Notes from my first panel presentation in over a year. 2021: A Year In Review

As an alumni, I was honoured to be invited as a panel member for EY Women’s final event of the year, EYWOMEN Presents: 2021: A Year In Review

The other panellists, all alumni, included Dr Stephanie Fahey Khin Kha and Lucille Halloran. It was a rich and important discussion on topics that have shaken us all to our core, and changed the way we live and view the world.

Below are the notes I had prepared for myself on the questions we were asked.

  • We often talk about 2020 and 2021 as years that have brought a lot of struggle to everyone. But let’s start on a positive note – has it brought any upside?

I would like to recognise the struggles everyone has been facing these past few years. I think we all know someone who has had covid and/or suffered from stress and anxiety as a result of the unprecedented challenges of the last few years. But there have been upsides to keep us marching along and my upside has been the birth of my baby boy Rumi. While he came 2 months early and spent a long time in hospital, he has been the silver lining to the clouds that are these past two years. 

  • COVID has brought so many changes to all of us. What has it taught you about the importance of human connection?

Covid and the irrefutable change it has brought in all our lives has made me keenly aware of the fact that humans are social creatures. No matter how introverted someone may be, some form of social interaction is necessary for our growth and development. The kind of isolation and siloed social lives we’ve had to lead recently have made it all the more important to recognise and nurture healthy relationships with friends and family and put in the work to maintain them.

I had a baby and my family could not see him for 8 weeks. In those 8 weeks, the other mothers in the special care nursery became my pseudo family. We laughed together, cried together, binged on caramel slice together, and commiserated the fact that our parents, siblings and even other children were waiting on the other side of that door to see the new addition. What should have been a joyous time in our lives was fraught with sadness and concern. We couldn’t have gotten through it without being open, vulnerable and dependent on each other.

  • We have all been part of a huge disruptor event – especially around flexibility and choice around how our lives are lived. Can you see things going back to ‘normal’? What can we all do to hold on to the things that we’ve gained?

If the new covid variant omicrom is anything to go by, we are a long long way from normal and I doubt we will ever go back to the way things were. But that’s life. Previous generations had the plague, polio and world wars that defined their normal and shaped their futures. This is the disruptor of our lifetime that will go into the history books for others to learn about.

What I have learnt is to let go of my expectations, let go of wanting things to be the way they were, let go of wanting normalcy or even happiness. Happiness today is marked by milestones and we have set so many for ourselves that we are never truly happy, we reach a milestone, have a moment of euphoria and then look to the next milestone to be happy. Instead I want to hold onto joy. The joy of waking up, the joy of holding my baby, the joy of a family brunch, a coffee with a friend. Joy is in everything we do and can constantly uplift us if we recognise, value and take the time to enjoy it.

  • COVID has impacted women particularly hard, in different ways, across the world. What are the things we can do to build more resilience in our systems and structures, so that the impacts of future challenges, big or small, can be equally shared?   

Focus on consistent and quality Education for all women. This has been my mantra for many decades now. Since my thesis and book on Microcredit and women’s empowerment back in 2009, to my work on STEM education at EY, to now data literacy within the APS, I believe education is the key to every lock on every door women pass in life. From early education that helps a child grow in confidence and develop good communication, to tertiary education that opens up multiple doors of opportunity, to lifelong education that allows for flexibility and agility when challenges such as covid arise. 

I am part of a not for profit called Sitaras story and we focus on mental health education and awareness for women, particularly school going girls in Bangladesh and women of multicultural backgrounds in Canberra, particularly migrants and refugees. During covid, we held webinars in place of our usual workshops to provide continuity in learning and a sense of community that comes from learning together. Education is the key to progress.

  • There has been a lot of anger and emotion that culminated though the march for justice, and in the weeks and months following. It also coincided with Grace Tame being announced as Australian of the Year, where the topic of sexual assault, and the removal of legislative frameworks that prevented victims from speaking out, were openly discussed. Canberra felt like a bit of a tinder box. Do you think that everything that has occurred around these topics is helping us make the progress we need?  

Progress is not as fast as we would like it to be, but on longstanding entrenched issues like this, slow progress is the type that sticks. I would rather have slow but lasting change over a pendulum like the abortion discussion in America right now. What we do need is more of our voices. More women in public positions, speaking up and out. Be the change you want to see. And/or uplift the women you do see speaking out.

  • In the influential roles that you have all been in, what are some actions you have seen or implemented to make your area of influence a more inclusive or safe place for everyone? How have they worked or how could they be improved?

One lasting change I played a small role in that I am very proud of is the cultural mentoring program at EY. We started that right after Khin left, almost as a direct result of the conversations surrounding her departure. We recognised that good talent will not sit around if inclusivity is not on the table. The program has gone from strength to strength in the last few years and participants have come away with such positivity and marked change. I have had consultants tell me that they felt scared to open up and ‘tell it like it is’ to a partner but when they did it was so empowering. I have had partners tell me it is an eye opening experience to hear about challenges and lived experiences of colleagues and see the same world in a different way in order to right some wrongs and ensure all voices are heard.

  • We all have different types of support networks that help us throughout our careers. What and/or who, has been yours?  

I’ve had so many people support me, my career is really a testament to my network. From partners like Lucille, Steph and Sarah that encourage and support women, to male champions of change who took the time to listen and understand when I raised issues or asked for help. To my peers who have laughed and cried with me on many a client site and forged lasting friendships. 

But most of all, my my sisters. Growing up, I was the black sheep tomboy of the family. My sisters and I have little in common. As a result I spent a lot more time with my friends than I did with my family. But now that we are older, all working career orientated women, we recognised and value our sisterhood, we put in time and effort to nurture our closeness. Having their support and advice regarding my career, or even regarding Rumi, has been priceless. It’s the only reason I would want Rumi to have a sibling. I can do without more sleepless nights, thanks!

  • You’ve all done some great things in your careers. Is there a little piece of advice that you’ve kept with you to help you get through the harder times?

Interestingly, the women on this stage have all given me great advice and life lessons. On her last day at EY, I bumped into Stephanie in the bathroom and she said in passing, career progress is not linear, sometimes to get ahead you might move sideways. That has been tried and true in my own career.

Lucille once told me, if you want something, ask for it, if you get a no, ask again. And again and again. I learnt from her that resilience is a great trait to working in Canberra.

Khin’s move from EY and starting Phoenix sisters taught that need to always validate my own feelings and back myself.

And finally Sarah told me this and I often quote it to others, ‘Trying to be a man is a waste of a woman.’ Consulting and working in male dominated environments can have us questioning our feminine traits, but they are what make us compassionate, resilient, inclusive and courageous leaders. 

  • Hope is such an important part of our being. What are you hopeful about?

I am hopeful about the next generation. As a new mother I worry a lot. Worry and guilt are constant mum emotions. But I see my nieces and my son, their independence, their humour, their zest for life after two challenging years and a lot of isolation, and I have hope that the social, compassionate, inclusive side to humanity will prevail.

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