career

Sallyanne Atkinson ran an entire city while raising five children, here's her secret.

Sallyanne Atkinson is – to date – the only woman who has held the title of Lord Mayor of Brisbane.

Born in 1942, Atkinson (then Kerr) began as a journalist for the Brisbane Telegraph in 1960.

At 21, she married neurosurgeon Leigh Atkinson. For many women at the time, marriage marked the end of their career. But for Atkinson, it was to be only the beginning.

Speaking to Holly Wainwright for Mamamia podcast I Don’t Know How She Does It, Atkinson explained “When we got married and I said to my mother-in-law that I was going to continue to work she said ‘but oh my dear, people will think that Leigh can’t afford to keep you!’ It was quite a shocking thing in those days.”

Sallyanne Atkinson speaks to Holly Wainwright on ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’ about the secret to work life balance. Post continues below. 

When she fell pregnant, Atkinson recalls her boss saying to her, “Oh, we’ve just discovered some terrible news… that you’re pregnant.” Atkinson swiftly replied “Oh… I thought that was quite good news.”

But according to her superiors, a pregnant news reporter was out of the question.

“I do think that at least half your viewers know that babies don’t come from under cabbage patches,” Atkinson remarked.

Despite what was customary at the time, Atkinson worked at The Sydney Telegraph, and then at the Courier Mail, while raising small children.

In 2017, the mother of five, with a career spanning more than five decades, has some invaluable advice for any woman who is struggling to balance a career and a family.

“If you don’t think you can’t do it, you usually can.”

“Growing up in an all girls family, and at an all girls school, I really didn’t realise that there were things I was not supposed to do,” Atkinson told Wainwright.

It never crossed Atkinson’s mind that there were things she couldn’t, or shouldn’t do, simply because she was a woman.

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"I kept begging and begging and begging to be allowed to cover courts, which was not considered a nice place for a lady..." Atkinson said. Instead, she was relegated to 'social' news, and coworkers insisted they would never give that job to a woman.

Eventually, she was "allowed" to go and cover a case in the Supreme Court.

Don't hide your children from your job

"I've never believed in hiding your children away from your job, because that seems to say there's something wrong with the job," Atkinson said.

She also found that "... some of the children sort of liked it."

"Choose the right partner"

"It's very important, dare I say, to choose the right partner if you want to have a very busy life," Atkinson said.

She acknowledged that it was often times "very difficult" for her husband given that he was a doctor and it was unusual at the time to have a wife who was career-focused. In addition, she says, "It was difficult for him to have a wife who was in the public limelight as it were."

But the key is to talk to your family - tell them what you're doing and why you're doing it. According to Atkinson, openness is critical.

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"Just get on with it"

"If I had one motto," Atkinson told Wainwright, "it would have to be 'just get on with it'".

"I see people really angsting over things that just don't matter. And getting hurt about things... when the person who hurt them didn't really have an intention of doing that," she said.

"I was never terribly conscious of having to behave differently..." she added. Instead, she just got the job done.

You can have it all, just not all at once

"It's a question of working out first of all what you want," she said.

She suggested women sit down and write their very own "10 Commandments" detailing what is most important to them.

When Wainwright asked about the subject of work life balance, she replied, "I don't actually think that there is such a thing as work life balance. I don't really think it's such a desirable thing.

"I think we should be talking about work life harmony. Making sure you can deal with ups and down, a lot of people like working an awful lot...a  lot of people like bringing their work home.

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"For a lot of people their work is life, and it's not necessarily a bad thing.

"You can have it all, but not necessarily all at once."

If possible - get help

Atkinson acknowledged how lucky she was to be able to afford help as her children were growing up.

"I say this to young women. You have to get help...

"Early on I decided I didn't want a nanny, but I did want someone who would do the things I didn't want to do. Which was the cleaning, the cooking and the washing... I was lucky that I was able to pay for help."

She added that she was never much good at cleaning, and noticed there were people who could do the same job in a quarter of the time she could. So instead, she just outsourced it.

Mothers guilt is a waste

"I hate waste..." Atkinson told Wainwright, reasoning that it was probably a result of being born during World War II.

But her dislike of wastage extends well into her emotional life, as she explained "I think wasted emotion is waste."

And that includes 'mother's guilt'.

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She recalls her daughter yelling at her one day, in a screaming match that any mother would be familiar with. Atkinson calmly reminded her "I'm your mother and I'm the only mother you're likely to get, so just put up with it."

Almost 50 years later, her daughter still repeats it back to her.

Always, always, ask for advice

On the subject of waste, Atkinson said "It's a terrible waste of time to pretend you know something you don't or you can do something when you can't."

She encourages women to never, ever be afraid to ask for advice.

Atkinson recalled that the number one problem young women have is not actually understanding what their job is.

"It's amazing how often people don't really know..." Atkinson said. They can recite the job title, but aren't sure of how they meaningfully contribute.

Take control

"If you don't like what you're doing, stop doing that," Atkinson said.

She recalled a prayer she learned at school, that perfectly summarised her point.

God give me the courage to change the things I can,

The strength to bear the things I can't,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

At 74 years old, Atkinson remains the only woman to hold the title of Lord Mayor of Brisbane.

She has been awarded an Order of Australia, an Australian Sports medal and a Centenary medal for her service to Australian government. Atkinson has also served as a founding member on the board of the United Nations' International Council for Local Environment Initiatives.

Now, the feminist trailblazer wants women of her generation to "write your life, share your experience, because that's the only way people learn."

You can buy Sallyanne's book No Job For A Woman here.

You can listen to the full episode of I Don't Know How She Does It with Sallyanne Atkinson, here. 

Check out all our podcasts and any books mentioned in any of our shows at apple.co/mamamia.