Today on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I am reading about girls advancing the cause for Climate Change action via #ClimateStrike. They’re incredible, the movers and shakers of a world where moving and shaking has become not just critical, but necessary for any change.
Their efforts have been likened to the March for Our Lives movement that demanded gun reform control. It was led by Emma González, a girl who had the grit and vision to challenge governmental inaction that led to the suffering of so many across the country.
Indeed, the mass protests of secondary school students across Belgium, the Netherlands, and now the UK, US, and Australia, all originate from the inspiration of Greta Thunberg. She told people to panic in a world where climate change is deliberately and actively swept under the rug by powerful people fuelled by money from the oil and gas giants.
That same world sees an Australia where Townsville is flooding, Hobart is on fire, and a million fish are having graves dug en-masse for them in the Murray Darling Basin. Something (read: our inaction) is deeply wrong with the world. At this point the earth is quite literally crying out for help, every climate-related disaster is a cry for help.
These girls will be remembered in history, but that history will be far too short if we don’t focus on action. The children who are going to strike will be the ones forcing the hand of those who have a say about the extent of that action. They are the science heroes that I am celebrating today.
13.10.18 – less than a month ago, I completed my arangetram. An arangetram is a dance graduation of sorts, a big solo concert where I performed 8 dance pieces for 3 hours. I did my arangetram for the South Indian classical dance form, Bharatanatyam. It’s one of the most popular classical dance forms in India, and a lot of dancers perform similar solo debut concerts.
It’s hard to put a number on how many hours I spent on dance this year, because aside from learning each dance and rehearsing them repeatedly, I spent many hours of my time researching the history of the dance. Not many dances have clear documented origins in 2nd Century CE, and it is an incredible honour to be able to learn such an ancient art. Of course, the art isn’t exactly as it was back then, like everything in India the influences of colonisation shaped it in immeasurable ways (mostly not positive). An art which was practiced by Devadasis, dancers who dedicated themselves to the Lord of a temple, was painted as a dance performed by courtesans or harlots, and already declining interest plummeted with this public shaming of the art.
Prominent artists and professionals and emergence of the independence movement saw resurgence in the art form, with suppression laws being questioned. The prominent Rukmini Devi Arundale and Balasaraswati championed the cause of Bharatanatyam and expanded it to become a mainstream dance form, but this came with a streamlining of the art. Rukmini Devi de-sexualised the art form, which was originally quite erotic because Hindu traditions didn’t shy away from an emotion as deeply ingrained in the human condition as love. But being of high prestige, Rukmini Devi had to modify the dance to be in line with her societal status when establishing her dance academy, Kalakshetra.
Today the dance ranges from being strictly ‘devoid of vulgarity’, to explicitly showcasing all the emotions Devadasis originally spoke about. I am a representative of the Kalakshetra style, and can trace my parampara (tradition/lineage) directly to Rukmini Devi, but I also tell stories of love and eroticism in my performance.
As a representative of the art form, I carry an inexplicable feeling that many young people coming from a rich culture share. The feeling that I am responsible for extending and continuing my culture, that without my active promotion of that culture, I will be doing my home country a disservice. I don’t say this because it’s a burden, but because it’s something that isn’t spoken about often enough.
To be clear, a lot of my migrant peers don’t care about actively promoting their culture, or don’t feel the need to do so. And that’s fine, because not everyone has to care. But for those who do care, and who anguish about how to do it right, I’m right there with you. I already don’t know much, I’ve failed to retain knowledge about particular prayers or traditions, and I fear because centuries of tradition could be lost in years of neglect. It’s not my fault exclusively, neither is it my families fault for not force feeding me information, it’s a systematic issue and not enough time is spent talking about it.
I’ve been incredibly privileged physically, mentally, and financially to be able to complete an arangetram. I’ve also been privileged to learn about so much history through my guru and through literary research. But it is my responsibility to bring that privilege to fruition and give thanks to art which has given me so much richness in my life. I don’t have a dramatic conclusion to this post, but it is partially an explanation as to why I speak about dance so much, and why I take so much pride in dance.
I’m not sure what I will do to promote my culture, but I do know that I’ll keep dancing in future. It’s probably the least I can do.
If there’s anything I’ve learnt from university, it’s that we as students fail to recognise our own potential. Swept in the world of assignments and feeling inadequate in comparison to our highly decorated academics and lecturers, wondering whether we’ll ever be employed full time, and chugging caffeine to keep ourselves awake in class, we tend to forget how valuable our voice is.
