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First Nations women in governance
In this topic, we look at the important role Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women play in governance and as leaders. We discuss some of the major challenges they face and provide tips to help your organisation, community or nation support women in governance. This topic is not only for women – women in leadership is everyone’s business.
While reading this topic, think about the following questions and how they relate to your organisation, community or nation:
- How can your group best support women in governance?
- Why is it important to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have a role in your governance and leadership? What strengths do they bring?
First Nations women and leadership
Just as there’s no one theory of leadership, there’s no single template for First Nations women in leadership.1C. Chamberlain, D. Fergie, A. Sinclair and C. Asmar, “Traditional midwifery or ‘wise women’ models of leadership: Learning from Indigenous cultures,” Leadership 12, no. 3 (2016): 353, [link] Women play an important role in strengthening their families and groups. Harnessing their skills, cultural knowledge and experience makes governance more effective.
Many of the ways women have led and changed society is often not recognised as leadership. This includes migrant, Indigenous and minority women. Instead, this has had other labels such as ‘working in community’ or ‘volunteering’.2Joy Damousi and Mary Tomsic, “Introduction to Diversity in Leadership: Australian Women, Past and Present” in Diversity in Leadership: Australian women, past and present, eds. J. Damousi, K. Rubenstein and M. Tomsic (Canberra: ANU Press, 2014); C. Chamberlain, D. Fergie, A. Sinclair and C. Asmar, “Traditional midwifery or ‘wise women’ models of leadership: Learning from Indigenous cultures,” Leadership 12, no. 3 (2016): 351, [link]
Despite the bias against recognising women leaders as ‘leaders’, women continue to perform valued roles in governing their families, clans, organisations, communities or nations.3Jackie Huggins, “Indigenous Women and Leadership – A Personal Reflection,” Indigenous Law Bulletin 6 (2004): 5-7; Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism (Brisbane: The University of Queensland Press, 2000); C. Chamberlain, D. Fergie, A. Sinclair and C. Asmar, “Traditional midwifery or ‘wise women’ models of leadership: Learning from Indigenous cultures,” Leadership 12, no. 3 (2016): 352, [link] They have always had influential leadership responsibilities for Country, Law and collective identity in accordance with Indigenous cultural traditions. Many continue to hold deep gender-based knowledge based on such responsibilities. In doing so, they provide profound and impactful leadership. Today, senior women are often the bedrock of community and family wellbeing, and are active in many leadership and governance roles.
Recognising the number of women who hold important governing roles in their groups is also growing.
As First Nations women increasingly hold positions of authority, they can influence, educate and provide more opportunities for others.
“Black women make the best leaders … [Black women exhibit] three particular traits that I think are extremely important in leadership.
… We are passionate about our culture, about our communities, about our families. And we are passionate about passing on knowledge to the next generation … This passion has led to work not only individually, but for the greater good … The second is
The strongest people in the world are not the ones who are most protected. They are the ones who have had to face struggles, adversity, and obstacles, surmount them, and survive. Aboriginal women have displayed a perseverance and resilience that has taken us through decades of change. We have achieved great things …And finally,
the mental and moral strength to face difficulty, fear, and adversity, and to become better for it … To me, these are the things that drive a better community.”
– Michelle Deshong, Kuka Yulanji woman, 2015.4Michelle Deshong, “Black women: tipping the balance,” TedxJCUCairns, 2015, TEDx Talks, 15:35, [link]
Opportunities for First Nations women
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have the right and the capabilities to actively participate in and shape Indigenous governance for the better.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women make Indigenous governance stronger and healthier. They also better represent the diversity of needs, viewpoints, skills and experiences.
While everyone has a responsibility to rebuild Indigenous governance to support women’s active participation, it’s First Nations women themselves who do this best.
Here are some examples of leadership programs that aim to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and develop their leadership capabilities:
Glass Jar Australia’s Shooting Stars Leadership Program works to develop the leadership capability and capacity of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. They achieve this through leadership camps, networking and volunteering, facilitated workshops and opportunities to develop project management and other leadership skills.
This video on the Shooting Stars 2022 Senior Leadership Camp provides a snapshot of how the program helps Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women develop into strong leaders.
Shooting Stars also undertakes regular yarning circle with Aboriginal girls, women, and their communities. This place-based process allows Shooting Star’s participants, staff, schools and localised steering committee members to take ownership of the program within their community. Through this yarning process, Shooting Stars can identify barriers and facilitators to their empowerment of Aboriginal women. Read more about the Yarning with the Stars Project.
