UN Women National Committee Australia

Interview with Janelle Weissman

I believe that it takes one person at a time to shift the gender equality dial.

Janelle Weissman, UN Women National Committee Australia.


UN Women is the United Nations entity for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

It’s all about:

+ Ending violence against women and girls

+ Promoting women’s economic empowerment

+ Ensuring women have access to leadership roles and fully participate in political processes

+ Ensuring women are essential to peace and security processes as well as humanitarian response

+ Ensuring gender is considered and central to budget process

I first heard Janelle Weissman speak at an International Women’s Day event and immediately knew I wanted to share her insights with you.

Since joining the committee in 2014, funds raised to support UN Women programs to empower and protect women have nearly doubled under her guidance.

Delighted to bring you Janelle Weissman…


Martine Harte: Janelle you’ve been working in the gender equality space for more than 20 years, can you tell us about how you’ve arrived at your current position?


Janelle Weissman UN Women National Committee Australia:

I was a feminist activist throughout university and early on in my professional career I delivered a life skills program for girls, anywhere from adolescents in psychiatric treatment and juvenile detention facilities to inner city middle schools in the States.

I taught them about consent, communication and pathways to achieve their dreams.

I’m a lifelong advocate that every girl should have the same access as every boy to be heard, to lead, to learn and to participate in the formal and the informal economy.

When I came to Australia, I received my masters in International Studies as a Rotary World Peace fellow in 2009 and that really stimulated my interest in merging my passion for gender equality with being concerned for the safety and wellbeing of women across our borders.

So the work that I do within UN Women National Committee Australia is that perfect blend for me of supporting and strengthening opportunities for women and girls particularly in an International context.


You mentioned you spoke to girls in relation to their communication, what specifically were you instructing them?


Janelle Weissman UN Women National Committee Australia: This is going back a number of years but really working with young people to find their voices and feel confident in that voice.

When girls move from primary to secondary school often times there are a range of biases that exist and girls don’t speak out or speak up as much in the classroom and their male colleagues often dominate.

So for us it was really important to create girl only spaces to talk about finding your voice and exercising your voice.


So many people come to this site because they are unable to get a hold on the confidence it requires to be able to speak up. What do you say in that respect?


Janelle Weissman UN Women National Committee Australia: It really depends on who we’re talking to. In the early stages of my career with girls and young women it was really about ensuring that women and girls have opportunities to reflect on where they are and who they want to be in the world.

It’s not so much about the confidence gap – people talk about women not putting their hands up to ask for a pay rise (which is certainly researched!) and the research says we do ask for pay rises – we have systemic gender inequality which means men are 25% more likely than women to get pay rise when they ask for it.

It’s fundamentally about making sure women and girls can see what they want to be.

It’s about surrounding them with role models, making sure we have role models who articulate the importance of standing up and speaking out and really trying to tackle some of the inequality which is crowding women out of leadership spaces and education spaces.

We need to create more space to include women’s voices which add invaluable perspective and diversity to organisations and communities.

UN Women is a global champion for women and girls doing incredible work.


I’ve read that since you have taken up the position funds raise to support UN Women projects have nearly doubled, is that right?


Janelle Weissman UN Women National Committee Australia: Yes, we have significantly augmented the funds that we raise which only happens because of the generosity of individuals, community, government and the private sector all across Australia who recognise the importance of implementing violence prevention programs, or training programs so that women can pursue political elected office in parts of the world where women are underrepresented.

It’s really a response of the generosity of the Australian people.

A large component of your role is grant making strategies. What are your key learnings?


Janelle Weissman UN Women National Committee Australia:

1/ Don’t make assumptions – we have to trust in and learn from the experience of the important activists, community leaders and workers on the ground, who experience need on a day to day basis.

We cannot underestimate the wisdom of the people doing the work on the ground really in informing the way that we channel charitable dollars.

2/ Take time to understand the issues. So consulting and working with grantees but also recognising that there is a wealth of information about issues that will come from a whole range of sources.

3/ Results take lots of different forms so I think what I’ve learnt working for twenty years in the social change space in a range of fashion and roles is it does take time to shift the dial.

Sadly, there is no country in the world for example which has achieved gender equality today.

Does that mean we shouldn’t intervene in policy agendas to advance gender equality? Or disregard programs that are working with girls and boys to talk about equality in the schoolroom on the playing field, in recital halls, in boardrooms?

Of course not. Diverse approaches to tackle gender inequality will have diverse results, and we need more resources to advance both policy change and programs that are making a difference.

