• Helen Ferguson

Meet Gen - Public Health Administrator

Gen is one of the first friends I made when I started working in Australia 19 years ago.

She was an amazing source of information and support as I got to grips with working-life in a brand new country.

Even though our main language wasn’t a barrier, the slang and the industry jargon was uncharted territory for me and I felt like a naïve school leaver in some conversations.

Gen was always happy to back up and help me to understand.

She evolved from a friendly colleague into a valued friend, even though we haven’t worked together now in over a decade, I still know that I can speak to her about absolutely anything.

Sitting down to interview her for Her Middle Age was a treat, because even after all this time, there were so many things we had never discussed.

Getting a fuller picture of her path through life has been illuminating.

Meet Gen

Gen is 61 and was born into a Catholic family in Melbourne, Australia.

She's the eldest of 5 children and the only daughter.

Her family has a rich heritage of Australian, German and Italian ancestry.

Tell me about your family.

Mum was extremely bright, a true academic, but sadly she struggled with alcohol. That made her life very difficult.

Dad had a busy Career as a Civil Architect and Engineer, so he travelled a lot.

He would come and go from family life during their marriage, with the best intentions, trying to build a better future for us.

We also travelled a lot as a family, due to his work.

We always seemed to be on the move.

Apart from Australia we lived in Italy, Portugal, Germany, South Africa, Columbia and Sweden.

It felt like no sooner did we settle in a school, make some friends and learn the language, we were packing up and moving off again.

I always managed to pick up the language and learn how to fit into the local culture, but I did crave a home base.

My Father found my Mum’s alcohol use very hard to deal with.

He eventually became a heavy drinker too, and left the marriage.

So that was tough.

Who were the ‘Leader Women’ or female role models in your formative years?

My Mother first of all.

She was always a very intelligent woman, very intuitive.

Later on my Mother in Law and my Sister in Law both played an important part in my growth.

What was the attitude or expectations of Middle Aged women within your family and community?

To be strong. To stay honest in who you are.

What was your approach to education and your ambitions growing up?

I wasn’t academically minded in the way my parents and brothers were.

We travelled so much, it was easy for me to look at something that I didn’t grasp at school, and give it the flick.

You know "Don’t need to worry about that, we’re moving".

I never struggled to pick up the local language, but sometimes it was more difficult than others.

For example: when we lived in Portugal, because Dad was German he enrolled us in a German school!

So we had to speak German at school in the morning, Portuguese at Portuguese School in the afternoon and then English when we got home to the family in the evening.

Studying just became that much more complicated.

I would struggle when I sat down to study, but I was always able to adapt when I was in a new environment and pick up skills.

I struggled to finish Year 11, due to a breakdown in the Family, but I always had a strong work ethic, and an ability to connect with people.

Tell me about your very first job, fresh out of school.

I was a shop assistant in a Pharmacy.

I worked there for 2 years, which helped me gain my financial independence and it taught me to look after myself and advocate for myself.

I had self confidence in that job, I had a connection with customers.

I was always complimented on my manner and diplomatic way of handling people's prescriptions, or when I was required to sell cosmetics and so on.

I don’t feel like a natural Sales-Person and don’t really enjoy selling, but the job gave me a good mix of experiences.

I had to leave school and start work, sooner rather than later, because I had a massive fallout with my Mother.

I ended up having to live on my own.

Completely alone?


I had already met my future husband by that time, and I ended up being brought into that family unit.

Were you disappointed that you didn’t finish Year 12?

Did finding a job that you were good at help balance that out?

Yes, I was disappointed with not getting my HSC (Higher School Certificate), or the opportunity to go on to University, but realistically I didn’t have a choice, I needed to be able to financially support myself.

I knew that I was more than capable of learning on the job, and developing skills within the roles I had.

I was able to work my way up the ladder.

Back then, going back to do your HSC at a later date or at TAFE (Technical and Further Education) wasn’t an option, so I just concentrated on building a career for myself.

What other jobs did you have in your early career?

I worked as a Cashier in a Bank and an Accounts Clerk in a Public Hospital.

When my boys were small I worked nights in a Chemist, so that I was available during the day to get them to school and so on.

Was the Health Service a deliberate career building move?

No, The Accounts Payable job came up, it was Part Time, it suited a working Mother of young boys, so I went for it.

I was in the right place at the right time.

The HR Manager then developed me wherever possible.

Looking back now, I have spent 32 years in Health Service Administration, in one way or another ; Finance, Health Executive Department, Payroll and Human Resources.

It was a good path overall, I think Human Resources allowed me to use all of the People Skills that I had developed over the years.

Maybe I was destined for it all along.

Working alongside you for 9 years, I can absolutely see that this is what you were meant to be doing.

There are always people who aren’t going to like you because you’re the person sitting in that particular chair, but it’s the role and those responsibilities that they are reacting to.

I’m not tolerant of ridiculous behaviour or stupidity.

You need to be practical in the workplace.

I try to treat everybody with respect, be mindful of people's emotional welfare, and at the same time serve the organisation that we work for.

It feels like it’s the right job for me.

Is there a job that you always liked the idea of, but the opportunity didn’t arise?

No, I can honestly say that I am so grateful for what I have done and what I have learned.

I didn’t want to open my own business.