Most employers out there are looking for young talent – maybe because they’re hiring recruits to fill a position at their workplace, maybe because they want to change the look and feel of the organisation – but above all it’s because they’re probably looking for insight. Being young is a brief period (depends on how you define young!) in our lives, but it is without doubt a valuable time.
During my time studying Global Challenges, I’ve realised how valuable the young voice is. It’s not because as grand a reason as young people being the future of the world, it’s not even because we’re the demographic most people think of marketing towards. It’s because of the inexperience, naivety, and innovative potential that comes with being young.
“There’s a radical – and wonderful – new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world. Its an idea with revolutionary implications. If we take it seriously.” — Deborah Meier
I might be cautious about speaking up in a meeting because my ideas may sound stupid and borne out of inexperience, but it’s the same inexperience that leads to different ideas. Ideas that, maybe, those who are ingrained deep in traditional ways of thinking, don’t usually have. Innovation comes from seemingly ridiculous ideas (donuts injected with stuff?roll on band-aids?) – and it’s high time we as young people realise that we’re best placed for some of those ridiculous ideas.
This doesn’t stand to say that we should be ignoring ideas of more experienced people, or that every idea coming from a young person is the fount of all knowledge. I wrote this as a reminder both to myself, and to my peers, that it inexperience shouldn’t equate to fear of speaking up.
It goes out especially to the non cis-male identifying readers – even if as a female identifying or non-binary individual you feel that your voice is loud, make it louder. Speaking up more is necessary because there’s just too much at stake to stay neutral about something you genuinely believe could make a difference. It pushes me out of my comfort zone, but as long as I feel my thoughts are worth saying, I find that the boundary outside my bubble of comfort is where I develop the most.
For those already speaking up, already catalysing change without knowing all the answers – you’re who I admire. Keep it happening, for all of us.
Before reading this article, keep in mind that not all women are the owners of a uterus, and not all owners of a uterus are women. This is why this article discusses menstruators and not exclusively those who identify with the female gender.
When Bodyform’s menstruation advertisement broke headlines for being “trailblazing”, the tagline ‘No Blood Should Hold Us Back’ was praised. The short clip portrayed women pushing past barriers of physical exertion whilst educating the viewers on how periods really affect the lives of women, and on how to cope with the physiological changes of menstruation.
Now months after this advert has been released, the situation for those who struggle remains mostly the same. Menstruators in countries across the world continue to suffer from lack of access to sanitary products that could make their monthly period battles easier. In trying to push past their physical limits, they are impeded by the double jeopardy of societal taboos that encroach on every aspect of their lives.
For example, India has approximately 48% of rural young women using hygienic methods of protection during their menstrual period (NFHS 2015-16). Uptake in countries with a similar rural population, such as Pakistan, the uptake is ~25% (Unicef, 2011). This is partially due to the age old stigma that menstruation carries across the globe, but also due to the immense prohibitive cost of sanitary products. For most menstruators in rural India, it’s a question of whether they can afford food to feed the family or sanitary napkins for their monthly trial.
When women aren’t allowed to have conversations with men without their husband’s permission, and when disapproval and shame carry more fear than infection and disease from poor hygiene, one foreign advertisement was never going to change lives. But today, one Bollywood film might.
America has Superman, Batman, Spiderman, but India has… Pad Man.
Perhaps this is the most difficult part of it all – Sustaining Change.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of “I’ve made a difference” by volunteering at a charity which flies you to a country with impoverished children where you build a school. But what about when you fly out of that country to go back to your own comfortable bed and home, and leave behind the situation of systematic oppression just the same, with one school added on top. Is the school actually going to empower students? Where are the teachers? Will parents enrol their children and see the value of education instead of putting their children into work to help feed their daily needs? It’s a complicated question, but ventures like voluntourism have their critics for a reason. The change that was made is temporary, a bandage solution in a world that was inherently fractured.
So how do we go about making change, and ensuring it is effective and sustained? It boils down to three ideologies that should be implemented in flexible but principled manner to the change you are hoping to sustain.
It’s a simple feedback loop, but it is often the bit we forget the most about. To instil within your organisation or start up the idea of constantly re-evaluating practices and methodologies is difficult, because most organisations are used to yearly reviews of their practices. This kind of change evaluation needs to be implemented all the time, constant check-basing is required in order to ensure that the change you are making is addressing those who you want it to help, and doing so in the best way it can.
