Seeing the world in all its colours

“Why would you want to live a monochrome life?”

This was the question posed by Catherine McGregor’s doctor as she sat in his office, struggling to understand what she called her “deep gender dysphoria”.

McGregor, who had been immersed in two of Australia’s most male-dominated worlds – the army and cricket – had resisted the unfathomable feeling that she was “living in the wrong gender” for many years.

Her doctor’s remarks sparked a journey that led to her gender transition in 2012, soon after her 56th birthday.

During this time, McGregor – who is currently a nominee for Australian of the Year – has gained many powerful insights into the nature of being male and female in our society, and how our narrow ideas of gender can prevent people from reaching their potential. Canberra’s property industry was the fortunate recipient of some of these insights at our end-of-year Women in Property bash recently.

While ‘diversity’ has become something of a human resources buzzword this year, often the expression itself is used as a substitution for ‘gender-balanced’. While this is important – particularly in male-dominated industries like property and construction – diversity is as much about education and experience, background and beliefs, religion, sexuality, age, ethnicity and ability as it is about gender.

Catherine is a person of great accomplishment, and one who has made an extraordinary contribution to Australia. Her glittering four-decade career in the Australian Regular Army – during which she was deployed on three occasions, including one as the Commanding Officer of the training team in Timor Leste – led to her being awarded an Order of Australia in 2012.

She served continuously as speechwriter to every Chief of the Army since 2000, has been a visiting fellow to Oxford University and holds a Master of Arts in War studies. She has written books on politics and cricket, and has sat on the National Selection Panel for selection of The Prime Minister’s XI.

Despite this, she says her CV of achievements was “largely an attempt of someone that was a product of a very conservative family in Queensland. I knew very early that I had these inclinations and that they weren’t sanctioned.”

And so, she lived with an abiding sense that she was “not living in the gender I was meant to be”, and so self-medicated with drugs and alcohol, and on a number of occasions considered suicide.

Not living her truth had a deep personal cost – but also a potential cost to Australia. How many of us are not living the lives we deserve because of judgement, fear or prejudice?

On a long and at times perilous journey, she learnt that it is “better to be than to seem”. Today, her courage to step away from the ordinary can as a beacon to other people struggling with the challenges of their life.

I was personally very moved by Catherine’s frank and fearless account of her life experience, and the prescient question from Catherine’s doctor left the audience something to ponder. Why would we want to turn up each day to a monochrome workplace? Why would we want those we love to suffer monochrome lives? Why would we want to live in a monochrome community?

As Fiona Doherty, a director with Rider Levett Bucknall says, “diversity adds the colour to a painting or spice to a meal. Our differences should be embraced, not hidden away.”

And that’s the secret to cultivating diversity, whether that’s in the workplace or in the community. We must encourage everyone to be themselves.

Only then will we see the world in all its colours.