Natasha Stott Despoja

Natasha Stott Despoja has elegantly presented the case for gender equality her entire career.

As the sun sets on another International Women’s Day, I thought it would be great to revisit a woman who has been advocating for most of her life.

Here is Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girl and the chair of Our Watch unedited, unplugged and unbelievably inspiring.

Martine Harte: Natasha Jessica Stott Despoja, you entered the Senate at just 26, the youngest women ever elected to the Australian parliament at the time, what do you make of all that now?

Natasha Stott Despoja: Well it is in fact 20 years since I first entered the Australian Parliament – so it is a very long time ago but in some respects it feels like yesterday and even though I’ve happily and proudly given up the title of the younger woman elected, believe it or not I’m still the youngest woman to have entered federal parliament because I got in on a vacancy.

This flame of feminism was lit very early, your mum Shirley was a well-known journalist and you used to go to 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 agenda is the issue of sexual violence, family violence and assault and that involved her having a very 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 them, what it meant to have equality, better representation of women – not just in political, representative institutions but in terms of the media as well – so yes I was brought up with these notions very much so.

We’ve had money going into shelters for a long time, not enough, what needs to be done?

Natasha Stott Despoja: Oh what we do know about violence is it’s a global phenomenon, one in three women has been beaten or raped or coerced into sex or abused in some way; so we’re talking extraordinary statistics and Australia is not exempt from that. We know a suite of reforms or a combination of policies are required and they include intervention so it’s got to be social support, medical support, legal and justice.

It’s got to be various service provision, intervention and early intervention but the next step is primary prevention and that’s the area in which I’m involved wearing a different hat as Chair of Our Watch, the Foundation to prevent violence against women and children.

Our focus is stopping the violence before it occurs but it’s going to take time, money and long-term commitment. For some people, that’s a very challenging concept because we don’t like to think there’s a continuum or people don’t like to think we have a society that doesn’t value women.

Every facet of our society needs to be examined. My son’s soccer coach had a go at him recently and said, “Wow you’re really scared, you’re a real mama’s boy.” Even those kind of little comments that permeate our society are indicative of the fact that we are such a long way from gender equality. My son was very cool with it, but I think he was more worried with what I was going to do to the coach when I found out (laughs). I can laugh about those things but they are deadly serious, it’s part of the perception of women, the portrayal of women.

It’s a good thing your son told you, that you have that kind of relationship. So, healthy training relationships in every school, that sort of idea gives me optimism and appeals to my logic. Why aren’t we getting people before they are six years old, the neuroscientists are saying that’s when we are most impressionable.

Natasha Stott Despoja: You’re absolutely right, it gives me reason for optimism because we know the places where young people are influenced; you’re right they are more likely to take on ideas. That’s where we’ve got to start with primary prevention, that’s why we need to teach social and other subjects in schools because we know it’s the right time.

But this has been a very controversial subject, not to mention that teachers are already arguably overworked and deal with a range of ideas and concepts, but the good thing is this is now part of the national curriculum for the first time, this is embedded and we will start to see schools roll out these courses and it does depend largely not only on governments but teachers but reinforcing messages young people get through society.

We’ve just launched this frame-work the first ever national frame-work and it tells us something pretty clear: it’s not enough to do schools education or training it has to be multifaceted, it has to be backed up through role models through sports, through the messages they get everywhere else. I’m really proud Our Watch, is involved with initiating that, it’s one of the things I look back on this year with a degree of relief and if not pride.

What do you see as the most significant positives for women in general?

Natasha Stott Despoja: Oh there are many and sometimes it’s hard to factor that in.

We’re all conscious this year is the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing declaration and that wonderful conference two decades ago. 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 we haven’t done but sometimes it is important to reflect on the positives and when I reflect on increasing representation of women in parliament, look around Australia, we have increasing numbers of women in political positions, women who have been Premiers, finally we had a female Prime Minister and again there’s a debate and discussion in how that ended up in terms of the portrayal of her and the expectations of women in power.