I had no interest in jobs that involved selling.

For Goodness Sake, if I have to organise a Fundraiser I probably end up putting the money in myself!!!


HR is about helping people - start to finish - I studied for qualifications as I went along.

Where are you working at the moment?

For the last 2 years I have been in HR at a small Health Service aimed at supporting the health and well being of Babies, Mothers and Fathers.

It’s a small organisation, so you are involved from start to finish in the journey of the employee.

It’s a really hands-on role.

I take a great deal of pride in being able to run my own show using all of my experience.

When you look across your career, is there one particular lesson that you learned that you are grateful for learning?

I get very cranky with myself because my attention to detail isn’t my strongest point, and HR needs to have good attention to detail.

I’m my own harshest critic and my current Boss tells me that !!

She’s very supportive of me and makes me recognise the good work that I have done.

I could always do better though.

So have you learned to cut yourself some slack?

Let’s call it a work in progress……

As a Middle Aged Woman, how do you feel that your age and experience has helped you in your work?

You can learn from education and studying, either in a Degree or a Diploma, but you can’t replace hands on experience and good support from a Mentor or Manager.

You can read text, but when you are actually in a situation and you have to act , that’s when your own values and integrity come into play along with the knowledge.

If you can gain a rapport and show respect to people throughout the process, you can really affect change and help people.

Moving away from your work life now, when you look back at your Mother and the women of her generation, do you think much has changed for women in the last 40 or 50 years?

My mother worked in the Legal Profession, to a very high level.

She was pretty much a lone woman in a male dominated profession and environment.

She was ‘feisty’ and knew how to stand up for herself and be ‘The Difficult Woman’.

She was right to do that.

I’ve never been in quite the same situation. I’ve worked in environments that were more mixed.

I’m still capable of being feisty and will push back if I know something is not right.

But after 50 years , some things are more balanced, but some things haven’t changed at all.

I can watch very capable women thrive, but if the mix of personalities in the business isn’t right, some men of equal ability can see that as a challenge to them.

How did you view Middle Aged women in general when you were younger?

I don’t think I really gave it much thought. Maybe society didn’t really discuss things as openly as it does today.

What age were you when you realised that you were Middle Aged?

Around 52

Are you living a life that you imagined?

I didn’t have any big aspirations, because of my lack of studying, and I was put down by my Mother.

Life can be complex, however, I have risen to the challenges that life brings and I know that we only shoulder what we can manage.

Having said that, I would always like to do more.

I want to do some Volunteering, work on improving my fitness and spending some more time with my creativity.

Where are you at your happiest at this stage of your life?

With my family, and my dogs!

What are you doing when you are at your happiest?

Probably cooking, or walking.

I’m happy sitting in a café having a coffee with my partner.

I love being with my adult sons and their families.

I absolutely adore hosting a big Christmas and everyone is welcome, we have all different religions sitting around our Christmas table , Christians, Muslims, none of it matters as long as we are together enjoying the time and the food.

I love that.

What have you learned about yourself as a result of being a parent to adult children?

I’ve learned so much from them.

I don’t know if it’s a generational thing or if it’s just who they are, but they come up with such practical and pragmatic solutions for things.

I might be in a bit of a panic about something and they just cut through with a response and I think

‘Oh! Of course, ok! '

They have different approaches to each other, but the respect is there and that is such an important part of the relationship with your adult child.

You’re about to embark on a big adventure with your partner and relocate to a new State!

What are you looking forward to doing in this new chapter?

Building a reasonable and comfortable lifestyle around family and friends.

I’m going to see family that I haven’t been able to see due to the ongoing Covid restrictions.

I’m going to get to know my 1 year old Grand-daughter in person!

I want to spend some time using my languages and forging connections that way.

I look forward to making new friends, though I’m cautious when meeting new people, I don’t jump in with both feet, but I’m always open to meeting new people.

Actually my brother has an excellent way of looking at new friends.

He says in the early days 75% of your interactions should show trust and consideration.

As the relationship develops, you can add or subtract 25% to that!!

I plan to continue working for as long as I can, but I’m hoping for less stress.

I’m going to be trialing a flexible working arrangement with my current employer, to see if it can transition to Remote Working, with some travelling between two states from time to time.

There is going to be some give and take to figure out what can work, so it will be an interesting time.

What are you glad is in the past?

Surviving a divorce and the struggle of bringing up my 2 sons on my own.

I’ve been given the all clear from my Crohn’s Disease.

I’m glad all of that’s in the past!

If you ever had any preconceived ideas about being 61, what did it look like, and were you right or dead wrong?

Truthfully, I don’t feel that I’m 61!

I wish I’d achieved more.

I’m happy. I am OK with where I’m at: I’ve survived a divorce, survived a chronic illness.

I’m a quiet achiever I think.

What do you wish people understood about being a Middle Aged woman?

I wish people were more considerate of the changes individuals go through, the emotional and physical changes we go through in mid-life.

Does anything frustrate you about Middle Age?

That I may lose strength and energy. I want to keep working as long as I can.

What is your Super-Power?

Being strong and determined, not allowing myself to be walked over.

What advice would you give your 20 year old self?

Be kind, be positive, look after yourself and have faith that you can do what you really want to do.

Don’t let others bring you down or impose their stumbling blocks onto you.

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