Galiwin’ku Women’s Space (GWS) is another example of strong women stepping into leadership roles for their community. The space is run and led by Yolŋu women. It supports and empowers women on Elcho Island who are experiencing domestic and family violence. GWS offers crisis accommodation, case management and outreach support for at-risk women and children. GWS also facilitates community education sessions to help address the underlying drivers of domestic and family violence.
GWS have 3 underpinning principles – Gurrutu, Client-led and Two Worlds. These principles guide their culturally safe approaches to the education, support and safety of women and families. Yolŋu women work alongside the Elcho Island community, Yolŋu leaders and Elders (both men and women), and researchers to create a stronger and safer community for everyone.
You can learn more about Galiwin’ku and the Yolŋu women who run the space.
Challenges faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women
As in the wider non-Indigenous Australian environment, challenges remain for First Nations women in governance settings. These challenges are not just about equal representation of women in membership, governance leadership, or organisational staffing. Challenges can also be experienced by women in the practical realities of exercising leadership. For example, in terms of:
- having decision-making power
- respect and recognition of women’s voices as leaders
- lack of mentoring and support for their leadership and capabilities
- how resources are allocated to women and men
- caring responsibilities that impact women’s abilities to participate in meetings or other governance processes
- making sure that processes and structures are designed to overcome structural barriers to women’s participation.
With carefully considered strategies, these challenges can be overcome.
“Everywhere I heard how our women and girls are the nurturers and teachers providing care to children, families and communities. Simultaneously, I heard how this deep commitment to our society drives women to become leaders in fighting for a better existence for all our people.”
– June Oscar, AO, Bunuba woman and Social Justice Commissioner, 2020.5June Oscar and Australian Human Rights Commission, Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices): Securing Our Rights, Securing Our Future Report (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2020), 54.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women face what’s called ‘intersectional’ discrimination and disadvantage. This is the combined effect of structural racism experienced as Indigenous peoples, and gender inequality experienced as women.
Gender inequality means that power, resources and opportunities are unequally distributed between men and women in a way that tends to advantage men and disadvantage women. It also means that women and men are unequal in social settings through attitudes, norms and practices.
Some of the ways this inequality can affect the active participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women as leaders in governance include:
- lack of community and external stakeholder opportunity for, or recognition of, women’s voices, representation and participation in organisational, community or nation decision making
- high rates of gender-based violence and specific traumas
- higher burden of unpaid work – such as domestic duties, caring for families and communities, healing trauma
- misinformed or restrictive ideas and beliefs about women’s leadership capacities
- more limited opportunities and resources afforded to women, including young women, to be given capacity-building experiences, skills training, and mentoring opportunities.
Gari Yala Gendered Insights report
The Gari Yala (Speak the truth): Gendered Insights report (2021) explores the intersection of gender and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity in Australian organisations. It helps highlight some common challanges faced by First Nations women in governance.
According to the Gari Yala report, First Nations women are:
- underrepresented in managerial and executive positions across the Australian workforce
- less likely to hold full-time permanent positions
- more likely to bear a higher ‘cultural load’
- less likely to receive support than male First Nation co-workers when a workplace becomes culturally unsafe
- the least supported when experiencing unfair treatment, racism and harassment – especially those in lower-level positions.6Olivia Evans, Gari Yala (Speak the Truth): gendered insights (WGEA Commissioned Research Report in partnership with the Jumbunna Institute of Education and Research and Diversity Council Australia, 2021), [link]
While this research examined data from the wider Australian workforce, women in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations are not immune from issues. For example, identity strain, cultural load, and being exposed to culturally unsafe situations in cross-cultural contexts of workplaces (paid and unpaid).7Olivia Evans, Gari Yala (Speak the Truth): gendered insights (WGEA Commissioned Research Report in partnership with the Jumbunna Institute of Education and Research and Diversity Council Australia, 2021), [link]
All groups need to make sure their governing bodies and management pay closer attention to their workplace culture and work to improve it. This benefits everyone, not just women.
“Commit to unearthing and acting on workplace truths – however uncomfortable this may be. Organisations must be prepared and willing to interrogate and understand the truth about their employees’ experiences at work, and in particular how gender and Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander identity intersect to determine these experiences. Organisations must also acknowledge and seek to address how their policies and workplace culture around caring responsibilities may be particularly harmful to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in their workforce.”
