At a glance
- Professor Keitha Dunstan FCPA is provost of Bond University, Queensland, and chair of the Bond University Women’s Network.
- Dunstan has a bachelor of commerce degree, a masters in business accounting and a PhD in philosophy.
- Dunstan is a descendant of the Mandananji people of south-west Queensland.
For a woman to grow up with the belief that there are no boundaries to what you can do and what you can achieve is surely a gift – and a pathway to becoming a self-confident and ambitious individual.
Professor Keitha Dunstan FCPA, provost of Bond University in Queensland, began her career in accountancy before moving into academia. The eldest of five daughters, she was the first in her family to go to university.
It was there, for the first time, that Dunstan says she learned about the notion of gender discrimination. “I’d never encountered the idea before. The thought that men were more talented than women had never occurred to me.”
This perspective might be due, in part, to the examples of her great-great-grandmothers. Although from a humble background, Dunstan comes from a family whose matriarchs were role models for resilience and determination.
One great-great-grandmother emigrated from Scotland alone at the age of 15. Another, an Aboriginal woman, suffered the loss of custody of her two eldest children when she was removed to the Taroom Aboriginal Settlement, in south-east Queensland.
Despite these hardships, and husbands working away from home for long periods, both women went on to raise large families. One became a stepmother to three orphans when she was just 19.
Dunstan’s own mother faced similar struggles. At the age of nine, she worked part-time as a cleaner to supplement the family income.
Poverty was not the only issue. “She didn’t fit in. Mum talked about how the white kids didn’t like her because she was black and the black kids didn’t like her because she was white, so she left home as soon as she could,” says Dunstan. It was only when she moved to Brisbane at the age of 17 and met Dunstan’s father that she found a sense of belonging.
Dunstan’s ambitions have been driven in no small part by her desire to pay tribute to the legacy afforded by the strong women in her family. She credits her career success to the opportunities provided by higher education that were denied to her foremothers by their economic circumstances, their race and their gender.
“Education is a great socio-economic bridge, particularly for women. I have always thought teachers were amazing, and I had some great teachers at school. One, in particular, told me I should become a professor of economics.
“I didn’t even know what that was at the time, and I said, ‘Well, I don’t think I’ll be going to university, as my dad expects me to help him in the family business,’ which he did.” Dunstan’s father was a truck driver, and it still amuses her when people find out that she has a licence to drive trucks and buses.
Ultimately, it was this teacher who persuaded her parents that it would be worthwhile to steer Dunstan away from trucks and toward university. Her father agreed, with the caveat that if higher education didn’t work out, she would get back behind the wheel.
Dunstan reflects on what a different future she might have had, and how much things have changed in a generation.
“In Australia, we now have equal representation of women in our universities. Students of business and accountancy have women lecturers as role models, and women are beginning to rise to the highest levels in the field.”
The fact that she is able to influence the outcomes of future students, as overseer for the implementation of research, learning and teaching strategies for the university, as well as the Bond University College preparation and pathway programs, is a source of great pride and satisfaction.
Since 2014, Dunstan has also been chair of the Bond University Women’s Network. She thinks mentors are important for everyone, but particularly for women. “Every opportunity I have had is because people have opened doors for me – not just women, but men – who have encouraged me to do things I didn’t know I could do.”
One thing she didn’t know she could do was to be a teacher herself. Dunstan studied commerce at the University of Queensland and, on graduation, began her chartered accountancy training, as well as working part time and embarking on a masters degree at Queensland University of Technology.
She had also married young and had her first child at 19. “I was quite busy,” she says, with deliberate understatement. Then, one day, a phone call changed her life.
Her thesis supervisor had become quite unwell and lost her voice. “Her husband rang me and said, ‘My wife would like you to teach her accounting theory class tomorrow morning. You’re the only person she trusts to do it.’ It was a class of 400 third-year accounting students, and I’d never done any public speaking.”
Dunstan braved the task and found she really enjoyed it. She decided to take study leave from her accounting work to teach – and never looked back.
As she surveys today’s cohort of accountancy students, Dunstan recognises that they have new challenges to face. The so-called fourth industrial revolution is already upon us, bringing changes which Dunstan prefers to think of as opportunities for the profession rather than threats.
“Accountancy has a prominent place in the list of jobs that are going to disappear in the future, but I think the futurists don’t have it quite right.
“What accountants do is evolving. There is part of our job that will be taken over by AI [artificial intelligence], and that has already begun. The machines will do the number crunching that supports accountants to do the creative parts, the broader, business advisory role that accountants have always done.”
What people refer to as “soft skills”, Dunstan prefers to call “essential skills”.
“Resilience, adaptability, problem-solving – these will be in high demand. Alongside strong financial acumen, there is already a lot more emphasis on entrepreneurial approaches and agile responses to disruption,” says Dunstan.
“For universities, our responsibility is to help our students graduate with the kind of skills that will allow them to thrive in today’s dynamic environment.”
The relevance and value of accountants as business advisors in today’s world is illustrated by Dunstan’s recollection of a time when, as an early career researcher, she applied for and was shortlisted for a research grant.
“I saw some of the other applicants at an assessment meeting, and they were scientists with research applications for curing diseases, etc. I said to my supervisor that I felt guilty even trying to get a grant for an accountancy study when other research seemed so crucial.
“She said to me, if you don’t have people behind those scientists who are assisting them and organising to get things done, then those discoveries won’t see the light of day.”
Today, the speed of development of a vaccine for COVID-19 has been extraordinary, but it’s the operations people who devise systems to distribute the rollout, says Dunstan.
“I like the way we, as planners, make things work and get things done. We all have a role to play.”
Closing the gap
Dunstan says her most important role, and certainly her proudest achievement, is as mother to her son and daughter. As an early pioneer of needing to balance family and work commitments, how does she think she did?
“I probably would have advised my younger self to slow down and smell the roses a little. I was just so determined to succeed and live up to the expectations of those that had supported me. I believe I would have still got there, but without having to work as doggedly as I did.”
To enable women to progress – not just in accountancy, but in society in general – three things need to happen, says Dunstan. The gender pay gap must be addressed, flexible working must become the norm and paid parental leave should go further to include fathers.
Having become a grandmother relatively recently, Dunstan has taken on the mantle of family matriarch. It has only been late in life that she has publicly identified as Aboriginal, in deference to her grandmother, who died in 2019 aged 99.
“She wasn’t ashamed, she was afraid. She wanted us to have a life without the prejudice and persecution she experienced. When I told her I wanted to identify as Aboriginal, she said ‘Please don’t, it will ruin your life. You have a good job; they will fire you.”
For most of her career people have been unaware of Dunstan’s heritage, but since it became public knowledge, she tries to use her position as a platform to further reconciliation.
“My family is an example of needing healing, as it was torn apart as a result of government policy. I haven’t suffered any disadvantage, but others in my family have. For those of us who have managed to succeed and benefit from the privileges we have been given, we need to find ways to benefit others.”