We have made strides, we have had very positive legislation passed – whether it’s to do with equal pay, whether it’s to do with domestic violence, whether it’s to do with sexual harassment – or other issues which affect women in a discriminatory kind of way.

We’re seeing this cohort of young women which are becoming successful not only through the education system but entrepreneurs doing things that even when I was at school seemed 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 an incredible indictment, so still a long way to go.

The fact I work for a government, regardless of its persuasion that has an ambassador for women and girls, isn’t it great we have a spotlight on some of these issues and a recognition it’s not just about our country, but about the rights, responsibilities around the world for women and girls.

In relation to your decision to leave parliament, I took that as you being empowered. I know some feminists commentators believe we shouldn’t be having the balance conversation but I needed to hear it when I was pregnant so can you tell us about your views on why having Cordelia and Conran was empowering?

Natasha Stott Despoja: Well bearing in mind I was a cross party politician, I had almost thirteen years in parliament which made me the longest serving Democrat senator in the party’s history, so I wasn’t nicking out the door early, I’d done a lot of time!

I keep thinking there must be an equivalent for being a minor party representative, like dog years, it’s not a normal amount of time that maybe a normal backbencher would experience. Having been a deputy leader and leader, I’d certainly done my bit and paid my dues, but I also was a working mum for many years.

I had Conran in 2004 and I stayed in politics til 2008 so I was very proud of the way I handled that balance. A lot of women say, “Oh come on, you had a good salary, good shelter, supportive husband,” indeed I did, I had all of those things and I was fortunate and that enabled me also to make a choice (not many women have that opportunity) when in 2007 I decided I wouldn’t run again.

I had a four-month-old when I walked out the parliamentary doors and I was empowered by my decision, I thought it’s time, I’m going to have some time. My message to women was it’s not that it’s unmanageable because it is; this just happens to be what suits my life at this point in time.

And you know what, I remembered this the other day, I got into my car and the Com Car driver drove me to the airport and he said to me, “So good your kids are going to have a mum for a change.”

What? Because the reality is, I’m always a mum and how dare… I look back now and think, are you kidding, those were the parting words? But the reality is the balance is hard for everyone and there are support structures that we can provide to make it easier. But for women who don’t have those basic supports it is incredibly tough and choice is what it’s about for all of us.

When you talk about these issues and questions Martine, it is about respecting each other’s choices.

I think what suited me might not suit other women. I look at Parliament now (where there’s childcare for the first time) that would have changed my life, there’s no question.

Is there one time where you experienced gender discrimination which replay and informs you and spurs you on?

Natasha Stott Despoja: (laughs) I’ve suppressed most of those! I’m not sure I can point to one definitive moment 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 and 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 would say, “You should be wearing skirts as opposed to pants.” You know the idea people could even consider that right to comment on what you wore!

You know it’s those little things that add up, so those comments or whether you’re consistently overlooked for your policy work or positions within the parliament I mean 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.

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, I believe it influenced it enormously.

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 (and it is sometimes very hard, I acknowledge that) is to focus on the policies, the principles, the debates and not the people. And what saddens me most about politics both in my time (and this is a feature of my party)  is the lack of civility we’re seeing.

The personal attacks, funny attacks, jokes that were in some aspects part and parcel of our political history and debates. It’s different from some of the spite and the nastiness we see these days. 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 we are to each other.

So I’m hoping that there was an understanding I knew my stuff, I would have been gotten rid of early in the piece, it would have been so easy to have gotten rid of me, or exposed me, if I hadn’t had some substance.

It’s so easy to denigrate women; with me it was all about suicide blonde, or blonde ambition I got so many of those headlines, 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 me wing it.”

I”m not suggesting that’s a gender divide but there is that old adage women have to be twice as good to be given half the respect.

The other piece of advice: Have a support network. It doesn’t matter what you do at the end of the day I’m really a big fan of women’s networks and support groups and I’ll always, always support women however I can.

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