– Gari Yala (Speak the Truth): gendered insights report, 2021.
Supporting women in governance
There are many positive ways to support the leadership aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Some of them require a commitment to closing gender inequality gaps and making sure women are well represented in leadership roles. Others include making leadership mentoring and ‘on the job’ governing opportunities available to young women.
“We need consultants and people in leadership roles. Like more of us to do that work. Aboriginal consultants and leaders to walk with us through that journey. Women and children support services to help them get out of domestic violence situations. More Aboriginal women in leadership roles and be a voice for us and make decisions.”
– Dubbo women, Wiyi Yani U Thangani report, 2020.8Australian Human Rights Commission, Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices): Securing Our Rights, Securing Our Future Report (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2020), 162.
The Healing Foundation suggests groups invest in tailored, localised training programs that:
- aim to build the confidence of young women to become future leaders
- focus on succession planning and sustainable leadership outcomes.
There are other ways to support women in governance. This might mean:
- making sure women have access to leadership roles
- encouraging women to engage in leadership and capacity-building opportunities.
For example, by including them on boards or providing them with equal opportunity to participate in decision-making and meetings.
Supporting women in governance also means treating women as individuals with their own goals and aspirations, and giving them opportunities to follow these aspirations.
Groups should make an effort to recognise the significant role women have played – and continue to play – in their organisation, community or nation.
The Asserting the Modern Matriarchy guide outlines 6 women-centred principles to help guide their Women’s Leadership and Coaching Programs. The guide’s authors include Meriam woman Kerry Arabena, and Yorta Yorta woman Karen Milward.
The principles they outline may also help guide your group to support women in governance and leadership.
The 6 principles are:
- Women are treated with dignity, respect and fairness (cultural respect).
- Women’s artistic and familial obligations are recognised (cultural recognition).
- Women have the right to access leadership and coaching programs that are supportive of their current and future aspirations, independent of where they are in their life’s journey (non-judgmental).
- Women have the right to access learning and participate in culturally safe spaces and culturally empowering groups (empowerment).
- Women have the right to take responsibility for their own happiness, contentment and work/life balance (rights and obligations).
- Women have the right and the responsibility to foster supportive networks that are unique to them, and to contribute to lifting each other up not tearing each other down. (Fostering a culture of celebration and achievement to overcome the ‘shame factor’.)9 Arabena, K., Milward, K. & Blaber, D. 2020, Asserting the Modern Matriarchy: A Guide to Inform the Development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Leadership and Coaching Programs, Karabena Publishing, Melbourne, 14.
Below are some questions to prompt your thinking about how to better support women’s representation, voice and decision-making power in your governance settings.
For each question, ask yourself: In our governance setting, what can we do / do more of / do better?
Consult and listen to women when workshopping your responses to these questions.
These check-ups are intended for self-directed assessment. They can be used by leaders, board directors, or group members who want to evaluate the governance and leadership of their organisation, community or nation. You can do the check-up on your own or as a group and then compare results.
International support for the equality of First Nations women in governance
There are several international frameworks that reaffirm the rights of First Nations women to:
- participate in governance and decision-making
- enjoy the same political, cultural, economic and social opportunities as men
- be free from discrimination.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) are two of the most well-known.
Endorsed by Australia in 2003, UNDRIP provides individual and collective rights for Indigenous peoples regarding their culture, identity, language, employment, health and education.
The Declaration also emphasises the rights of Indigenous peoples – including Indigenous women – to participate in decision-making institutions.
In signing the CEDAW, Australia has committed to:
- increasing the number of women in political and public life
- making sure that political and public bodies reflect the full diversity of the population – including Indigenous women and women – from ethnic minorities.
Australian support for the equality of First Nations women in governance
In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are also developing their own guidelines to inform structural change and assert their rights to self-determination. The Wiyi Yani U Thangani Women’s Voices report, published by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), sets out some important considerations for how best to promote the human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls.
“… For too long our policy-makers, legislators and institutional bodies have been deaf to our voices. There is no excuse for this absence when we know we have always been present, and never been silent.
The ongoing denial of our voices is a denial of our rights. It is a grave injustice. Women have told me that our basic rights to things like adequate housing, food, education, health, financial security, and our rights to land and country are not secure.
Without our voices at the table, women have told me that these rights are far from guaranteed, and rather than actively realised through structural supports, are being undermined. As such, poverty, racism and trauma are pervasive across our communities, disproportionately impacting our women and children and exposing our families to punitive legal and welfare systems.”
