Woman Sylvan, Louise

Consumer Activist

Written by Kate Moore, Australian National University

Louise Sylvan was born and raised in a small prairie town near Edmonton in Canada. Her grandmother who had been one of the leaders of the suffragette movement, and her mother, who was a teacher, provided her with strong role models. Her father, a prospector, was also an important figure in her life. She describes him as a great outdoorsman and hunter (http://janeelix.wordpress.com/2012/02/21/louise-sylvan/). Education was in private schools where there were strong expectations of academic performance, which Louise believes is important for children. She studied business administration and commerce at university, and then completed a Liberal Arts degree before doing graduate work in public administration and policy.

While at university Louise married a visiting Australian scholar, and migrated to Australia in 1983. She initially ran the ANU's extension and public affairs program but in 1987 she became the inaugural Executive Director of the Consumers' Health Forum. Establishing a new organisation was a challenge that she enjoyed and under her leadership the organisation took a particular interest in the processes of government decision making and their impact on the lives of people.

After nearly 3 years Louise moved to Choice, initially as its head of policy, but became its Chief Executive 4 years later. It was an era of market deregulation and government emphasis on increasing competition. Louise realised that deregulation was 'just begging for some really strong consumer advocacy' particularly in the areas of financial and telecommunication services (http://janeelix.wordpress.com/2012/02/21/louise-sylvan/). Louise became Deputy Chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in 2003, a position which enabled her to contribute in a different way. After 5 years with the ACCC, she was appointed as a Commissioner with the Productivity Commission where she pursued her passion for good policy and process. In 2011 she was appointed to head up the new National Preventive Health Agency, which has some challenging goals in reducing risk factors for ill health (http://www.anpha.gov.au/internet/anpha/publishing.nsf/Content/home-1).

During her career Louise has taken on some tough tasks, and sometimes found herself subject to strong resistance from industry, and at times, personal attacks. But she says that she has 'never seen the task as being liked'. She stresses that she never attacks the person because 'people who do that have already lost the argument - they are scared at that point' (http://janeelix.wordpress.com/2012/02/21/louise-sylvan/). Louise sees a difference between men and women in leadership positions - 'men', she says, 'tend to have a lot more ego on the table. That's the nature of our society.' But she emphasises that all leaders need to have enormous integrity and concern for people, as well as good, hard-nosed management skills. It is important that leaders are able to make the hard decisions (http://janeelix.wordpress.com/2012/02/21/louise-sylvan/). Her advice to younger women is that gravitas matters, because society still sees men and women as different, and women still have to fight for their leadership. Women have to distinguish between being nice and developing the ability to stand the territory as the leadership person with the right to do that (http://janeelix.wordpress.com/2012/02/21/louise-sylvan/).

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