While Tanya Jackson-Vaughan, Executive Director of Refugee Advice and Casework Services, was on stage speaking expertly and passionately for refugee rights as she received her Women of Influence Award, a protest right outside our venue was highlighting the role of event sponsor Qantas in forcibly expatriating asylum seekers.
It was an action I had signed the previous day – a statement of clear, strong ethics in contrast to the generic corporate social responsibility video that Qantas had played at the beginning of the evening. The video’s theme was “standing up” but it was unclear exactly what Qantas was “standing up” for; the video showed a diversity of faces presented by a white male celebrity, as though Australian cultural diversity were a disadvantaged “other” needing “our” help rather than being understood as the Australian mainstream. As such, the gesture was in keeping with the rest of the event, where corporates took it in turn to stand up on stage and outline their gender credentials in startlingly pre-feminist ways.
The Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence recognises ten women in ten fields of public endeavour, culminating in an event where a winner from each category is awarded as well as an overall winner. Alongside Adelaide Festival Co-Director Rachel Healy, academic and Venice 2017 curator Natalie King, White Rabbit founder Judith Neilson and others, I was a finalist in the arts category, and felt honoured to be in such esteemed company.
After the list was published, however, that experience began to sour into something more uncomfortable. The first hint was the fact that our contact details had been accessed by businesses who had assumed the right to market to us directly. These weren’t targeted communications about public issues of interest to women in leadership roles, but instead, selling women’s products of that bland gender-normative variety that sells fashion magazines. Ads for events, toiletries and styling services were not what I had expected of my participation; increasingly, I felt that our work was being coopted for commercial purposes, rather than those commercial partners being informed about our work to help guide theirs.
Sadly, that feeling was only amplified on the night. The Qantas “standing up” video made me feel deeply uncomfortable. It was an affront to how Aunty Ann Weldon had challenged us in her welcome: “Stand beside us”, she said, “and please don’t ever stand in front of us.” One of the most important ways to “stand up” is to recognise the privilege you already bring to your every platform, and so to stand aside and offer that platform to the most important voice – in this instance, most obviously, to offer that platform to a woman.
Absolutely we need people of all genders standing up for gender equality, but when they do, they should be speaking ex emeritus and not ex officio. Incredulous looks and audible gasps swept across the hall as male media bosses attempted to position their company’s record on women, and as they did so, it was clear they were addressing their advertisers and not the women in the room. (Keen to know how it’s done? Justine Hyde leads the way.)
I would love to see a program like AFR Women of Influence succeed. The Australian Financial Review no doubt hopes the program will add more women to its readership – and the best way to do that is with integrity and respect – but I’m hoping that AFR has greater aims for it than this.
Rather than exploiting us as a market of high-quality influencers, such a program should engage this influential group of women on civic terms.
Use the full resource base of the AFR to amplify our achievements.
Commission finalists to write for the AFR – and invite respondents of all genders to stimulate further discussion. Consider also non-male-identifying people of influence.
Invite the companies and projects represented among the finalists to provide communications materials to be sent to the AFR’s advertisers, and not the other way around, thus informing the ethics of companies long accustomed to hearing only from one another – or long accustomed to seeing women as a generic demographic.
Consider the program an investment and not a profit-making exercise.
And most importantly, listen to Elders when they speak, and be ready to stand beside them, never in front of them.
AFR Women of Influence is a fledgeling program that’s becoming more and more well-known on the event calendar. With an ethic more focused on the women whose voices it coopts, it can become the agenda-setting event Australia needs by instead championing those voices across the nation.
IMAGE: Tanya Jackson-Vaughan accepts her award. Photograph by Esther Anatolitis.