Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the YWCA She Leads conference, among a line up of inspiring women speaking of overcoming the multiple challenges we face as a result of our gender and identities. There are so many ways that we are disadvantaged and marginalised in society and in our workplaces, and gender, race, socio-economic background, education, physical and mental aspects, and motherhood status, all provide layers of priveldege and disadvantage for us to navigate. The conference really highlighted this for me, and reaffirmed my commitment to intersectional feminism- feminism that works to disrupt all the power structures of marginalisation that exist within out society. Intersectional feminism works to ensure that we all have access to opportunity and all can access the benefits of our society and economy, free from discrimination and marginalisation based on our race, identity and background.
One of the speakers, award-winning Aboriginal playwright and comedian Nakkiah Lui, spoke about her educational journey of being ‘the good Aboriginal’ – learning to succeed in the education system and workplace as a measure of success. But along the way she realised that she was so busy chasing ‘white man’s success’ – the model of success that has defined by colonisation and the men who have controlled the evolution of Australian society and culture.
‘White man’s success’ affects us all. It is the model of success that privileges men over women, white people over people of colour, able bodied people over those with some form of disability, and the heterosexual community over LBTQI community. It is a model that preferences the modern western knowledge system over ancient wisdom and cultural practice. It favours the use of English over indigenous languages, foreign languages or Auslan. It is also the model of success that favours domination and exploitation of resources over living in harmony with our ecosystem, and which marginalises caring and creative pursuits and any activity that is based on reciprocity instead of an exchange of cash. It tells us that living a traditional Indigenous lifestyle on country is a lifestyle choice whilst mining toxic resources is an economic imperative. It is a model that tells us that cleaning the office or caring for our elderly is worth very little, but selling stock and engaging in unethical financial practices is worth millions.
Nakkiah Lui asks each of us to question this model of success, and to find our authentic voice so that we can each determine what success should mean to each of us as individuals. Success for an Aboriginal woman living in a remote community can look very different to the success desired by a white woman living in Sydney or an Aboriginal woman living in Sydney. There is more than one way to have success. The difference now is the varying degrees of freedom that we each have to pursue our own version of success. Society places limitations on us. The further away our version of success is to dominant norm, the more limitations are placed on us by the society that we live in.
Yet to change this, it is important that each of understand what is important to us as unique individuals, and start working towards the success that we’ve defined for ourselves. We must work to exceed the limitations that that are placed on us, whilst simultaneously challenging the limitations that are placed on others.
In my own childhood, for a long time my parents were unable to work due to socio-economic challenges, mental illness, physical disability, caring responsibilities and high rates of unemployment in the economy in that time and place. In the dominant view of success, our family was failing. Yet my childhood was spent learning to grow vegetables, play music, paint, sew, knit, and cook exquisite vegetarian food from scratch. I spent a lot of time at home with my parents and siblings, and I learned to cherish and value the creative, caring and nourishing activities that take place outside of the paid workforce.
I also learned to question the dominant model of success. A model that fails to make room for difference, and that fails to value the caring, nurturing and creative work that is so important to me and my family. As I transitioned into motherhood myself, I was determined to build a meaningful career that allowed me the space and time to spend on the important work that takes place in the home. This is not because I am a woman, and mothers are expected to value these things. My brother is currently the full-time carer of his three children. Our experience as children showed us the value of this family time at home.
As I build Lead Mama Lead this is our mission. To evolve the world of work so that mothers can have meaningful careers outside the home that allow for plenty of time to value the other things our lives. We don’t believe that this stops with mothers either. Ultimately we want fathers, people have caring roles for parents or siblings, or anyone who wants to pursue activities that don’t necessarily pay them, to have access to both meaningful work and meaningful time at home. What ever work may be to them, and where ever home may be. We believe that mothers can start to lead the transformation of the workplace so that is makes space for these things.
So when you are imagining a future for yourself, don’t limit yourself to the model of success that is presented to you. Dare to dream of something different for yourself and your family. Dare to define what success means to you as an individual and start working towards that success in small steps.
Another one of the conference speakers was young Australian of the year Drisana Levitske-Gray, who is the fifth generation in her family to be born profoundly deaf. As an advocate for the deaf community, Drisana asks us to see the ‘deaf gain’ (rather than hearing loss) in the unique experiences and culture of people in the deaf community. She spoke of the historical and ongoing marginalisation of the deaf community, and how deaf people are undervalued and underestimated by a society that fails to see the gain. Her talk was an important reminder that we should not judge ourselves by the way that society values us (or fails to value us), nor judge our capacity for success (or the capacity of others) based on the dominant view of what it means to be successful.
If you can’t see it, it doesn’t mean you can’t be it. But you need to have the courage to dream outside of the limited view of success that you can see before you. Get clear about what is important to you, as an individual, and start pursuing your own version of success. And encourage and support others to do the same.
Only by questioning the inherent power structures in our dominant model of success can we start to unpick the limitations that it places on the majority of us. In the process of pursuing our own version of success, we must also be allies for all who are disadvantaged by the dominant model of success, and question the ways in which the current system privileges us over others too. In doing so we can start to build a economy and society that values diversity and difference, and empowers everyone to be actively involved in both public and private spheres.