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She Leads 2017: Passion, Privilege and Covfefe

Alyssia Tennant

Despite continuous progress in women’s leadership, the reality for many Australian women is that they are still far removed from decision-making levels and significantly out-numbered by men. 

This is part of what makes local not-for-profit YWCA Canberra’s She Leads Conference so important.

Now in its fourth year, the annual conference brings women from a range of sectors together with some of Australia’s most inspiring women leaders. This year’s conference, which was held on Thursday the 1st of June, saw hundreds of women gather at QT Canberra to hear from MC Tracey Spicer, and keynote speakers Clementine Ford, Michelle Deshong, Drisana Levitzke-Gray, and Nakkiah Lui.

Exploring the theme of ‘Challenge’, each of the speakers shared their own experiences of leadership, discussed practical strategies to overcome personal and professional challenges, and encouraged attendees to pursue their own leadership journeys.

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The day kicked off with a powerful Welcome to Country from Ngunnawal Elder Aunty Jannette Phillips, who urged the audience to take away at least one thing from the conference – even if it was just a word.

Drisana Levitzke-Gray, the 2015 Young Australian of the Year, was the first keynote of the day. Despite her age, she has been a trailblazer in breaking down barriers for deaf people and challenging the stigma they face. Levitzke-Gray gave women attending the conference an empowering real-life example of what it looks like to break down stereotypes and advocate for change.

For Levitzke-Gray, access to resources have been a significant obstacle, particularly in her studies at university, due to insufficient funding for interpreters and captioned resources.

“For a long time, I avoided uni because I didn’t want to have to deal with being the only deaf person. The onus is on us to educate them, and it’s tiring,” she signed in AUSLAN.

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As she encouraged attendees to stand up and be a leader in their community, she urged them to follow Aunty Jannette’s advice and take away one word from the conference: passion.

“Be passionate as a woman, as a professional, as a person,” she signed. “If you have passion, you can achieve so much.”

After a short break for morning tea and colouring in, everyone was excited to hear from the next speaker, CEO of the Australian Indigenous Governance Institute Michelle Deshong. In her keynote ‘Black women getting on with business – intersectionality, leadership and politics’, Deshong highlighted the critical elements of gender equality and the intersectionality of discrimination faced by Indigenous women.

“We have forgotten that women are the backbone of our communities,” she declared. “There are too many empty seats at the table where our women should be. Before we can move forward, the stories of Indigenous women need to be heard and understood.”

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On the theme of the conference, Deshong noted that history is full of “trials and tribulations and sadness and challenge.”

“When people accept the challenge, great things can happen,” she said. “So instead of thinking about what hasn’t happened in the last 50 years, I want us to reflect on what has.”

Later, three leading women in their fields – Shen Narayanasamy, Elise Burgess and Christine Castley – joined together to share their experiences of challenging the system, in an engaging and informative panel discussion led by For Purpose founder Caterina Giorgi.

The afternoon session started out with a bang, as well-known feminist columnist and author Clementine Ford took to the stage to share her insights and personal leadership journey, in a talk titled ‘Stop Telling Me to Smile’. Ford’s keynote was powerful and funny, as she discussed her experiences of leadership and the importance of acknowledging privilege and power.

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“It is easier to become a leader when you have multiple intersections of privilege,” she said. “Where does your privilege intersect with someone else’s oppression? That is where you can lead.”

Ford highlighted the necessity to hear women’s voices in leadership, rather than letting self-proclaimed “lovers of women” speak on their behalf.

“There is one which sums up Donald Trump’s brand of feminism: Covfefe,” she joked. “Women have enough to fear already, we should not be afraid of our own voices.”

Following a second successful panel discussion – featuring Summer Edwards, Myfanwy Galloway, Captain Stephanie Steel, Alex Sloan, and moderator Angela Priestley – the final keynote speaker made her way to the front.

Writer and actor Nakkiah Lui is a Gamillario/Torres Strait Islander woman and the co-writer/star of ABC’s Black Comedy. Her keynote, which was one of the standouts of the day for its humour and eloquence, focused on her (shocking) realisation that she was not a white male; negotiating change within a power system that disadvantages women of colour, and finding an authentic voice.

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“Trying to negotiate change within a power system that disadvantages you isn’t a fair negotiation,” she said. “Question your feminism, your success and your value system, so that your success is success for all women… Change the way you think and share that with the world. What will you scream at the world?”

When it comes to deciding whether to shout or whisper, it’s probably best to follow Lui’s grandmother’s advice: “If you’re going to poke it, fuck it.”

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Alyssia Tennant

Hailing from Adelaide, Alyssia Tennant moved to Canberra to study a Bachelor of Journalism at the University of Canberra, and looks forward to graduating at the end of the year. Formerly, she was the sub-editor for BMA Magazine and a breakfast radio producer and news presenter for Radio Adelaide. Currently, she is a Social Media Coordinator for the feminist literature and arts journal Feminartsy, and her writing has been published by Feminartsy, Right Now, Curieux, BMA and Verse Magazine. In July 2017, she will be heading overseas to Qatar and Jordan as a CAAR delegate for the Australian-Middle East Journalism Exchange. She tweets from @alyssiatennant. More about the Author