I would say we have to understand what impact looks like in that short, medium and long term view, because often times it takes more time to see the dial shift.

But understanding what those interim indicators are is very important.

What’s the day on the life of Janelle? Wake up … coffee?


Janelle Weissman UN Women National Committee Australia: Because I work with stakeholders all over the world sometimes my day might start quite early for me to connect with my colleagues in New York who are really overseeing the strategy of UN Women  across countries all around the world.

I spend a lot of time on Skype, less times on planes but lots of time communicating. I have a close relationship with a lot of key donors and supporters whether they be individuals, government or  corporate partners.

So I might have meetings (whether they be in person or over the phone) with some of our key donors to update them on progress. Equally talking to prospective corporate partners about the business case to invest in the work of UN Women and why it’s essential to be part of one of the biggest change agendas really of our time.

I spend time working with the team here – we have a small team in Canberra, as well as our office in Sydney. So I make sure I can hear from the team and understand some of the challenges that they’re experiencing and how we can work more effectively together in order to really tackle some of our business challenges or see a campaign through to success.

I do try and spend a bit of time every day scanning the newspapers seeing what’s new, what’s emerging. Do my best to have my finger on the pulse here in Australia and also around the world.


I’ve read the Pacific region is regarded the “epicentre” of violence against women is that right?


Janelle Weissman UN Women National Commitee Australia: So the executive director of UN Women was in Australia in 2014 and she came off the heels of a trip to Papua New Guinea. I heard her speak on numerous occasions which was an extraordinary opportunity and she said from where she sits thats’ her view.

Which was a really stark, startling, wake-up call to all of us who work in this region but yes. The rates of violence are unacceptable and generally referred to as the worst anywhere in the world.


Do you think unconscious bias remains a big barrier?


Janelle Weissman UN Women National Committee Australia: There’s no question we all possess it but I hear things on the news media all the time, that sometimes are a bit startling and I ask myself, What century are we living in?

Really it does take every one of us, no matter who we are or no matter where we come from to really speak the truth with love and confront everyday sexism that we see and hear.

For example, we must have a no tolerance approach to harassment in the workplace and I do believe that it takes one person at a time to shift the dial.

And that’s obviously combined with important policy frame works and seeing really fantastic initiative, for example in the private sector I think of Rosie Batty 2015 Australian of the Year who significantly changed the conversation here in Australia about violence and opened up pathways for people to talk about and recognise that we all have a role to play in preventing violence against women.

Read Engaging Women’s interview with Rosie Batty here. 


You completed a masters of International Studies at the University of Queensland, I do often find women want to do further study but how can I when I don’t have the time?

How do you navigate your time to strengthen your muscle with further study?


Janelle Weissman UN Women National Committee Australia: I can’t help but mention we do partnership with a couple of universities.

Queensland University of Technology Business School and University of Sydney Business School both offer extraordinary scholarships which are designated for women. So I certainly encourage women to look out for these opportunities.

Sometimes there can be financial barriers, there are certainly organisations who are deliberate about breaking down these barriers and increasing accessibility to higher education, like our uni partners.

I also encourage women to look out for opportunities informally and to seek out sponsors and mentors.

I have to emphasise this is not the responsibility of women to be exclusively mentoring other women, we need to have senior men mentoring and sponsoring women.

If you don’t currently have sponsorship or mentoring programs within your workplace bring the case to the leadership or initiate a program yourself. Explain that, “This is something we need – to be able to expand leadership and developmental opportunities, for the high performing and high potential women in our business.”

It is only through conscious recruitment, workplace flexibility strategies and development opportunities that we’ll be able to continue to build a pipeline and start to see parity in senior leadership roles.


Do you have a sense you’re living purposefully, do you feel content in life or do you still have a burning desire to do something else in your life?


Janelle Weissman UN Women National Committee Australia: Ah, thats an excellent question Martine.

For me the most important thing is to get up in the morning and feel good about what you have ahead. And I won’t pretend it’s all peaches and roses – that I come to work and we’re singing Kumbayah – there’s really hard work that we’re trying to accomplish.

I feel an enormous sense of responsibility and privilege to get to do that every day.

To play some small part, in the conversation which hopefully shifts attitudes and importantly shifts behaviour for a more gender equal world.

Thats my vision for the world for our children and for all those who will come after us and for those who have come before as well; we are standing on the shoulders of giants who have paved the way for us, to achieve gender equality once and for all.



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