INTERVIEW WITH MERCY HEALTH CHAIR VIRGINIA BOURKE

Words are important, none more so than when they are spoken by a teacher to a child. Ask Virginia Bourke whose ambition as a 15 year-old schoolgirl in a Melbourne classroom was kindled. She had expressed to her English teacher a desire to study law; the reply was a simple but affirmative declaration delivered by someone not used to handing out platitudes. “I can imagine you as a lawyer Virginia”. It was enough. 

Fast-forward a few decades, and a number of roles and careers, and Virginia is able to recall the impact those words had on her. “I think having a woman who understood me and who taught me for years say that, was a very powerful thing. It empowers you to do it.” 

Those words and the influence of the long-running television series LA Law propelled the young Virginia, one of seven children, to a career that today sees her sit on the boards of Catholic Health Australia, Mercy Health, the Mater Group, St John Ambulance, and Caritas Australia, among others. She continues to practice law in her own private practice while also  working in a consultancy role for MinterEllison, but her career in the profession began in the adversarial and often heart-wrenchingly sad arena of family law. 

For four years as a young lawyer she was there advising her clients – most of them 20 years her senior with more life experience behind them than the 20-something year old sitting across the table. “I hated the conflict. I hated the human angst. Looking back now I think I wouldn’t mind having a crack [now] as I’d be a lot more robust.” Ironically, her favourite book is The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard, a story that dissects a failed marriage over three decades. 

The practice of family law certainly added valuable life experience to the capable, diligent young woman who had emerged from her Brigidine school, and from a family in which she had assumed a high level of responsibility as the second eldest. “I remember at the time shifting my thinking from how normal my family was to thinking how extraordinary my family is. It was quite a revelation to me. We were, and are, a very happy family.”

Eventually leaving family law behind she took a job at a company building and running childcare centres, while at the same time returning to university to study a Master of Arts, where she admits she was the classic eager mature aged student. Her final thesis drew on her experience in the family courts to examine constructions of motherhood and fatherhood and the gender assumptions made by judges in their deliberations. All this as well as having her first two children. “I didn’t sleep much for some years but I was quite driven.” 

Nor did rest increase in her next role, a leap into publishing to work for the Melbourne identity Geoff Slattery. Initially hired as an editor, she was called upon to turn her hand to every aspect of the business, from human resources, managing contracts, accounting, and finally taking on the role of in-house legal counsel. “It was like being in a start-up. I got to do everything. It was a great learning experience. You don’t realise it at the time as you are just trying to work it all out.” 

The more flexible working environments of today were still some time away. The long hours and demands of work and a third child finally took their toll and led her to resign, albeit regretfully. Regrouping after a few months, Virginia set herself up in private practice: it was the only way she was able to juggle parenting with career. “I didn't set up my practice because I was driven by entrepreneurial flair; it was more out of necessity. I thought, "I can do this work but I need to do it on my own terms." 

She set up a home office (a new concept back then), the clients came in, she threw herself into her local community, parish and her children’s schools, loving the life she had created for herself with the constant support of her husband, Paul, knowing she could devote herself to each aspect more equitably. 

Her first experience of sitting on a formal board came when she was asked to help with some human resources issues at a women’s centre, Wellsprings for Women in Dandenong, which was set up by the Presentation Sisters. The untimely death of its founder, Sr Ann Halpin pvbm soon after Virginia’s arrival posed new challenges but also an opportunity for her to learn more about the critical role of governance, especially at an organisation grieving the loss of its leader. 

While others might say her career to this date had been varied and interesting she prefers to call it ’messy’. Whatever you might call it, it built a broad skillset, a confidence about tackling all kinds of work challenges in many different sectors and a keen awareness of the importance of a deep network of friends and colleagues.

