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The power of speaking up

By Dr Kirstin Ferguson

I can’t recall another month quite like this one for Australian women. I think I have felt every emotion – angry, inspired, exhausted, sad, hopeful, depressed – and often a couple of times a day.

I have watched and I have despaired.

Every time I despaired, I saw hope and each time that hope lay in women.

I have re-written my speech for this event many times.

I would usually write a speech I have to give many weeks in advance, thinking about it ahead of time. Planning and preparing. But not this time.

Because at this time, I have had a more visceral response.

I want to talk to you from both the head and the heart.

I would like you to stand up if you, or someone you know – a friend or family member – has been sexually harassed at work. Ever.

Maybe a comment, a leer, an unwelcome touch, or worse. You or someone you know.

Women’s leader and role model Dr Kirsten Ferguson asked at today’s @UNWomenAust event for everyone who had been sexually harassed or knew someone who had to stand up. Almost everyone did. #WomenLead — alisonsandy (@alisonsandy) March 5, 2021

Look around. That is almost the entire room. A full room of people who have been impacted by sexual harassment in some way.

Please, take a seat.

A full room of people who have been impacted by sexual harassment.

I know because I stand amongst you. Like so many women, I have been subject to sexual harassment throughout my career – starting as a young 17-year-old woman who joined the military through to being a woman now in my 40s.

Each time you tell yourself it is easier to just let it go, not to say anything, not to rock the boat. Each time you ask yourself whether you are somehow responsible – what did you say to cause this to happen? What did you do that made this person think their actions would be OK?

It almost all cases it is nothing. Sexual harassment is about the perpetrator, not the victim.

I have never spoken about a particular case of sexual harassment I have experienced but decided to share it with you.

Because if we have learnt anything this month it is that speaking up brings with it a power of its own.

Even as I think about telling this story I minimise it in my mind. Was it as bad as I remember? Should I have done something, anything to prevent it?

The secrecy of sexual harassment is its power. The stories we tell in our own mind about what happened and why, and our own responsibility in the event is what holds its power.

In my most recent case, I was in a meeting with a much older, more senior man.

We were in an office, probably around 8am, and people were in at work sitting at their own desks doing their usual morning things. There was no alcohol, no after work drinks. We were dressed in a business suits in an office building on just a typical working day.

Since we were having a meeting to discuss some confidential business matters, he had closed the door. That wasn’t particularly unusual.

In the midst of our meeting and for reasons I didn’t understand then (or now) he suddenly said something of an intimate, very personal nature that was completely inappropriate, completely unexpected and completely unwelcome.

He moved forward, put his hands on my face and grabbed my cheek.

I was shocked. My immediate instinct was to push my chair back and jump up and away from him.

I immediately felt distressed and started to cry.

I said nothing at all but even in my shock as I processed what was happening, I felt fear. I remember also being utterly bewildered that this was actually happening. To me. Now. Here.

There happened to be a private bathroom in the office. I moved in there to get away but also to look for tissues or something to blow my nose because as I was crying.

I remember feeling so ashamed because I was crying.

I have always prided myself on being professional and here I was crying “at work”. Even in the seconds after he had done this, I was starting to blame myself and feel embarrassed about how I was responding.

To my horror, as I entered the bathroom, he followed me in. It was only narrow so where he stood also meant he blocked the only way out.

I remember feeling trapped and unsure what to do. As I stood there, still crying and no doubt looking terrified, he put his arms out around me so I could not move.

I had my arms up folded over in front of me, the only way I thought I could defend myself and try to keep his body from mine.

I remember thinking there are people just outside. What if they walk in. What if they see me in this bathroom and he is standing like this, with his arms around me? They will think I wanted this.

So many deeply ingrained fears that we have been led to believe about sexual harassment.

At no moment did it occur for me to call out for help.

At no point did I scream at him, physically push him away, tell him how much I did not want him to touch me or be near me.

I froze and said nothing.

I was paralysed with fear, with shame, with shock and anger. I didn’t want him to tell me I was over reacting or imagining something had happened that didn’t.

I didn’t want him to be angry at me.

