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Pushing the boundaries with Zakia Patel

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When you reflect on leadership opportunities for women, you would be forgiven for not immediately thinking of an organisation like the SES.

But Zakia Patel is here to change your mind. Having had leadership roles in many male-dominated areas, Zakia has had her fair share of challenges.

She will be bringing what she has learnt from these experiences to speak at YWCA Canberra’s upcoming She Leads Conference.

Zakia will be exploring these gendered roles and what it takes to push back against these boundaries, as well as sharing the impact that mentoring has had on her leadership journey.

This year the She Leads Conference will bring over 300 emerging women leaders in Canberra together, to deliver a fresh and innovative approach to women’s leadership development.

In the lead up to the event, we caught up with Zakia to chat gender biases, leadership advice and believing in yourself, in the lead up to the sold-out event.

You work in a high-stakes environment in what can be seen as a traditionally male-dominated.

What are some misconceptions people have about working in the SES as a woman?

I think there are misconceptions that there are roles only men can fill. For example, the men will do the chainsaw work while the women will remove the debris. The women are doing less dangerous work and not much of the heavy lifting.

Another misconception might be that women are more suited to support roles like logistics (accommodation, food etc.), and the men are better suited to leadership roles.

However, I think that joining the SES challenges these misconceptions. It does depend on which unit you join, as some are more male-dominated, but my experience overall has been very positive.

Those members who tried to separate roles based on gender did not last long in the service.

What would you say to women who are hesitant about a volunteer position or career in the emergency services?

Go into it with an open mind, because it will be one of the best experiences of your life! I joined when I was 21, with very limited knowledge of the SES. I didn’t have any preconceived biases about my role in the unit and being a woman.

I did have some negative experiences on a couple of jobs with men who couldn’t see past the fact that I am a woman. They did not make me want to leave because I had strong leaders who supported me and handled the situation well.

There has been a big push in the SES to recognise the strong women in the service, both volunteers and paid staff. It is definitely the right time to join the SES and create some unbelievable memories and gain strong life skills.

What are two pieces of advice you give mentees?

  1. I always tell mentees, whether it is at work or in the SES, to trust your instincts and give things a go with an open mind. In the SES, team leaders must make decisions for the team at every job or for every training task, and you must trust the decision you make and your own personal instincts.
  2. I also tell mentees that we don’t always get it right the first time, that’s part of life, and we should use it as a learning experience. I tell them not to let that stop them from moving forward and continuing to grow their leadership skills.

What was the best piece of advice a mentor has given you?

The best piece of advice I have been given is to build a strong support network around me and to lean on them. This has stuck with me since I started in senior leadership roles in the SES five years ago.

My mentor told me there is no reason why I should feel like I am doing it alone. Instead, I should talk to my support network, bounce ideas off them and let them cheer me on.

If you could direct $100m in the next Federal Budget somewhere, where would you send it?

I would have to split that money into two areas. From my professional career perspective, I would love to see a portion of that money go towards youth homelessness and youth unemployment.

I would also want the rest of the money to go towards equal pay for women in the workforce. There is still such a variance between the salary a man might receive as opposed to a woman in the same role, and this definitely needs to be addressed and changed.

If you were Prime Minister for a day, what three things would you change first?

  1. I would change parental leave options for women so they can enter the workforce when it is right for them, rather than too early from fear that they might lose their jobs. Having to decide between looking after your child or working should be an easier choice than it is for so many women.
  2. I would change access to health services for young people to make it easier for them to receive free health services, such as dental, optometry etc.
  3. Lastly, I would change our country’s policies around refugees entering Australia.

What will you be speaking about at YWCA Canberra’s 2019 She Leads Conference?

I will be on the panel speaking about great expectations, and what this means in my SES and work role. I want to use my experiences in the SES to discuss what great expectations means to me, and why it is important for women to have great or better expectations than many do.

Zakia Patel was recently appointed the role of Unit Commander for the Queanbeyan SES Unit. She has been a volunteer with the SES for 10 years, and prior to this new role, Zakia was the Deputy Unit Commander for Operations. Zakia has had the opportunity to participate in many local and interstate operations as well as represent the SES at the World Firefighter Games in 2012.

In her professional life, Zakia is passionate about supporting young people and is the Youth Development Coordinator for YMCA Canberra. In addition to this, Zakia is a qualified lawyer. When she isn’t at work or SES, Zakia loves to spend time with her family on their farm.

the essentials 

What: YWCA Canberra’s 2019 She Leads Conference, an empowering conference centred on the theme of women supporting one another to thrive.
When: Friday 2 August from 9.00 am–5 pm. A networking function will also be held the night before, on Thursday 1 August.
Where: QT Canberra
Website: ywca-canberra.org.au/event/2019-she-leads-conference

HerCanberra is a proud media partner of YWCA Canberra’s 2019 She Leads Conference. As a part of this partnership, HerCanberra is offering readers 10% off the She Leads Conference Networking event to be held Thursday 1 August at Lucky’s Speakeasy, QT Canberra. Use the code HERCAN on checkout to redeem your discount.  

Held at QT Canberra on Friday 2 August 2019, the She Leads Conference is set to attract a range of women leaders, including female-identifying and non-binary people, at all stages of their leadership journeys, from a variety of fields.

The Conference centres around the theme ‘Thrive’ and includes a diverse and full program of keynote speeches, panels and networking activities that will build your capacity to thrive in your community or workplace while supporting other women alongside you.

The 2019 She Leads Conference also includes a networking and cocktail function the evening prior on Thursday 1 August, providing attendees with the opportunity to network with our incredible speakers and fellow attendees.

The complete program and speaker line-up is available here.

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