– June Oscar, AO, Bunuba woman and Social Justice Commissioner, 2019.10June Oscar, “Inaugural National Women’s Leadership Symposium,” (speech, Sydney, 29 November, 2019), [link]
Wiyi Yani U Thangani report
Wiyi Yani U Thangani Report – introduction by June Oscar AO
The Wiyi Yani U Thangani report sets out key principles that should underpin the way forward for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls. These are:
Embedding culture and respect for identity
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls can learn and practise their culture, knowledge and languages. Their diverse identities are respected.
All Australians recognise past and contemporary injustices experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including women and girls, and understand the ongoing impacts of these on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Equity in leadership
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls are respected and equally represented in leadership roles.
A rights-based approach
Human rights are built into policy and decision-making processes of government, are co-designed, and proactively seek to address inequalities.
A place-based approach
Governments acknowledge the efficacy of place-based initiatives that promote community leadership, participation and solutions.
Understanding intersectional discrimination
It’s understood that the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls are a complex mix of race, gender, age and other attributes.
Lifting women lifts the whole community
It’s understood that measures designed to enhance the enjoyment of human rights by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls benefit their entire communities.
Inclusion and participation
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls are supported to participate in decision-making that affects their lives.
Accountability and transparency
The basis of government actions and decisions is transparent. There’s accountability for outcomes, including robust and relevant measures and targets that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples agree with.
“The board is made up of men. Women put their hands up to go on boards but men only vote for men. That is the biggest thing that is missing on the Tiwi Islands is gender equity. The women are scared cause there are too many men. The men try to dominate the meetings. They need to be told, this is an equal world now.”
– Tiwi Islands Melville women, Wiyi Yani U Thangani report, 2020.11Australian Human Rights Commission, Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices): Securing Our Rights, Securing Our Future Report (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2020), 82.
The Wiyi Yani U Thangani report recommends the following tools for empowering women’s leadership on the ground:
- Set targets for the representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in advisory and decision-making roles in government, business, and mainstream organisations.
- Embed gender equality as a key principle across Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community organisations.
- Empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women through investment in leadership and governance support, including through partnerships with key organisations.
- Provide government support for broad-based and community-led capacity building programs for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander girl’s leadership.12Australian Human Rights Commission, Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices): Securing Our Rights, Securing Our Future Report (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2020), 99.
“Everywhere I travelled I heard how our women and girls feel safer and more confident to seek support when it is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women designing, managing, and running the services responding to our specific needs.”
– June Oscar, AO, Bunuba woman and Social Justice Commissioner, 2020.13Australian Human Rights Commission, Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices): Securing Our Rights, Securing Our Future Report (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2020), 162.
Wiyi Yani U Thangani and Yanalangami female changemakers
Yanalangami is an Aboriginal-led leadership program that empowers and supports First Nations female changemakers. Yanalangami changemakers are passionate about supporting women and girls through female-led and community-driven change.
Yanalangami is about creating a culturally safe space for these women to share, connect, learn, heal and grow together. In this supportive environment, First Nations women can foster their skills and unlock their potential as community leaders.
As described on their website, Yanalangami is closely aligned with the Wiyi Yani U Thangani report. By seeking to empower women’s leadership on the ground, through culturally safe methods and holistic approaches to healing, the Yanalangami program aligns with the Wiyi Yani U Thangani report across 4 major themes:
- Women’s leadership and self-determination
- Healing from intergenerational trauma
- Lore, law, language and culture as key determinants of health and wellbeing
- Recognising First Nations’ women unpaid work and addressing social and economic structures that have led to powerlessness and poverty.
Support Wiyi Yani U Thangani
Wiyi Yani U Thangani invites us all to support their work and come on the journey of achieving First Nations gender justice and equality in Australia.
- Watch and share the Yajilarra nhingi, mindija warrma (from dreams, let’s make it reality) animation.
- Follow the 3 easy steps in the Supporter Toolkit.
- Download the Implementation Framework to take action across 4 key areas.
- Start a conversation with your local MP about First Nations gender justice.
The following video captures the story of Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices) – the story of strength, resilience, sovereignty and power told by the voices of First Nations women and girls. The animation builds on the landmark Wiyi Yani U Thangani Report and project led by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar AO. It is a voice for hope and change.
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