our judicial system, our academic structures. Every facet of society has been created by men for men.

"To chip away at them, you need some very targeted campaigns and actions. And I think that quotas are part of those actions. Look what's happened globally when they have been put in place. You have fundamental change. Look at what's happened in the Labor Party here.

"You only need to look at the data globally on what gender-diverse teams can do in terms of revenues and profits for business. In retail, in particular, your dominant customer is female. [That means] you really want to have that perspective around your decision-making table. When you have a totally unrepresentative group making decisions for a set of customers, you can bet your bottom dollar they are going to make mistakes that could have been avoided."

Schwartz manages her gender equality passion, philanthropic pursuits and business pursuits through a family office, Trawalla Group.

It has a heavyweight board including her husband, Alan, as managing director. Curiously enough, part of the group focuses on venture capital.

It recently committed seed funding to ALIAVIA Ventures, headed by a pair of women - Kate Vale and Marisa Warren - whose experience includes working at Google, YouTube and Spotify. Apart from the importance of business plans and experience, Trawalla has a view that female venture capitalists are more realistic than men in making pitches. Yet they only attract a miniscule amount of funds into their ventures.

"Women tend to be more conservative in their projections, which makes them more achievable," she says.

"It doesn't make them less ambitious. They are just as ambitious as men, but they are more realistic and strategic about the way that ambition is to be achieved." She agrees there is probably a gender bias because less funds are available to them, but that also makes them more creative.

As a child, Schwartz went to a co-ed school, where she recalls that the performance of girls often surpassed that of boys.

"That is not unusual because girls tend to mature faster than boys."

She went on to study arts-law at university.

"I wasn't really aware of any gender issues. There was a robust number of girls in my law classes. Maybe it was just that females were brighter and participated more. I never thought we were a minority. It never entered my consciousness. I found out later that only about 25% were studying law at that time." It wasn't until moving into the corporate world that her awareness changed.

"There were no women in the meetings I was going to anymore."

She has a strong entrepreneurial streak. At 23, she opened and managed an aerobic and dance studio called Energetiks. In her late 20s, she returned to university to do an MBA, and was surprised to notice that out of a class of around 250 there were just three or four women.

"I found that bizarre. Everywhere I went, I would ask: where are the women?"

After having her third child, she joined the family retail property business.

"In those days, in the early 1990s, property was notoriously male-dominated except for shopping centre managers and marketing managers. That's when I started to ask: where are the women?" She joined the Property Council and was elected as Victoria's president.

"One of the first things I did was to stop having lunches at male-only clubs. I brought more women onto the council, and some were very interesting entrepreneurs and developers. We started a formal Property Council lunch every month at the Grand Hyatt, but very few women would come. So, I invited at least half those on the president's table to be women. In doing that, they would go to the lunch because they wouldn't be the only ones there. The council now is a completely different beast. Our committees and sub-committees are at least 50/50."

Property is one of Schwartz's prime passions.

"I just love it. Particularly retail property. It's so dynamic. You have new uses - ones coming into fashion and ones going out of fashion. It is incredibly creative in how you design the spaces. When I was in my early 20s, I teamed up with a girlfriend of mine who was an interior designer and we did some small, suburban townhouse developments, which I absolutely loved."

What impact will COVID have?

"The data shows people are moving back into offices. I don't know whether they will use them in the same way. Definitely a hybrid way of working suits everybody, including the business. With retail property, online has developed a presence and it's not going to diminish.

"There's a residential property boom at the moment, but you probably wouldn't be out there investing in high-priced residential at the moment. But there could be High Streets with vacant shops that could be available at very good prices."

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Alan Deans is senior partner at Last Word Corporate Communications, and is a former journalist and editor.