“The difficulty of being a leader of a political party on a national level, being the most experienced person in the room (at one stage having served the longest) being the youngest and being female which meant that I still wasn’t afforded the respect that I think being a man, even the same age would have had.”
Natasha Stott Despoja Ambassador for Women and Girls.
Most of us know Natasha Stott Despoja as the smart, energetic former leader of the Australian Democrats and more recently as Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls.
But how many of us know about Natasha Stott Despoja, the soccer mum?
“My son’s soccer coach had a go at him recently and said, ‘Wow, you’re really scared of things, you’re a real mama’s boy.
My son was really cool with it – I think he was more worried with what I was going to do to the coach when I found out. (laughs) We can laugh about those things but they’re so deadly serious, it’s part of the perception of women, the portrayal of women and it all adds up to a society that doesn’t fully respect and value women,” she said during our recent interview.
And she’s spot on.
How many of us have dealt with seemingly harmless comments like these? I know I have.
The chair of Our Watch (the foundation to prevent violence against women and children) argues there’s an inextricable link between gender inequality and violence against women.
If we are to change the fact that one in three of us over the age of fifteen have experienced some form of physical violence, too many women are murdered by people they’re in an intimate relationship with, or reduce the18.8% pay gap, we NEED to overhaul attitudes.
Honoured to share part one of my conversation with one of our true trailblazers.
Friends, meet Natasha…
Martine Harte: Natasha Stott Despoja, gender equality and female empowerment are your reasons for working. This flame of feminism was lit very early as your mum Shirley (a well-known journalist) would take you to women’s refuges with her, is that right?
Natasha Stott Despoja: My mum is a feisty, feminist journalist, still writing after more than fifty years in what was a very male-dominated profession.
One of the many issues she tried to get on to the mainstream media agenda was the issue of domestic violence, family violence and sexual assault and that involved her having quiet a close connection with women’s shelters in South Australia.
I was attending Reclaim the Night rallies from a very early age but more importantly we were discussing these issues: talking about what it meant to have equality of opportunity or indeed better representation of women – not just in political and representative institutions but in terms of the media as well – so yes I was brought up with these notions.
We have a long way to go, but what do you see as the most significant positives when it comes to women’s issues?
Natasha Stott Despoja: Oh there are many and sometimes it’s hard to factor that in. We’re all conscious last year was the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing declaration, that wonderful conference. The declaration that came out of that, had the most extraordinary aspirations and targets for women’s participation in life; public life, private life.
Since then no one country in the world has actually achieved gender equality and many of those aspirations remain unfulfilled.
In my work I’m very conscious of the things that we haven’t done and sometimes it is important to reflect on the positives.
Increased representation of women in parliament, look around Australia we have increasing numbers of women in political positions.
We have made strides, we have had very positive and progressive legislation passed, whether it’s to do with equal pay, domestic violence legislation, sexual harassment and other issues that affect women in a discriminatory kind of way.
We’re seeing this cohort of young women who are becoming successful not only through the education system but also entrepreneurs doing things that even when I was at school were seemingly unimaginable.
So with all this talent and skill it can be quite confronting to look at the flip side, an 18.8% pay gap, forty years after equal pay legislation – that is a problem.
High levels of violence – that is of course an incredible indictment, so still a long way to go.
The fact that I work for a Federal government – regardless of its persuasion – that has an Ambassador for Women and Girls, there’s a recognition we have a lot of work to do but isn’t it great to have the spotlight on some of these issues? Not just about in our country, but about the rights and responsibilities of women and girls around the world.
Is there one time when you experienced gender discrimination which you replay and it still spurs you on? I’m sure you have many!
Natasha Stott Despoja: I’ve suppressed most of those! (laughs)
I’m not sure I can point to one definitive because sometimes it’s not even the overt; it’s the subtle discrimination. You look at my parliamentary career and the higher expectations that I feel were placed on me as a member of parliament and the greater scrutiny to which women with profiles are subjected to.
There’s always this sense of ‘one’ woman at a time who’s getting a great deal of attention and scrutiny.
Whether it was the subtle asides about how I looked or what I wore, or how old I was, or whether I went into politics to meet a husband, or even the almost avuncular comments of men in politics who’d say, “You should be wearing skirts as opposed to pants.”
The idea that people could even consider that right to comment on what you wore!
I think that’s what I found for me: the difficulty of being a leader of a political party on a national level, being the most experienced person in the room at one stage – having served the longest – being the youngest and being female which meant that I still wasn’t afforded the respect that I think being a man, even the same age would have had.
THE POWER OF GRACE
So how did you manage to conduct yourself with such grace and how important was that grace in the fact you’re still around now?
Natasha Stott Despoja: That’s very generous, and I appreciate the term grace because for me the one thing I have vowed never to do is to focus on the people or attack the person.
What saddens me most about politics, is the lack of civility.
It’s a tough profession in that federal parliament these days, I listen to it still because I’ll always be a bit of a Senate junkie but I am surprised by the tone and how hurtful they are to each other.
IMPORTANCE OF KNOWING YOUR STUFF
If I didn’t know my stuff, it would have been very easy to have gotten rid of me, or expose me, if I hadn’t had some substance.
With me the headlines were all about suicide blonde, or blonde ambition, I got those kinds of seemingly superficial but derogatory statements which only get to you if you’re not focussed on your work.
And isn’t that terrific advice to young women who may aspire to a similar career you do have to know your stuff, that could almost be your teflon.
Natasha Stott Despoja: I’m not saying it makes you impenetrable. My husband and I joke about this, we’re both involved in board work and he laughs and says, “You read your papers like a swat, most of the blokes I turn up to meetings with… we wing it.”
I”m not suggesting that’s a gender divide but there is that element that women have to be twice as good to be given half the respect.
I do think it’s important to have confidence in your abilities and it’s easy for that confidence to be shaken by others.
The other piece of advice: have a support network.
I’m really a big fan of women’s networks and support groups and I’ll always, always support women however I can.
Martine Harte: Do you have any non-negotiables in relation to your energy? We want some of what you’re having!
Natasha Stott Despoja: (laughs) You are talking to the wrong woman! What constantly staggers my friends is kale is a foreign concept to me, exercise was something I never really understood until I turned forty.
I’m working on my non-negotiables and I guess any other gratuitous advice to other women would be: have some non negotiables.
The one thing that is important to me is quality time with my family and there are aspects of my job that make it very flexible to spend time with them, just as there are times as it’s near impossible.
So when I’m travelling, the angst and the guilt and the sadness that comes from being away from my children that is one of the most confronting things.
MORE ABOUT NATASHA:
On Twitter: @AusAWG
Over at the Ambassador for Women and Girls website
Full conversation surrounding Our Watch and ending violence against women can be found if you just tap this link.