In the context of this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) theme, Choose to Challenge, and a growing international Black Lives Matter movement, it’s timely to reflect on programs that support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to both challenge and succeed in the Australian workforce.
For the past 20 years, the Aboriginal Employment Strategy (AES), a national recruitment and group training company, has empowered Indigenous people by brokering employment opportunities and supporting candidates through mentoring, coaching, training and specialist advice.
Over this time, it has secured 16,500 career placements and 1,500 traineeships for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. As an organisation, it also walks the talk. Sixty-five percent of its managers, including its Chief Executive Officer, are Indigenous women.
The AES has chosen to challenge by spring-boarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s careers through two innovative programs. The first was an empowerment program called Cotton Blossoms, in honour of AES’s rich history that includes social change, activism, entrepreneurship and building on people’s existing strengths. The name symbolises a 24-year history that had its genesis in the cotton fields of Moree in north-west NSW.
This ground-breaking program planted the seeds of strength and leadership in all young women. It invested in their growth through mentoring and skills building and focused on developing resilient, strong, versatile and empowered young women to be the next generation’s social entrepreneurs, and business and community leaders.
In 2020, Cotton Blossoms was superseded by AES’s Boss Lady program. It was built on the successes of the first program but has a greater focus on supporting young women into management and leadership roles and into careers in male-dominated industries like construction.
‘Boss Lady’ is an attitude, not a title. It aims to develop Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who are equipped to tackle any career or workplace challenge they choose and offers the following range of services and support:
• Professional mentoring
• Career planning
• Peer support
• Shadowing with women senior leaders
• Access to paid voluntary leave to support women’s charities and initiatives
• Individual budget to invest in a special project/cause of choice
• Participation in Conferences/seminars/professional development and training
• Small booster grants to support young women achieve their career goals.
The programs’ results speak for themselves. Measured at the milestone mark of 26 weeks, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women supported into employment by the AES are staying in jobs at a far greater rate than others, and securing better jobs.
Importantly, AES programs have had a significant impact on Aboriginal women’s occupational status, as the majority of placements have been significantly higher on the Australian Socioeconomic Index’s occupational status scales. These scales have been widely used in a range of disciplines over the past 40 years to convert data coded in accordance with the official occupational classifications of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) into occupational status scores.
Inroads to the male-dominated construction industry have also been significant. With AES support, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, have secured roles as traffic controllers, dog women, crane operators, riggers, labourers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, waterproofers, project managers, engineers and procurement officers.
However, there are still not enough women, let alone Indigenous women, in senior leadership roles and in governments. We want to keep smashing those glass ceilings and, if it’s the challenge we choose, replacing our glass slippers with steel-capped boots too!
IWD is a global event celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women that also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.
The IWD 2021 website says: “A challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change.”
But let’s not just think about how to forge a gender-equal world. Let’s act too. It’s action that brings change. So, what can you do in your workplace to facilitate this? Can you improve support for women? Do you have programs that invest in women’s development and training? How can you attract more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women into your organisation?
We can all play our part in forging change. Not just on International Women’s Day but every day, every year.
Kristy Masella is a proud Darumbal woman and CEO of the Aboriginal Employment Strategy.