I just wanted to get out.

Eventually he did move aside so I could leave the bathroom.

I quickly gathered my things and left.

Other than my husband, I have never told a soul, until now.

My silence – and the silence of so many women – is why sexual harassment continues to thrive in Australian workplaces.  

Dr Kirstin Ferguson

Kate Jenkins Respect@Work report tells us that 40% of Australian women (and 26% of men) have been sexually harassed.

Let’s quickly do the numbers of what that means. Let’s make it real.

Two million working women in Australia over a five year period have been sexually harassed. Two million.

Let’s break that down a little further – 400,000 women per year, 33,000 women per month.

Or we can think of it this way – 1600 women are sexually harassed in Australia every single working day.

Of those, only 200 women will report what has happened to them.

I was not one of them.

We know there are quite literally millions of other women whose names are not known and have, or are experiencing, sexual harassment.

Many of those women are in this room right now, as we just saw and as I just shared.

So enough of what has happened. Let’s look to the future. What do we do now?

This year the theme for International Women’s Day for UN Women is women in leadership.

When we think of women in leadership we often think about our most senior leaders – prime ministers, CEOs of large corporations, chief scientists, women at the highest levels of our society.

I want to invite you to join me in reimagining what leadership actually means.

I believe the model we have for how we currently lead is irreparably broken.

We have in many of our most powerful institutions what I think is a vacuum of leadership. This is a not political comment at all and it applies across all political parties, all institutions, all industries.

What I mean is that there isn’t a vacuum of decisions being made, financial accounts being tallied, strategic plans being developed.

But there is a vacuum of enough leaders – a critical mass of leaders

  1. who inspire change,

  2. who inspire us to be better tomorrow and

  3. who role model for us the behaviours we need for women, and men, to thrive.

We do not have nearly enough leaders who truly understand that when women thrive, we all thrive.

COVID-19 has shown us that to be successful as leaders we cannot simply rely on our intellect – or our heads – but we must also lead with empathy, with compassion and with a self-awareness of the impact we have on others. We must equally lead with our hearts.

So I want us to reimagine the kind of leaders we want around us to lead us into the future and into a world where women can work safely, can succeed in their chosen fields, can be paid equally. 

Dr Kirstin Ferguson

And not in 99 years, but now.

Once we reimagine leadership as being of the head and heart, it becomes evident we already have so many women in leadership all around us. What we need to do is value those women and amplify them every damn day.

I believe that every single one of us is a leader. It doesn’t matter what your business card or LinkedIn profile might say, every one of us is a leader.

If you have a family, you are a leader.

If you run a small business from home at your kitchen bench, you are a leader.

If you work in the tuckshop, serve a customer in a store, run a book club, run a big business, run the country, you are a leader.

Grace Tame is undeniably a leader. While her Australia Day Award gave her a title, she was a leader long before that title was bestowed. Grace Tame spoke out, advocated for others, influenced change. She showed us what is possible but not from behind a formal role. She led because she was a woman and because she had something to say.

We are all leaders because we all impact others through our decisions, through our words, through our actions, and through our choices.

Leadership is a craft – it is an art that we need to work on our entire lives. It is not something we can just read about, set and forget. It is also not something we can think does not apply to us.

I want to remind every single person in this room – the attendees, the events team, the staff taking care of us today – that you are a leader. You have the power to influence change through every interaction you have, every single day.

We can continue to speak out – loudly – when we witness inequality.

We can champion inequality at home with our sons with our daughters, we can champion inequality in our workplaces, our schools, our communities.

I will continue to despair at the fact 1600 Australian women are sexually harassed every working day in Australia.

But, as women like Grace Tame remind us, we already have women leading around us in their millions. We have the skills, the talents and the ability to lead.

And most importantly, we all have something to say.

Dr Kirstin Ferguson is a company director, leadership expert and creator of #celebratingwomen. This is an edited version of a speech Dr Ferguson delivered at the UN Women Australia International Women’s Day 2021 event in Brisbane.

If this article causes distress, support is available via Lifeline on 13 11 14 or 1800RESPECT 1800 737 732.


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