The Committee for Geelong’s Annual Leadership Award recipient Elaine Carbines AM has challenged the 2019-20 Leaders for Geelong graduates to be a ‘voice for the voiceless’.

Elaine spoke to the role of leaders as advocates for those who face marginalisation or systemic injustice, and why leaders must take every opportunity to speak for those who cannot or have been silenced.

News reports in the past months have been filled with experiences of women who have suffered through abuse and criminal acts at the hands of men in positions of power. Australian of the Year Grace Tame has spoken powerfully of her experiences of child sexual abuse. She helped lead the fight to overturn a law preventing sexual assault survivors from speaking out. She was silenced, but no more. 

Grace Tame’s voice encouraged Brittany Higgins to tell her story of an alleged rape at Parliament House.

It’s overwhelming, harrowing and challenging for us to hear these stories and the many that have followed since. It can trigger those who have suffered or are suffering abuse. But it has also empowered and angered our community. On March 15, tens of thousands of women protested gendered violence in the March4Justice rallies across the country.

Brittany Higgins spoke to the rally at Parliament House. “I am cognisant of all the women who continue to live in silence. The women who are faceless. The women who don’t have the mobility, the confidence or the financial means to share their truth…Those who have lost their sense of self-worth and are unable to break the silence, all of which is rooted in the shame and stigma of sexual assault.”

This fight for equality and justice has a long history and the silencing of women goes back to ancient times. Professor Mary Beard in Women & Power: A Manifesto (Allen & Unwin, 2017) relates stories from the classics, including in Ovid’s Metamorphoses that tells of the rape of the young princess Philomela. To prevent any ‘Lucretia-style’ denunciation, the rapist cuts her tongue out. This idea is echoed in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, where the tongue of the raped Lavinia is also ripped out.

So how can business and community leaders act? First, we need to acknowledge there is an issue with gendered violence, gender inequity and bias. Second, we need to provide avenues for more women to have a voice in positions and areas of influence and power.

At the Committee for Geelong, we have launched the first scholarship for a young woman to join the Leaders for Geelong program via our support of YWILD (Women in Local Democracy). We also sponsor the Women in Community Life Awards via the City of Greater Geelong, hold events for International Women’s Day, and support Leaders for Geelong projects that help address social and gender inequity. But more needs to be done.

The City of Greater Geelong’s Gender Equity Framework was researched* in 2017 and launched in March 2019.  The Framework and Implementation Plan has many worthy aspects and we ask Council to allocate more resources to deepen engagement and collaboration with business and community as a priority.

As Dr Julia Baird writes in Phosphorescence “when people work for justice or simply to improve the lives of other people, and try to ensure the voiceless are heard and the marginalised are pulled into the centre, but get nowhere, for a very long time – this is not failure but examples of striving without instant reward. And there is dignity to this. Sometimes it’s enough to have honestly tried – because if we don’t try, nothing will ever happen.” 

To achieve monumental reform, we know things take time. But the time to act is now.

Jennifer Cromarty
CEO, Committee for Geelong

*Disclaimer: Jennifer Cromarty via tandemVox developed the Gender Equity Framework in partnership with Deakin University prior to becoming CEO of the Committee for Geelong.