This, in its simplest form, is sustaining change. And as simple as it is, it’s going to prove difficult to implement in my leadership quest. I am still at a fork in the road where I could go either way with creating change for my leadership quest – whether it is empowering women themselves to make the change via “employment kits” that compile resources that CALD women can access to increase their chances of employability, or via addressing businesses themselves and the biases they may hold. But both options intrinsically require me to sustain the change I attempt to implement. It means that I’ll constantly have to interact with others and understand their opinions regarding the change I am attempting to implement – simply one action or one “kit” isn’t going to cut it – as Gary (2003) puts it, I must put into place to structures and places where we can communicate freely and without restrictions, in order to really understand whether the change I am making is effective, whether that kit is effective or just a bandage solution.
That is all to come, but standing by those three ideologies, I believe sustaining change is just a matter of putting in that effort.
I like to plan. To brainstorm, to list, to draw check boxes and neatly lay out a “To Do” list. It’s one of the few things that I’m doing constantly, updating my list to match the things that I must do day to day. I get complimented on this habit occasionally – I mean, being organised is a great trait isn’t it?
I’d say that it is, but it’s not great if it’s the only thing you do. I have a tendency to consider myself to be taking progressive action when in fact all I am doing is motion. James Clear speaks about this on his website, and demonstrates the difference between two very easily and effectively.
“If I outline 20 ideas for articles I want to write, that’s motion.
If I actually write and publish an article, that’s action.”
This made me wonder why I so often fall into the same trap, just writing things down under the guise of doing them. And to some extent, I think it’s a result of fear of failure. We don’t even want to begin something because we’re afraid it won’t be good enough, or up to a standard we’ve set for ourselves. Because when the deadline arrives, we get it done quickly, it wasn’t really difficult, per say, just difficult to get into.
That, I think, is the core problem. It’s the focus on the result that stops us from even beginning to progress towards achieving a goal, and it’s a shame – because so many things are doable with just a little effort from us. This is why I believe we should begin to focus upon the process of completing a task and not the result of the task itself. This means employing the age old mantra of “it’s about the journey, not the destination”.
I tried employing this mantra recently with joining an improvisational theatre workshop offered at university, and it was a rare treat – I was able to just immerse myself within the environment of the moment and do things without them having a big consequence. And people screwed up, there were mistakes, and they were laughed off. Because that was the spirit of the night, to freely mess up.
It made me wish that this attitude was more accepted generally – obviously we can’t treat life as a game – but I feel as though accepting that taking action may result in some failure may help us to begin to get things done. Whether it’s finally going out for a run in the morning, or finishing an assignment early (like I did for this one), or starting with “low risk experiments”, as the authors of Your Leadership Edgeput it. All these practices mean that progress could be a little closer than we expected, and a little easier to come by.
As I think about the place I am with regards to my Leadership Quest, I find myself at a simple road crossing. I just have to walk upon the black and white striped path on to the other side, to make progress and create some semblance of change – but it’s hard. For some reason, I’m bound to this side, like my feet have sunk into the concrete pavement. I helplessly watch cars zoom by, they don’t stop for me or offer me help, and I feel as though they represent opportunities that pass me by.
I’ve been sitting on the same idea for weeks now, wanting to do something yet being unable to; firstly because I am a serial procrastinator, and secondly because it’s something I’m going through alone. A lot of my Leadership Quest has been a solo journey, from defining to researching and to thinking about potential solutions. Some conversation and dialogue has given me insight, but ultimately the responsibility (and grade!) falls upon me to do something for women of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, and their lack of opportunities within Australia’s employability sector.
Whilst I face my personal barrier of beginning to create change, I’m beginning to realise that it’s ironically reflective of the struggles those very women face when they enter the working sphere within Australia. It’s a solo struggle of endless résumé distribution to unresponsive employers, of interviews that feel hopeful but result in rejection, or maybe even complete inability to step foot into the globalised economy due to societal restrictions. And it’s for them that I wish to provide assistance, and somehow, this entire time, I’ve been expecting to do that without seeking much assistance for myself.
By assistance I mean help of a practical nature, of harnessing the expertise of education personalities who could aid me in raising awareness, or website developers who could create a platform upon which I could mobilise the quest. It so often happens, though, that we face barriers that seem indestructible on our own, yet it only takes one brick in the debilitating lattice to be removed by a friend or colleague, and suddenly we can dismantle the entire wall.
