From a young age, Kerry Chikarovski knew she wanted to pursue a career in politics. Kerry can recall telling the nuns at Monte Sant’Angelo Mercy College that politics was the only job for her. She was thirteen years old. Through a series of encounters and decisions that further cemented her career choice, Kerry went on to lead the New South Wales Liberal Party from 1999 until 2002, becoming the first female leader of a major political party in New South Wales history.
It may have seemed that politics was in her blood. Kerry’s father – former Willoughby Mayor, Greg Bartels AM – took up a post with the United Nations in New York in the 1960s. Her family spent five years there which proved to be formative for Kerry as she attended the UN International School.
There she had a chance encounter with Senator Robert Kennedy. Kerry recalls, “My father called out ‘Good on ya’ mate’ and in 1968 there were few Australians in New York and Robert Kennedy stopped to talk to us - I was introduced to him by my father. He [Robert] had an absolute presence about him and there wasn’t a noise in a crowd of thousands when he spoke.”
On choosing to study economics, Kerry knew it would provide a strong grounding when working in politics, along with her law degree. She embraced University life with a passion and was immersed in student politics and student societies throughout her time at University of Sydney. She became President of the Law Society and served as a Director of the University of Student Union (USU).
In 1978, Kerry graduated with her Bachelor of Economics and Bachelor of Law degrees. A proud alumna, Kerry was the first ‘non-John’s man’ to marry at St John’s College – following in her father’s footsteps.
This would prove to be the start of many firsts for Kerry. On discussing her proudest professional achievements, being the first woman to lead a major political party in New South Wales is an obvious high point. It is however the introduction of flexible work conditions in the public sector that she reflects on most fondly – crucial measures that became the roadmap for not only the public sector, but also the corporate sector to follow, which she implemented while Minister for Industrial Relations and Employment and Minister for The Status of Women.
Gender imbalance and the unequal treatment of men and women in the workplace are topics Kerry is more than familiar with. When asked what advice she would give to women entering these traditionally male workplaces and roles today, she says, “Don’t be intimidated and have confidence in your ability. Women too often underestimate what they are capable of and they shouldn’t. Be prepared to step up when the opportunity to presents itself – what’s the worst that can happen? Put your hand up to do a job and if don’t do it well then you learn from the experience. If you don’t put your hand up, you’re never going to learn.”
Don't be intimidated and have confidence in your ability. Women too often underestimate what they are capable of and they shouldn't.
On professional challenges and the lessons learned from these, Kerry says, “My greatest challenge - and greatest failing – when leader of the opposition, was that I didn’t recognise my own personal need to reach out and seek support from other people. I had decided I needed to do it on my own and couldn’t show anybody I wasn’t coping – in hindsight that was a disaster. In reality, no-one has achieved anything on their own. Everybody who is successful in what they wanted to achieve in life has had help to get there. So, my greatest challenge was not recognising my own failing, and my greatest failing was not reaching out and asking for help. What have I learned? Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.”
Today Kerry follows her own advice closely and says she has a strong network of support around her to draw upon. After leaving politics she founded government relations firm, Chikarovski & Associates and today works with organisations, not for profits and industry associations, to help them understand the processes of government and how to work successfully with bureaucrats and politicians at all levels of government. Kerry also serves on the Board for numerous organisations including Chair of the NSW Women’s Rugby Union, Adopt Change and Our Watch.
Even with the impending economic uncertainly that COVID-19 has thrown the world into, Kerry remains optimistic for the future, and the Australian businesses she now works with. “The greatest challenge facing businesses today is survival. However, in tough times the entrepreneurial spirit of Australians comes to the fore.”