However, her big break came after a friend had a chance encounter with Julien O’Connell AO (a director of Catholic Health Australia and Villa Maria Catholic Homes) at a barbecue. A phone call to Virginia from Mr O’Connell the next day set in train a series of events, including a formal interview with Mr O’Connell and the late Mr Barry O’Callaghan AO, the outgoing Chair of Mercy Health at that time – which eventually led her to be offered a seat on the board of Mercy Health. 

It was a memorable interview at the top of Collins Street in Melbourne: “Barry and Julien exuded great warmth and good humour, the most avuncular and confident pair of Chairmen you could ever encounter – they both had an extraordinary commitment to the work of the Sisters of Mercy. They had been very impressed that I had set up my own practice. And I remember saying: "I only set it up just for my own flexibility." I did that classic thing that women should never do – which is protesting and pointing out all your weaknesses during an interview. I’ve trained myself out of that now!”

In the years that followed, Virginia combined a growing portfolio of Board positions with a Special Counsel role at MinterEllison and then a two-year period as General Counsel for the Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia and Papua New Guinea. Ten years after the initial meeting with Julien and Barry, Virginia became Mercy Health’s first female chair, a mere 150 years after the Sisters of Mercy first arrived to minister to the poor and marginalised in the new colony. 

On faith: 

“My faith has been both an anchor in my life and at times a great mystery to me. The great spiritual, ministerial and cultural traditions of the Catholic Church have enriched my life and given it meaning, but it is at times very challenging to be a laywoman (or indeed a layman) in a male hierarchical Church. From the point of view of Catholic ministry, I am motivated by the importance of being of service, and of truly living in solidarity with each other, of modelling an open, generous and inclusive approach to our community. This should be at the heart of our leadership and governance practices in Catholic health.”

On Catholic health and aged care services:

“As all our health and aged care services experience the pressure on the sustainability of our models of care and the accelerated shift to virtual care and delivery of care into the home, our challenge is to recognise the strengths and synergies between Catholic health services. Many of our services have grown organically and perhaps haphazardly and sometimes reflect historical geographical and congregational loyalties. We need to find pragmatic ways to connect and reshape those services into new models of care which actually improve outcomes for patients and residents and which continue to address areas of unmet need in the community.”

On family:

One of seven children born to a father in the retail trade and a mother who was a teacher, her siblings have forged different careers from communications and business to coaching AFL and science (her brother is a molecular microbiologist at the Doherty Institute, Professor Tim Stinear).

“My parents are people of great warmth and hospitality and service to others. They're retired now. They are volunteers at Vinnies. I think it would be very easy for people like that to say, "We have seven children and 16 grandchildren and we're too busy to do other things. But that's very much a hallmark of our family life…to contribute to the community.”

“I really value generosity as a principle of how to live your life. It's just abundantly clear to me that the more that you give, the more that your life is enriched. It's how my parents live and it's how I have always lived. I have never feared that... perhaps it hasn't always served me very well in that it’s required a great deal of energy, but I've not closely held my time. I've been generous with my time because it is ultimately fulfilling and rewarding.”

On advice to other women:

“Be open. When opportunities are offered to you, accept them. Especially when you might be asked to forge a path into areas where women are less visible. I think you should seriously consider that.

“If you are offered leadership or power, take it and work out the logistics of caregiving, the demands of running a household, all those lists in your head, later. It sounds quite bold, but I actually believe that. Because if you wait to be offered power when it suits you or when you think you’re ready for it at 45 or 50 and everything is under control, which is never, it might not happen. So take it on the way up. 

“Once you're in a leadership position I think you have an obligation to be very generous to other women, especially when it doesn't cost you anything to do it. And particularly if you're the more senior woman, it's really important to offer encouragement and feedback. Women often ask me for advice about returning to the workforce after a break, or making decisions about changing direction. I always say, "Go for it. Work out the logistics later. People will help you. People always do. And if you get to a point when you just can't do it, then just say, 'I can't do it.” Not every opportunity will work out, but you will learn something and build a whole new network of colleagues and friends every time you accept a challenge.”


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