A program that provides the brick removing process for migrants within Australia is the Overseas Qualified Professionals Program (OQP Victoria), which provides skilled migrants with relevant industry placements in order to integrate them into the Australian workplace and labour market. OQP provides services such as counselling and workshops, as well as networking and interview skills, in order to place individuals within organisations to gain local experience and thus advance their career. OQP’s targeted service has helped thousands of skilled migrants secure employment, and I believe my Leadership Quest could take the direction of providing a platform on which CALD women could access services such as this, providing an “employment kit” with links and useful programs directed towards helping CALD women.
This service is just one example of the necessity of multi-stakeholder collaboration in addressing global problems, and a prime demonstration of the need of help in unfamiliar territory. Overcoming barriers, both personal and societal, is no easy feat for both me and the women I intend to help.
But if we hold a hand while crossing that street, we may get across much quicker.
My friend invited me to watch a horror movie the other day, the latest hyped release that was set to be a blockbuster. I readily agreed and we went to the movies, ready to be terrified out of our wits. But as I watched the movie, I realized I wasn’t scared. None of the atmospheric lighting, creepy music, or jump scares, did anything to make me genuinely afraid – I could see right through the predictable sequence of events, and I left the movie a little disappointed.
It’s a shame, really, that the simple thrill provided by movies and imaginations no longer has the same hold on me that it used to. Nowadays when I think of fear, I think about the state of the world, and the enormous problems we face. These wicked problems, as described by Jon Kolko, are global and seemingly endless; poverty, world hunger, exploitative businesses, you name it. They’re confronting and debilitating – because who can think of a single, implementable solution to these problems? They’re incredibly complex, with multiple stakeholders of different backgrounds and viewpoints, and with financial and societal barriers in place to hinder progress.
And ultimately, the responsibility to solve them falls on us. The Youth.
Because we’re the future of the world – and we’re the solution to these problems. I don’t like to think of it that way, because these problems are huge, unsolvable, frustratingly tangled – and unlike the horror movie, they terrify me. It’s not only me, either. All around me I see the evidence of debilitating fear spread through Gen Z – fear of not securing stable employment, not being able to buy a house or pay back our university debts, and unfortunately, it makes us the generation least likely to adventure and challenge the status quo.
This is where we fail. Because we are told by older generations that when you’re young, you’re most free to make mistakes. They’re less likely to have a lasting impact, and we’re most likely to have fairly strong support systems to help us through the failure.
There are a few members of Gen Z that really took this advice to heart, and I’m currently researching one of them in regards to my Leadership Quest. Yassmin Abdel-Magied is an absolute whirlwind; an engineer and an advocate, with an impressively large number of awards and achievements to her name. Reading her autobiography, Yassmin’s Story, gave me unique insight into her brave and funny personality, and coupled with her drive and determination with strongly held familial values, she inspired me to think about the world’s problems not as insurmountable, but as approachable.
May it be through programs like Youth Without Borders (which does collaborative community projects run for disadvantaged youth), or by becoming 2015 Queensland Young Australian of the Year, Yassmin’s efforts showed me that surely I too, can make a step towards solving those wicked problems.
Because that’s what Youth Leadership is about today – making small incremental steps in our own unique ways, in order to address problems that seem insurmountable. It is not with one solution that we can change the world, but through chipping away at the boulder of the world’s problems with our unique and individual picks, that will make the difference.
The buzz word that has permeated every nook and cranny of the business world, carrying with it the implications of daunting first conversations with professionals and strangers. The buzz word that is mentioned in every career lecture to students, telling them it’s essential to their professional growth. But what is networking?
A useful web of connectionsthat you form for when you need them. That’s the simplistic summary – but the idea of it seemed a little poisonous to me when I began my leadership quest. I was afraid that the connections I formed through professional networking for my cause would be of a clinical nature, and purely ones from which I benefitted. But what would they gain out of it? I was curious as to what made networking tick, because it was fundamentally something that relied upon benefits.
Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point was an extension of a reading done at university under the “Emotionally Intelligent Leadership” banner – and it was the section on Connectors that clarified networking for me. Connectors are individuals who are incredibly good at networking; they’re the people who seem to know everyone around them, from the lady in the flower shop to the jogger across the street.
Social creatures, true. But how do they do it, and what makes them so special?
The fact is, they are simply and naturally fascinated by people, and they value relationships on an intrinsic level. They understand how to utilise the relationships they have, without making the interaction feel like a business exchange – the very thing I was afraid of – and they do it by being straightforward and honest. Gladwell provided the example of a man called Roger Horchow, who collected people like he collected stamps, but did so by making absolutely clear that most of the relationships he had with people were of a casual nature.
