"We Can’t Be What We Don’t See"
by Tess Julian, CEO of Catalyst Exchange
When I heard Vanessa Beggs, CEO of YWCA NSW, say that “we can’t be what we don’t see”, it made sense to me in so many ways.
Vanessa was explaining why YWCA’s positive role modelling programs for young children are so important for reducing family violence. The programs show positive family relationships, which, for many children, is not what they see.
It made me think about how images, stories and role models inform us of who we are and what we can become, and how this has inhibited women. There are so many stories that challenge our basic assumptions about women, yet they are buried.
For example, little is known about our suffragette history, which was a story of ground-breaking heroism. My good friend Jenny Strachan has shone a light on this and showcases Australian women’s leadership, determination and courage. Her latest project, The Voices of Women at War, makes visible the many women who fought in wars, but whose daring and courage have been unrecognised.
In The Unwomanly Face of War, Svetlana Alexievich, chronicles the experiences of some of the one million women who fought with the Soviet Army in World War II. Despite fighting on the front line as soldiers, snipers and pilots, these women were never heroes like their male counterparts, instead they were encouraged to be silent:
"In the eyes of the general public, the women who came back from the war were whores, monsters, or worse. When they exposed their military past, they were harassed, shamed, dumped. Men were honoured as heroes, and this helped them make sense of what they had gone through during the war; they took pride in wearing their decorations and were treated with respect and even awe at public gatherings. By contrast, well-meaning parents and friends advised women simply to forget the war altogether."
Then there’s the story of the inventor of the computer. Did you know she was a woman?
Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and Annabelle Milbanke, was quite literally the first person to imagine the computer in the mid 1800s. She worked with Charles Babbage and published the first algorithm to be carried out by the Analytical Engine. How many people have heard of her? Even those who have, might say that she’s out of the ordinary for a woman of that time or even these times.
But I’m not so sure she is.
There are countless examples of women performing in theatres in roles that have been traditionally owned by men, of women who are fighters, breadwinners, leaders, makers of history; we just don’t hear about them because we haven’t been allowed to.
If women are to have access to the full range of life roles, we have to change what we see, because that will change the choices we make.
Catalyst Exchange is proud to help young women change their view of what is possible through Stepping Up―Women, Innovation, Leadership.