Queensland chief heath officer Jeannette Young (left) and New South Wales chief health officer Kerry Chant (Images: AAP/Dan Peled; AAP/Bianca De Marchi)

Do a quick Google search on the name Kerry Chant and the results are monotonously predictable. Kerry Chant Glasses. Kerry Chant Husband. Kerry Chant Age. Kerry Chant Mask. Kerry Chant Family. If you didn’t know who she was, you’d have to dig deeper to find out she is chief health officer of NSW, a fabulously educated woman who has been with the New South Wales Health Department for 30 years.

During those decades, Chant’s focus has been on myriad issues — from virus infections to communicable diseases prevention, Indigenous health to advocating for the fluoridation of water supplies.

Do a similar search on Queensland’s chief heath officer and the cheap, sexist way we still largely see women pops up again: Jeannette Young Age, Jeannette Young Education. Jeannette Young Husband.

For the record, Young is Australia’s longest-serving chief health officer, a post she’s held since 2005.

Recently both women have won big accolades: Chant is NSW premier’s woman of the year; Young is governor-designate of Queensland. But if not for a pandemic the two doctors would have remained largely anonymous, their big minds and strategic skills a secret, hidden away in the public service.

How do we stop that? How do we find those quiet, talented and unassuming women whose leadership could help change the narrative of our nation? And do we really want to? Despite death threats and sleepless nights, long days and life-and-death decisions, we still quickly look beyond their talents when it comes to women like Young and Chant.

Chant made popular headlines last week for two reasons, and neither focused on her abilities or advice. First, she used her face mask to wipe her eye. “Sorry, I have something in my eye,’’ she said. And the discussion since has been around the appropriateness of using a face mask for that purpose.

That came the day after her glasses were crooked. National headlines! And photographs galore of how she gave her daily advice in broken glasses that sat unceremoniously wonky on her face.

That’s the focus given to the complex and life-threatening decisions that she is responsible for, every day, during this pandemic. And yet we claim to be striving towards equality, nod in agreement as claims are made that we are making significant inroads into the gender imbalance across professions and boards and industries. 

Young has had a similarly silly focus. Is she married? Is it a second marriage? Why does she talk so glowingly about her husband, always? Is she wearing a new suit? Does she deserve to be governor? Why?

And yet this woman who has guided Queensland through years of tricky medical mazes and whose staff sing her praises, keeps turning up, smiling, and politely answering questions. Sometimes you can see the exhaustion in her face. Other times, she hides it like a pro. She admits making mistakes, being human, worrying about what this nasty virus will do next. Whether to close the borders? Or open them?

And each day, like Chant — with whom who she works closely and well — she fronts up to be accountable for those decisions.

South Australia’s chief health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier hasn’t had the same national profile, largely because COVID has not become such an issue in her state, but she too has spent three decades working for SA Health. Google her, and the first thing that pops up is “Is Nicola Spurrier married?’’

Our states’ chief health officers are a reminder of how wonderfully deep the talent is in our public service. And how easy it is to miss seeing it, and simply dismiss the lack of women candidates for boards or safe political seats or big corporate jobs. 

Chant, Young and Spurrier are not the only examples that often it is the quiet, unassuming and freakishly talented who take the reins and lead from the front. Ash Barty, another woman, showed that in a very public way at the weekend.

But whether it’s in public policy or sport, politics or corporate Australia, our skills should be honed not only in finding others like them — we need to ensure they are celebrated.

Should the supremely talented women in public life be given more prominence? Send your thoughts to [email protected]ikey.com.au, and include your full name if you’d like to be considered for publication.