Cover Story: Debra Mika
The advocate
When employees and organisations align for a common vision and purpose, it can make a meaningful difference. Debra Mika tells Karren Vergara how that happens at Aware Super.

When the 2019/20 bushfires ravaged the country, destroying over 3000 homes and 17 million   hectares of land roughly two-and-a-half times the size of Tasmania, Aware Super chief of staff Debra Mika's response in coordinating organisation-wide efforts was to prioritise, first and foremost, the safety of staff.

This meant enabling them to take time out to ensure their property was safe and providing generous volunteering provisions.

We have an aspirational program of growth and we are focused on uplifting how we serve our members.
Not only did Mika rally support for frontline members, she coordinated fundraising efforts across the organisation, and engaged with the education sector and education department to see how the superannuation fund could do its part.

"Some schools asked for musical instruments to be donated, so we conducted a drive among staff," she says.

Just as the bushfires were tamed, and without so much as taking a breather, Australia was upended by COVID-19.

Mika, once again, had to formulate a practical and workable solution to curb the disruption, as well as how best to emerge stronger from the pandemic.

The role of chief of staff has different remits for many organisations. Apart from high-level ad-hoc responsibilities, the post for Mika means having direct responsibility for corporate affairs, policy and advocacy, and internal communications. It's also ensuring that chief executive Deanne Stewart and the executive team function effectively.

"As an example, one of the important parts of my role is ensuring the executives are having the right conversations at the right time, so we are focused on executing the strategy and resolving issues in the organisation effectively using the constrained time that we have," she says.

Even with a full workload, senior leaders somehow managed to find the time to advocate and raise awareness on several issues that are important to their member base.

More than two thirds of Aware Super members are women working in education, health, police force, emergency services and the public sector.

"We see through our members the systematic disadvantage that women face just because of the way women's experiences are different to men's. We deal with that internally and externally," Mika says.

"We have an aspirational program of growth and focused on uplifting how we serve our members."

Internally, Aware undertakes immense groundwork to address how any type of gender imbalance manifests. It regularly conducts gender pay gap analysis and acts on it straight away; pays SG on the paid and unpaid portion of parental leave for up to 12 months; conducts diversity and inclusion programs that includes unconscious-bias training; and provides domestic-
violence leave.

"We have been a Workplace Gender Equality Agency employer of choice for gender equality for the last four years. Deanne is a Pay Equity Ambassador," Mika explains.

The range and breadth of initiatives consequently sets a strong foundation for Aware to engage with companies and advocate for change externally.

"We joined the 40-40 initiative, which aims to have boards and executives that represent 40% men, 40% women and 20% of either gender on ASX200 companies by 2030," she adds.

The daughter of farmers, Mika grew up near Hamilton, Victoria, close to the South Australian border. At 18, she moved to Melbourne and studied science at Melbourne University, majoring in meteorology and mathematics.

After graduating, she missed out on a role at the Bureau of Meteorology, which at the time had just three positions to fill.

"By chance I went into technology roles in the life insurance industry and worked my way up, from computer operating to programming and project management," she says.

Mika spent several years based in Hong Kong, working for Colonial Mutual leading technology initiatives. Upon her return to Australia in 1997, she entered the superannuation industry, working for Superpartners, UniSuper and briefly as a consultant.

She joined Health Super 10 years ago, which served the Victorian health and community services industries. She was brought in as a consultant at the time Health Super was contemplating a merger with First State Super and helped with that process.

"While I was working on the Health Super merger and working full time, I was looking after my twins, who were in year nine at the time and I was completing my MBA," she says.

She held a variety of roles across the organisation that gave her insight into all aspects of fund operations: fund administration; service centre insourcing; products and strategy, and policy.

In April 2019, First State Super and VicSuper flagged their intentions to merge, based on common values and a shared history in the public sector. First State Super and VicSuper began as public sector funds and eventually opened to the public; VicSuper in 2000 and First State Super in 2006.

In mid-July of this year, the two super funds officially combined, with Stewart spearheading the newly merged entity, Aware Super, into the future.

Aware manages an asset pool of $130 billion for over 1 million members, making it the nation's second biggest super fund next to the $180 billion AustralianSuper.

"We have the ability to bring investment capabilities in-house, as well as administration over the next few years. Scale has driven our fees down. VicSuper members saw fees reduce by 30%."

For 12 months, Mika focused her efforts on the merger until last July, when she became chief of staff.

At the time of publication, Aware has confirmed that it is on track to merge with the $4 billion WA Super with 55,000 members on December 3.

Former First State Super deputy chief executive Graeme Arnott was looking after the WA Super merger until he left on July 31.

It is currently under the care of former VicSuper chief executive Michael Dundon, who took over as executive lead.

Post-merger, Aware's total assets under management will reach about $134 billion.

Outside of work, Mika champions the right for women to access affordable housing. She chairs the Women's Property Initiatives, a not-for-profit housing organisation she's supported since 2013, which helps create new beginnings for women facing homelessness by providing permanent and affordable homes and access to support networks.

"In the private rental market, only one in a hundred private rental properties are affordable for a single mother who is on government benefits," she notes, pointing to statistics relating to women WPI supports.

WPI helps set up women so that they pay don't more than 30% of their household income on rent. Through this initiative, Mika has seen disenfranchised women come out the other side: they're able to go to university, start businesses, send their children to school and even buy their own home.

"About 82% of single parents are women and 60% of those are low-income earners. Two thirds that approach homelessness services are women and half of those are escaping family violence," Mika says.

In addition to her work with WPI, Mika sees the rate of homelessness for women increasing much faster than the rate for men. "Women at the age of 55 and over are also at risk and it can happen to anyone, particularly when family violence and severe financial impact is involved," she says.

One in 200 Australians are homeless, according to the Homelessness Australia.

Aware's work in this sector centres on providing new or refurbished rental accommodation at 80% of the market rate, targeting essential workers like nurses, teachers, emergency services, aged care and childcare providers.

It has invested $250 million thus far in affordable-housing projects and plans to increase this to $400 million in 2020.

"Essential workers struggle to find quality, secure affordable housing near to where they work and Aware Super wants to be part of the solution," she says.

This year's federal budget delivered a blow to homelessness services, slashing $41.3 million of funding from July next year.

On a brighter note, the Victorian government recently pledged a record $5.3 billion to deliver affordable and social housing over the next four years.

About 9300 new social-housing homes will be built and 1100 old public-housing units will be replaced, helping Aboriginal Victorians, pensioners, those with a disability, family-violence victims and single-parent families find their feet.

Such startling statistics exposes a system in dire need of fixing. It is perhaps what fuels Mika and Aware to do the work that they do: to move the needle on Australia's growing homelessness problem and shut the gender pay and superannuation gap.

Aware has relentlessly called for removing the $450 per month threshold that prevents many casual workers receiving super. Abolishing this would equate to 220,000 women with $125 million in superannuation. It is also pushing for super to be paid on parental leave, couples to combine their super, and to mandate paid domestic-violence leave.

"It is important to work with organisations that are aligned with your own values. I am extremely fortunate to have that with Aware Super and other organisations I have worked for, UniSuper being another one," she says.

Mika credits some outstanding leaders in the industry she has worked with who show "integrity, respect and genuine care".

In advising the younger generation she has mentored at Aware and others in her own time, Mika urges them to be clear about their vision and goals and where they want to go.

"Early in your career taking those three things as touchstones - integrity, respect and care for people - will serve you well," she says. fs

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