Media release

Co-CEOs bring feminist game-change to legal leadership role

June 30, 2020


Environmental lawyers Nicola Rivers and Elizabeth McKinnon have been jointly appointed to head one of Australia’s leading public-interest legal organisations, Environmental Justice Australia (EJA).

The two senior lawyers, each with two young children, will lead EJA with an unusual co-CEO model — a nascent leadership trend that allows women to advance their professional and personal commitments. 

 The Co-CEOs bring a wealth of experience between them to EJA with a combined 32 years of experience working as lawyers using the law to deliver environmental justice. They have worked as lawyers in environmental litigation, law reform and in-house counsel across private practice, government and the non-profit sector.  

 Nicola Rivers is a lawyer with 18 years experience, and was the Director of Advocacy and Research at Environmental Justice Australia until her appointment as co-CEO. Elizabeth McKinnon is a lawyer with 14 years experience, who was formerly a public interest environmental litigator at Environment Defenders Office Victoria and most recently General Counsel at the Australian Conservation Foundation. 

 Together, they have extensive experience delivering powerful legal strategies for positive social change that benefits nature and community. 

 “Both of these accomplished women would be wonderful organisational leaders on their own.  As a combination they will be formidable,” said outgoing CEO Brendan Sydes

The co-CEOs have been colleagues and friends for more than a decade. They will oversee 18 EJA staff as well as volunteers and contract staff. They are appointed at a time when research shows organisations tend to enjoy greater productivity under female leadership, and news reportdemonstrate many structural barriers to women in legal careers.

Co-leadership, women and legal workplaces

Nicola Rivers: I was sceptical when the idea first came up but after researching a lot of co-leadership models, I quickly became a convert. The results were really positive. The Consumer Action Law Centre is just one example of a similar organisation that successfully grew under co-CEO leadership 

“Job-sharing usually occurs more at junior levels and less at senior levels where women are underrepresented. Research into co-CEO models show they can allow women to maintain professional and personal challenges. Elizabeth and I were both ready to step up to a CEO position but we have young kids and choose to work part time while they’re little. 

“The three-month EJA interview process happened during COVID lockdown, with Elizabeth home with a newborn and toddler and me home-schooling and working from home. It was hectic, but we’re both very determined people and we made it happen.

“Workplaces have come along in leaps and boundsoffering flexible arrangements to working parents. Yet this hasn’t translated to getting significantly more women into senior positions. More than 80 percent of Australian CEO positions are held by men. In the US, only 4.9 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. And those numbers are declining globally. 

Elizabeth McKinnon: “The environment movement and the legal sector are no exceptions when it comes to gender diversity in leadership. Women are the majority at graduate and mid-level positions in both environmental NGOs and at law firms, but if you look at the senior positions, the majority are still held by men.” 

“Nicola and I started talking about job share as a solution to this predicament — and when the EJA role came up we proposed a joint leadership model with us as co-CEOs. 

Co-leadership of EJA will significantly strengthen both the organisation and the broader environment movement. It means two sets of skills, experiences, networks and passions. It also means high quality decision making, super-charged brain power and elevated energy at the senior ranks of EJA. And it sets a positive example for our organisation, our movement and the broader public about female leadership and job-sharing at the leadership level.

Challenges and priorities for environmental justice

Nicola Rivers: “Our vision is to build on the incredible work EJA is already doing, using our legal expertise as a powerful force for change, empowering communities to protect their environment, and building a better legal system that delivers justice to nature and community. 

“This summer’s bushfires highlighted the climate and extinction crises facing Australia, and how badly our governments are failing on both. Now, the federal government is trying to push a fossil fuel led recovery from the COVID pandemic, facilitated by weakening our national environment laws. The work we do at EJA has never been more critical.”   

“As Co-CEOs at EJA, we will continue to empower communities with legal and advocacy tools to protect their health and the places and wildlife they love; hold business and government to account in court; use strategic litigation to set vital legal precedents; and drive critical law reform. 

Elizabeth McKinnon: EJA is a public interest legal organisation that does things a little differently. We partner with communities to drive complementary legal and policy reforms that deliver long-lasting protections for the air we breathe, the water we drink and the places and wildlife we love. 

“We will be working hard to support the community to demand better laws and regulation from our governments, and to help them take that fight to court when governments and industry breach those laws and harm our environment.
Emerging litigation opportunities 

Elizabeth McKinnon: “Unfortunately, there is never a shortage of opportunities to litigate when governments and big industry continue to breach our environment laws and put our forests, rivers, threatened wildlife and communities at risk.  

Though there are huge challenges in getting citizen-led cases into court in Australia, they are critical to run. When governments fail in their duty to protect our environment, it’s often left up to the community to do that work. I look forward to working with EJA’s new and existing clients who always show great conviction, courage and perseverance in protecting nature for their kids and grandkids. 

Nicola Rivers: “Our recent Federal Court win for the Possums Case is making headlines around the country and will have national implications for the way our forests are managed and threatened species are protected. We still have two active cases working to protect our forests and this recent decision has shown us just how important these cases are.  

We are now undisputedly seeing and feeling the impacts of climate change. The reef is bleaching and we just had a terrifying summer bushfire season. Recent climate court cases in Australia and around the world are opening up avenues for litigation on climate change that might not have been available in past years. We look forward to playing a role in that.”

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