2021 She Leads Conference – Taking control and redefining power!

30 July 2021

On Friday 23 July 2021, YWCA Canberra hosted our seventh annual She Leads Conference at the Kambri Cultural Centre at the ANU. After a long-anticipated wait following last year’s break due to COVID-19, the 2021 Conference was set to be even bigger and better than ever, with an incredible lineup of keynotes, panels and seminar sessions.  

Surrounding the theme, ‘POWER! have it, own it and challenge it’, this year’s conference aimed to inspire attendees to rethink traditional power structures and equip them with the skills to create meaningful change in their everyday lives, workplaces, and communities.  

The Conference opened with a Welcome to Country from  Ngunnawal Elder, Aunty Violet, who  expressed her optimism for the future, and her hopes in seeing a second female Prime Minister take office one day.  

Kicking off our first keynote ‘Still I Rise: the power of self-belief’, attendees had the pleasure of listening to NSW Greens Senator, Dr Mehreen Faruqi. During her keynote, Mehreen spoke about her experience entering the world of politics and her journey in becoming the first Muslim woman politician in Australia. She revealed that as a migrant, woman of colour, she often felt othered by her colleagues, and shared stories of her experiences dealing with racism and misogyny. 

Although determined to make a place for herself in Parliament, Mehreen expressed how the toxicity of her workplace and the effort it took to push back, took an immense toll on her mental health. 

“I have moments of doubt with the constant hate, but I am also lucky to have people in my life who provide me with grounding and love that we need to sustain ourselves. We can’t do this alone,” she shares.   

It was through her experiences that Dr Mehreen felt compelled to write her book, ‘Too Migrant, Too Muslim, Too Loud’. By sharing her story, Mehreen felt she could shed light on the issues women, particularly women of colour, faced in Parliament and hold people to account.    

‘Let’s speak up, disrupt, dissent and make a difference!’ she exclaimed.  

Next to take the stage to present her keynote on, ‘Is it me you’re looking at, or is it my stereotype?’ was former AFP superintendent, Cath Grassick. During her keynote, Cath shared her experience entering the police force as a woman, the systemic disadvantages and gender biases she faced in her workplace.  

“Male colleagues saw it as their job to protect us, and it took a while for them to realise that we could hold our own,” Cath shared.  

Following these two powerful keynotes, attendees split for three illuminating panels.

In the ‘Tipping the scale: redressing power imbalances’, facilitated by Misha Schubert, speakers Christina Ryan, Megan Fechner and Joanne Fenton spoke about power imbalances in workplace systems, and how small actions can influence big change.  

In the ‘Standing in the way of control’, facilitated by Nipuni Wijewickrema, speakers Celeste Trione aka Mae Q Sqwheel, Nicole Short, Sally Gibson, Dixie Crawford spoke about the importance of adapting to change as a means to achieve success.   

Finally, in the ‘Breaking up the boys’ club’, facilitated by Karen Middleton, speakers Jo Farrell, Marissa McDowell, Olivia Thornton, Zakia Patel all spoke about the challenges women face in male-dominated industries, and the actions women can take to overcome these gendered barriers. 

Taking to the stage next to present her keynote titled ‘Let Her Speak: paving the way for the next generation’, was Walkley award-winning journalist, Nina Funnell. During this speech, Nina shared of her experience working as an investigative journalist while orchestrating the #LetHerSpeak campaign.

Nina opened up about her experience investigating the toxic rape culture entrenched in the university system, and the shameful lack of protection survivors received from these institutions. While this is was a deeply confronting time for Nina as a survivor herself, she was proud to credit the brave women who came out to speak their truth to call out their perpetrators and contribute to policy reform. 

“Survivors are afraid of speaking out and being blamed. When they do speak, however, the impact they make, far outweighs their fears,’ Nina shared. 

Nina’s leadership has been crucial to empowering survivors of sexual assault to tell their stories and reclaim their power, and it was inspiring to hear about her journey. 

Attendees split into three seminar sessions to gain tangible skills on communication, navigating difficult conversations and inclusive and authentic leadership. These sessions provided a chance to not only hear from the incredible seminar facilitators, Nadia Pessarossi (Rubik3), Llewlella Jago (Rowdy) and Frances Crimmins (YWCA Canberra), but gave attendees a chance to share their own stories and connect with each other.  

Presenting the last keynote of the day, “Don’t mind the gap… Destroy it!’ was Gamilaroi woman, writer and academic Amy Thunig. Drawing on the theme of power, Amy spoke openly about her experience as an Aboriginal woman entering the workforce and the challenge of addressing tokenism in the workplace. Despite efforts to diversify, she expressed that many workplaces never felt authentic in honoring these values, as she often felt like she was ‘ticking a box’.  

Amy explained that her experience as an Indigenous woman makes her just as valid as her fellow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. She insists that by acknowledging her culture, employers also inherit the responsibility to acknowledge the stories and culture of every other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person they see. Throwing a question to the audience, Amy asked, “Who do you see on the street and who do you acknowledge as valid?  

“If you want someone because they bring diversity, you need to remember that that person belongs to a body and a community,” Amy shares. 

The 2021 She Leads Conference was an exciting and empowering day, which left attendees with tools to take away for their own leadership journeys, and connected them to other likeminded women and non-binary people from all sectors.  

We can’t wait to build on the success of the Conference in 2022. 

The She Leads Conference is made possible by the support of our incredible partners. Thank you to Rubik3HestaAstryxWoolworthsPipeline TalentBeyond BankHome by HollyKambriRowdy and Prinstant 

Want to see photos taken from this year’s She Leads Conference? Check out the event‘s album on our Flickr.  

If you wish to find out more information about upcoming She Leads events, subscribe to our She Leads newsletter or contact our team at SheLeads@ywca-canberra.org.au   

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