Natasha Stott Despoja on Leadership

Natasha Stott Despoja AM is the 2021 recipient of the National Award for Excellence in Women’s Leadership. We had a chat with her to find out about her leadership life, her biggest inspirations, and what she is currently advocating for.

Tell us about your leadership life to date?

My school and university life always revolved around student representation and advocacy. I was a proud activist and advocate at university: I still believe that education is the great equaliser and that education should be publicly funded and accessible to all. It leads to a more enlightened and democratic society. 

I was proud to take my place as the youngest woman to ever enter the Federal Parliament when I was 26. It was important to me to show young people and women generally that our experiences and lives deserve to be reflected and represented in parliament. 

I have had a number of formal leadership roles, including as a national political party leader, all of which have taught me a lot about the differential treatment of men and women in politics as well as our perceptions of women as leaders. Throughout my leadership journey I have found double standards apply to men and women in public life and in politics especially. I was subject to ridiculous and demeaning stereotypes throughout my parliamentary career. I look forward to the day when this is no longer the case.

I am also wary of defining leadership only in the sense of formal leadership roles: leadership is a mindset: that you, and your actions, can make a difference. I believe that real and lasting improvements to our world-- require us all to be leaders – within our families, with friends, in workplaces and our communities.  

What is your proudest moment as a leader?

As Leader of the Australian Democrats, I was proud to introduce cutting-edge legislation, such as Australia’s first national paid parental leave legislation. I was proud that I always stood up for the things I believe in even when they were not always popular including opposing regressive policies that demonised refugees and asylum seekers, paternalistic legislation that targeted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and changes to the Family Court that have made women’s and children’s lives worse. 

I have always been a proud feminist and my commitment to gender equality has been lifelong…and will continue to be.

Who are some of your inspirations as a leader?

Many women around the world, from Angela Merkel to Malala Yousafzai, Lowitja O’Donahue to Hilary Rodham Clinton. I also derive a lot of inspiration from unsung heroines and take heart from the next generation of leaders: I love the new movement of young people who are calling out inappropriate behaviour, championing social justice and refusing to deal with injustice and discrimination. 

What’s the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

Always stand up for what you believe in.  I am also a great believer in networks – be it friends and family or like-minded colleagues and campaigners. It is so hard to fight every day for things you believe in without support.

How do you give back to women in your field?

In any way I can. Where I can I provide financial support and resources be it donations or support. This week, I am excited to celebrate 16 years of my scholarship at The University of Adelaide. It is for women in the humanities who need help with their fees. I also try and meet with women and provide some personal advice, networking where I can. My working life has been about promoting women’s rights and supporting women. We don’t always get it right but I try. I was taught very early by my single parent mother, Shirley, that’s it not enough to succeed or achieve, we have an obligation to make it better for the next woman and for all women.

What are you advocating for now?

My daily work revolves around primary prevention of violence against women and children in Australia, but I combine that with my international work through the Committee on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (CEDAW) at the UN which involves safeguarding and protecting women’s rights as well as progressing these rights through Member States around the world. I am involved in a number of not for profits including ActionAid, Carrie’s Beanies for Brain Cancer and Global Citizen, Girls Takeover Parliament and the Fay Gale Centre at The University of Adelaide, so all my work is underpinned by a commitment to social change and social justice.

What does receiving the National Award for Excellence in Women’s Leadership mean to you?

I share this with the many women who work every day to keep women and children safe. It is a generous acknowledgement which I value greatly. It means so much to me to have the issue of preventing violence against women recognised in this way. It propels me to work hard for the rights of women and girls, especially those from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds.

Natasha will accept her award in Canberra at the Australian Women’s Leadership Symposium. Find out about the event here.