I have to admit I haven’t been a big IWDer, around it leaps and we diligently report and click ‘like’ and hope that one day, equity will shape all of our daily lives. But, this 8th of March, I’m choosing to be less inert. There are too many stories to ignore; too many futures at stake; too many women whose security hangs by a thread, even in this Australia.
Each year, I write a series of stories for a remarkable charity whose goal is to help set women up with viable small businesses, delivering flexibility, income, empowerment and community trickle-down in ways that are so much more vital and sustaining than an annual report could ever capture. Many of the women I interview are refugees, domestic abuse survivors and single parents. Some are over 60 and faced homelessness before their business idea – a kernel of hope, of risk, of determination, somehow lodged in unsettled earth – took root and gave them an alternative view to carry them into a more secure old age.
Blocked from mainstream employment and armed with the need to make this work work, these women shared their memories with me, and, amid tears, laughter, nerves and something less easy to pin down and more kindred – let’s call it sisterhood – they’ve spoken about what has held them back and what it means to succeed at something beyond their labels of mother, migrant, divorcee, victim, survivor.
Here are some of their words from those 35-plus interviews. Take them together, pull them apart – I hope there’s something in here that might set thoughts in stream, chip away at the barriers and, perhaps, bring us closer. This is not a collection of happy endings – there is still too much to be done for that; this is the stuff of grit and resistance.
“I have a message for the young girls of today. Stay educated. Have your own bank account, be in charge of your finances, always have a signature on your income, know where your money is going, never only have a joint bank account, always make sure your property is in joint names.”
“My biggest barrier to work was not being legally blind, as you might think, but was isolation. It can be very isolating having a disability. It can be very isolating being a single mother. I don’t drive, I was broke, I have a background of trauma and I live in a rural area – and all of that was isolating.”
“I was a mum to five sons. I didn’t have babysitters, I didn’t have family support, there was no way for me to be able to afford to have a 9-5 job with daycare, after school care, before school care, as well as trying to raise five children.”
“I once walked into a room at a networking event and this guy comes up to me and says ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Oh, I have a start-up, I’m making an app.’ And, he goes, ‘An app? You? How old are you?’”
“I really didn’t think I would have an issue living and working in Australia but the cultural difference was huge. I didn’t know what the right behaviour was, or what to say, it confused me so much. What worked perfectly back home didn’t work here.”
“I felt that the narrative about my future meant I couldn’t have a successful life, and that as an Aboriginal woman, my future was destined to be a stay-at-home mum, controlled by our government and government payments and to not have my own freedom and follow my dreams.”
“I was once on a list for being at high risk of homelessness and the training has given me hope to achieve my goal to be financially independent, not be a burden, not be one of the statistics. Women need to be honoured and treasured, obviously by their partner and family, but also by society. The growing homelessness among women is just abhorrent.”
“We’d be in a business meeting and I’d get introduced probably eight times out of 10 as, ‘This is Catie, Warren’s wife.’”
“I would do the shopping at the age of seven … We didn’t have money, we didn’t have discipline. I thought I’d never own a home, I’d never achieve anything – I didn’t know what it was like to be good and have good influencers around me.”
“I didn’t call out for help and I’m not alone.”
“I knew no-one here in Australia. But my biggest barrier to work was the language barrier. I knew some English before I came to Australia, but knowing that I didn’t need to be afraid of it was a challenge.”
“I’ve been a single parent of three boys for a long time and once you’ve taken on a responsibility like that, it’s quite hard to then say, ‘You know what, I’m going back into the work place to work for someone else.’ Being a single parent, you learn so many skills and you are your own boss.”
“Starting a business has given me a sense of purpose and worth that had been eroded … it has given me the power to do things the way I think they should be done.”
“I could have said, ‘I don’t know English, I don’t think I’m going to make it, I don’t know where to start.’ I could have just shut the inspiration off because of fear, but I believed that I could do it. Even though I have faced challenges, I know that I will get there.”
“Talking about this business has opened me up to hearing other women’s stories, and some of them are so much worse than what I went through. As some of them say to me, ‘At least you had your son’s couch to sleep on.’ There are women around Australia sleeping in dumpsters and on park benches.”
“I don’t regret any of the decisions I made – I would happily have my time all over again with my children – but through the whole process I have always felt like Australia wasn’t home. Now, I feel like I have arrived. There’s a sense of rightness, of the circle closing. I can see a future for myself and it’s full of happiness and wonder and excitement.”
“If I met her today, I’d tell the young me: Don’t worry, everything is going to be all right.”