You were unlikely to have a deep connection with Horchow, simply because that was how he operated – but his frank charm was enough to keep thousands of connections in the palm of his hand for when he wanted to contact people, not in a particularly malicious way, but because he enjoyed the experience of talking to others. So while I didn’t expect to be next Horchow, I realised there was a critical importance to how I treated networking.
The Leadership Quest
I could remove the poisonous element I was concerned about by being open about why I was creating the relationship. That way, I wasn’t going in with the burden of having to make deep connections with every person I talked to, and I wasn’t going in asking it to be purely business either. I was going in and hoping to maintain a casual relationship – and the mutual benefit would arise from honest negotiation.
It was these relationships that were foundational for my leadership quest – with talking to CALD women, to industries, to clubs and organisations – all not particularly deep connections, but relationships which were critical to the development of my journey. It is because I was able to understand the importance of this particular type of relationship that I could progress as much as I have with giving CALD women a voice and visibility within our community.
Warm laughter greets me over the phone line on Thursday evening, as Professor Veena Sahajwalla settles in for an interview with me on her drive home from a busy day at work. It’s 9pm and I ask her whether she’s okay with an interview after such a hectic day, and she laughs, responding with “Yes of course! Why not? Make the most of your time, of every second!”
The positive mindset that Veena exudes is the very same one that has made her a Scientia Professor, directing the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) at UNSW Australia. She is a woman with a host of qualifications and awards, a list too long to even begin to summarize.
I first met Veena at the National Youth Science Forum in 2015, where she was launching Science 50:50, a program that’s designed to support and mentor young Australian women to inspire them into science careers. Her talk had left a deep impression on me, being a science loving girl myself – and when the opportunity came to interview someone that I looked up to, and who was related to my leadership quest, Veena was the first to come to mind.
I begin the interview with the simple question – “When did you first come to Australia?”
In response, Veena recalls stepping foot on the shores of Australia for the first time in the nineties, armed with degrees from India, Canada, and the United States. She has arrived as a result of a job offer from CSIRO, unaware that she’s about to change the way materials engineering operated in Australia.
Veena was placed in an incredibly lucky position entering Australia, her access to employability and ability to hold her own in a rapidly changing Australia, allowed her to harness her strengths and qualifications in order to climb the ladder in the engineering field. From there on, she notably changed the field of waste plastics, inventing an environmentally friendly technology to recycle rubber tyres to be used as partial replacement of coal in steelmaking. Since then, she’s made several strides in the area of materials engineering, and is working with OneSteel and Cochlear in projects to further advancements in science.
Her proactivity encouraged me to ask another question, this time from a feminist perspective and in relation to CALD (Culture and Language Diverse) females as the focus of my leadership quest – “What challenges and barriers do you think are faced by women of colour in the scientific fields?”
She talks about the “hard sciences” (engineering and physics), where her experiences lie, and states that there’s about a 25% representation of women in undergraduate degrees, a number which she believes is influenced by pre-conceived ideas of what the hard sciences are like.
“A lot of family and older generations, like parents, think that ‘Oh no, what is that? Why are you doing factory work?’ and those comments come from people who aren’t aware that technology has moved on, that it’s not like that anymore,” she says, emphasizing that science today is sophisticated, and educating family and friends of the current norm is crucial to involving more women in science. She aims to educate as many as she can by inviting family members to Science 50:50 events; and I can see where her efforts lie, and why.
Parents heavily influence degree choices for daughters who come to a foreign country such as Australia, and shifting that that figure of 25%, to an equal 50%, is critically dependent upon parents allowing choices and options for their daughters in future. This applies not only to the sciences, but to every field CALD women wish to venture into. Removing the barrier of family that may not approve is just as important as removing external barriers, such as institutional racism, which I previously thought were more important.
I did want to address these external barriers however, so I moved from Veena’s experience in the scientific field, to her experience in the media. Having previously been on the panel as an engineer for the ABC show The New Inventors, Veena had experience in Australian Television, and I ask her about any bias she may have faced on the show. She responds with a simple statement – that if she had felt disrespected at any point during the filming, she would have walked away from the job. She said that principle should apply to anyone in any situation, and the statement struck me as incredibly similar to one that I had heard from Catherine Ball.
“Never go into a negotiation unless you know you can walk out of it without any loss to you.”
These statements are of principles held closely by women I admire – and I stand by them in saying that women of colour should go into the field of work and employability with those principles in mind. Veena Sahajwalla is a woman of colour who did, and her results to this day speak for themselves.