Genevieve Overell AM on the building blocks of success

As a rising star in commercial property law, Overell was often “the only woman in the room” – at cocktail parties, at industry functions, and at the public forums where she was an increasingly sought-after speaker.

Overell was among a tiny minority of senior women, too, at the national legal practice where she became joint first female partner at 29. It was the 1990s; there was no paid maternity leave, and women taking time out risked greatly diminished prospects on their return. A senior partner remarked to one of Overell’s clients, in her presence, that it was “a waste of money sending women to university”.

Faced with relatively few senior female role models, career progression depended on working harder, exceeding goals and pursuing all the professional development on offer.

“My motto has always been that success is the best counter to that sort of criticism,” says Overell, who spoke about overcoming “systematic discrimination” in the law to a packed seminar in 1993. (Heavily pregnant at the time, she gave birth to her first child the following day.)

“Faced with relatively few senior female role models, career progression depended on working harder, exceeding goals and pursuing all the professional development on offer,” she explains. “It was only through persistent effort, qualifications, achievement with clients, and building a reputation and expertise that you secured a respected seat at the table.”

Genevieve Overell AM
"My motto has always been that success is the best counter to that sort of criticism."

Progressive thinking 

Tenacity was never an issue for Overell, who held down three jobs while completing two bachelor’s degrees (Arts and Law) at Monash University. Musically gifted, she envisaged a singing career before switching to law.

At her first law firm, a small, progressive practice, most senior partners were women. “I was given every opportunity and pushed forward,” she recalls. And after putting in 12-hour days, she would volunteer at community and women’s legal advice services.

Active in the profession and her field, Overell joined law institute and law council committees, and then property and construction industry boards. She advocated for law reform and industry sectors and presented papers on property law. Meanwhile, she donated her time to not-for-profit bodies, such as the Association of Consulting Surveyors and the Australian Business Arts Foundation, and she helped to rewrite Victoria’s subdivision legislation.

These were prosperous times; the commercial property market was booming, and many of Overell’s clients were larger-than-life characters. In 1998, then a property law specialist at Clayton Utz, she was recruited to global consulting firm KPMG, which had established a new legal division.

Boom time

Overell advised on state government projects such as Melbourne Docklands, CityLink and Federation Square, forging relationships that led to a new job in 2005: deputy secretary for the built environment in the Victorian Government. She found the public sector refreshing, not least because “there were women everywhere – very senior, experienced, capable, highly intelligent and committed women”.

It was exhilarating work – and “immensely demanding and stressful”. Overell had two young children and, as head of planning for the state, she was “literally in the cauldron … under media scrutiny, industry scrutiny, and under pressure from all sides – the opposition, the Minister, the development industry, the Save Our Suburbs people,” she says. “I had 180 projects on the go at any one time, and the phone could ring at any time with the Minister on the line.”

Drawing on experience

Her next role, with the Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority following the 2009 Black Saturday fires, was similarly high-octane. Working with wounded, sometimes fractured communities, Overell says “[I drew on] my exposure as a young lawyer to the many community groups I volunteered with, and to the impacts of hardship and disadvantage”.

Then followed an “exciting” nine-year stint with Deutsche Bank Australia and New Zealand as head of government advisory. Overell is now a full-time non-executive director, chair of the board of the Australian Institute of Architects, chair of the State Revenue Office Audit Committee, and deputy national chair of the Australian British Chamber of Commerce. She is also on the board of Cladding Safety Victoria, reflecting her continuing interest in the built environment.

Workplace revolution

Professional services, including the law, have undergone “an absolute revolution”, Overell says, with employees benefiting from shared partnerships and flexible work arrangements, and due weight now given to mental health and well-being. Company boards, too, are increasingly representative, although they fall well short of mirroring the women who constitute almost half of Australia’s workforce.

So what advice would Overell offer to those aspiring to emulate her career path?

Overell walking her dog.

Most important, in her view, is diverse role models, such as the female partners in her first firm “who showed me that women can have families, social lives, extra-curricular interests and a successful career”.

Also key, she believes, is guidance from mentors, which can be “catalytic”. She has done plenty of mentoring herself. A Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and of the Institute of Public Administration Australia, Overell was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2020 for service to the community.

Between board meetings, Overell relaxes with classical music, cooking, gardening, long country walks, and reading about politics and economics. She is thrilled that both her children work in the arts (one as an emerging Hollywood film producer, the other as a leading talent management agent), which have remained a lifelong passion for her.

Overell’s voluntary board roles include chair of Victorian Opera. “So you could say I’ve come full circle,” she observes.