Published on March 17, 2022
This week’s blogpost is an extract from my speech at our International Women’s Day breakfast on 11 March.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Breaking the Bias” and our overarching goal is gender equality for a sustainable future.
To begin with, I invite you to ponder this comment by Grace Tame in the “Safety, Respect, Equity” campaign video launched just prior to International Women’s Day: Grace concludes that video with a call to action: “Let’s Make Some Noise Australia”. My question to you is how do we go about making that “noise” and speaking out in support of safety, respect and equity for all people as a school community? What might this look like at HVGS?
As you ponder that question, consider this story.
It was 14 April 2021 and I was sitting in the audience for our annual TEDX event at my previous school. The TEDX theme chosen by the students was “Empower” and the organising team were keen to inspire and elevate the voices of others. To quote from the program of events:
“We can empower ourselves by choosing to believe in our own truth. The #MeToo movement started with women believing in their own stories, while #BlackLivesMatter started with people believing in their own ideals of justice. We are only empowered when we are courageous enough to write our own stories.” (source)
I knew the student speakers well and I knew that one (whom I will call Emma) would be telling her story of childhood sexual abuse.
Emma’s story was one of great pain but also of hope. Emma wanted us to know that telling her story to her peers, her teachers and parents was part of her healing process. It helped her feel empowered and she hoped it would empower others to embrace their trauma and tell their stories. Emma no longer wanted to be silenced.
As I listened to Emma’s story, I felt a deep sadness coupled with a sense of gratitude that Emma felt safe enough to share her story with our community. I also felt privileged to be part of her healing journey. What I saw on the stage was a sexual abuse victim reclaiming her life experiences and dismantling the shackles of vulnerability through storytelling. We contributed to her healing journey and there was no greater gift that we could give.
Gender equality and breaking our bias begins in our schools with us honouring and centring the stories of every student. It begins with making it ok for our identities to be different and settling into our discomfort so we can embrace difference and welcome all identities. It is about ensuring our schools are places of healing and belonging.
To achieve this, we need to tackle the subtle ways we disempower each other and perpetuate the inequalities we seek to dismantle.
I want to return to Grace Tame and her controversial refusal to smile. I was genuinely curious about the outrage around this. Here was a woman who despite becoming the voice for sexual abuse victims around Australia was being ridiculed for not being nice enough to a person in authority. I can’t help but wonder, would the outrage have been quite so vitriolic if it was a man who refused to smile? It made me wonder how far we have yet to go in Australia if we cannot handle a sexual abuse victim refusing to comply with how we think she should behave. I couldn’t help but wonder who in that moment really needed kindness and acceptance from the media and ourselves – Grace Tame or a powerful political leader?
As Katherine Murphy wrote in a Guardian opinion piece about Grace Tame: “having been silenced in the most harrowing of circumstances, this woman wants to speak, on her own terms, and if she gets that opportunity, she will not waste it.” According to Murphy, Tame is part of a generation of women who “have not been socialised to be quiet when an authority figure (generally a man) is talking. She is very recognisable to me. She resonates because she feels like progress.”
On Twitter, Grace shared her response to the backlash: “survival of abuse culture is dependent on submissive smiles…My past is only relevant to the extent that I have seen — in fact, I have worn — the consequences of civility for the sake of civility.”
As important political figures spoke out against Grace Tame’s “refusal to smile”, they de-centred the story that really mattered and needed to be told: the story of the courage it takes to speak out and of how conformity silences voices that need to heard. When we focus on what we think should be happening – what we believe is the right way for someone to think, look or behave – we miss the pain that needs to be acknowledged.
Breaking the bias is about putting the spotlight on words and behaviours that marginalise the most vulnerable in our communities. We know from cognitive behaviour therapy that what I think affects how I feel and that this affects how I act. We can work on changing behaviours but it will only be superficial. Our biases are everything that sits below the iceberg – they are so ingrained in our ways of being that they have become invisible. They are automatic.
Breaking the bias involves us intentionally working to unpack the assumptions and beliefs that sit below the surface of our behaviours. And this takes time and energy, and deliberate and intentional focus. It means challenging responses that decentre the stories that need to be heard and creating spaces where diverse stories can emerge and be celebrated.
As an educator I believe this is fundamental to the work we do. As a leader I have power and privilege and with that a responsibility. The responsibility to not speak for others but to elevate their voices and to create spaces of deep listening where we can honour their stories. That is the challenge for all of us in the HVGS community. We are powerful and we are privileged. How do we collectively lift those voices that need to be lifted into the spotlight?
As you consider how to “break the bias”, I invite you to put aside your own preconceptions, listen deeply to each other and welcome diverse ways of being into the room. Only when we do this can we create the space for young people like Emma and Grace to share their stories and be empowered. Bell Hooks wrote: “what we cannot imagine cannot come into being”. We need to continue to imagine ways in which to give all students voice, purpose and safety so that they can be the light for themselves and others.
At the start I shared a quote from the TEDX event: “We are only empowered when we are courageous enough to write our own stories”. Likewise, we can only empower others when we have the courage to “make some noise”.