Sonja Stewart is many things. She’s the first woman and first Indigenous person to ever be appointed CEO of the NSW Law Society. She’s the new Chair of the GO Foundation. She’s a mother, partner, friend, daughter.
But as she explains in the latest episode of The Leadership Lessons, a Women’s Agenda podcast series supported by Salesforce, if she had been born just a few years earlier, she wouldn’t have been counted as an Australian citizen, or in the census at all.
“I would have been counted in the category of ‘other’,” Sonja tells Kate Mills in the podcast. “People now think that’s amazing and they couldn’t believe it that if I was born in ’67, then that’s what would have happened to me.”
Sonja shares that she is very conscious of her role as a leader, not just in the law profession, but in the wider community, and she wants to make sure her legacy is one that lasts.
Fortunately, earlier in her career, at age 24, she found herself surrounded by strong Indigenous leaders while working at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. At the time, there was a female CEO and female Chair, and their impact gave Sonja a lot of confidence in her own abilities.
“I’m really mindful of, if you can see it, you can be it. And being the first, you never want to be the last,” she says. “I’m mindful that I might be that person for somebody, but I try not to let it get to my head on any given day.”
A Yuin woman, Sonja is part of the oldest surviving culture on Earth, it’s a reality she never forgets as she looks to inspire future Indigenous leaders.
“The advice that I give centres around authenticity and never forgetting where you’re from, and never forgetting that we stand on the shoulders of others who went before us,’ she says. “[It’s about] that deep respect of elders and people who’ve paved the path for us and that we are on the same path for a short period of time, so how do we be kind to ourselves, how do we back ourselves.”
Looking back, high school was a “baptism of fire” for Sonja. It was where she learnt to deal with bad behaviour, racism, and unconscious and blatant bias. As she’s become more senior in her law career, she says the attitudes from other people haven’t gone away, but she has become more equipped to deal with it.
“The thing that I found most challenging is confronting people’s negative biases and assumptions and perceptions that they have about Aboriginal people and what we can do,” Sonja says. “That we could be the CEO of the Law Society, Chair of the GO Foundation or whatever it is that we aspire to be.”
“Getting people to sit with the discomfort of their own biases has been something that I’ve had to do throughout my career but it makes you who you are.”
Recently, Sonja was appointed Chair of the GO Foundation, an organisation that was founded by Adam Goodes and Michael O’Loughlin. GO offers education scholarships and support to young Indigenous people, and to date, has offered more than 500 scholarships.
“There’s a real focus on women and young girls, particularly as Adam and Michael were raised by amazing single mothers, and I’m so proud to lead an amazing board and organisation,” she says of the GO Foundation.
As a leader of the law profession, truth telling is an essential aspect of Sonja’s career. It’s something she’d like to see the Australian government and people do more, particularly when it comes to progress around enshrining a First Nations Voice in the constitution.
“I’m very mindful that I’m leading a profession that really cares about telling the truth. I really deeply struggle with our founding document not telling the truth about our country,” she says.
“For me, it would be setting the record straight, and it’s more than the symbolism, it’s about telling the truth. Acknowledging that for some 60,000 years, Aboriginal people cared and loved and nurtured this land, acknowledging that, and then we can start telling some more truths and listening in different ways.
“Not so long ago, our country had a really deep conversation about equality and marriage, and now we don’t blink much of an eye about that. So I’m impatient that we get to the point where we don’t blink an eye about this anymore.”
Sonja remarks that as a leader, people often refer to her as “unflappable”, and it’s something that’s come across a lot during the pandemic.
“Part of that, I think, is when you’re part of the oldest surviving culture, there’s a resilience to your people and an ability to reflect on a time in memoriam.
“Aboriginal people suffered one of the biggest pandemics…90 per cent of the Gadigal mob were decimated in the first pandemic. So, I’m keeping a sense of perspective, caring for myself and others, and checking in on my supports is important.”
The Leadership Lessons podcast series, hosted by Kate Mills, is a set of interviews with brilliant female leaders across industries, sharing their perspective on the critical decade ahead.
The Leadership Lessons is supported by Salesforce.