First CEO role at 24, Michelle Higelin's now leading global organisation ActionAid

‘Women re-write the rules’: Meet ActionAid’s new chief Michelle Higelin

Michelle Higelin firmly believes that women can re-write the rules for the better, especially in leadership.

When women bring their visions and unique capabilities, she knows we can reshape institutions, create more inclusive structures and change the game.

She experienced this first hand when she was appointed CEO of the YWCA at the age of just 24.

And she’s since seen it all over the world in her work with ActionAid Australia, a global women’s rights organisation working in more than 45 countries.

Michelle’s just been appointed Executive Director of ActionAid, stepping up from the Deputy role.

She’s the latest to feature in our GameChanging women series, and shares below what its like to work in a global humanitarian organisation, the role of mentors in her career, and  how she’s pushing a ‘feminist leadership’ agenda to truly shift the dial for women globally.

Who or what do you lead?

I lead one of Australia’s most dynamic global women’s rights organisations. ActionAid Australia works in more than 45 countries to end the interlinked challenges of poverty and patriarchy.  Our approach puts women living in the poverty and exclusion at the centre of our programming and campaigning efforts.

How did you get here?

I’ve spent the past 20 years working for women’s rights in Australia and overseas, and had my first CEO job at the YWCA when I was 24 years of age.  However, it’s taken me nearly two decades to come full circle and return to leading an organisation, largely because I realised that I had so much more to learn.  Now I am well and truly ready to drive ActionAid Australia forward under its new ambitious strategy focused on ‘Women’s Leadership for Global Justice’.   I’ve spent the last three and half years as the organisation’s Deputy Executive Director, so there’s clearly been some succession planning involved.

What ‘game’ are you changing and why does it need a shift?

I’m driving a strong feminist leadership agenda in ActionAid Australia and the broader development and humanitarian sector.  For too long the focus has been simply on getting more women into top jobs, which has largely resulted in having women replace men in leadership without looking at the greater transformative agenda.  Feminist leadership is about analysing the power and politics of organisations, and working to transform deep structures that continue to hold women back and uphold the intersecting inequalities of race, disability, sexuality and class. It’s also about how we shift power and resources to the women we work with, and challenge development and humanitarian practice that treats women as passive beneficiaries of projects.  ActionAid is working to ensure women have a strong, collective voice in the decisions that affect their lives, and are supported to mobilise with others to address the structural causes of poverty and injustice.

Who or what inspired you to do this?

I’m inspired by the many women I have met through my work with ActionAid.  Mary from Vanuatu – a country with no women in Parliament – who says ‘women don’t want to be consulted, they want a seat at the table’. Rafat, from Pakistan, who never imagined that she would leave her village and is now leading emergency response with ActionAid’s support, and mobilising other women in her community. And the group of women survivors of violence from Northern Uganda who’ve had the courage to stand up and fight for their rights amidst strong family and community backlash.  These women are the real heroes. They inspire me every day to work for a more just world for everyone.

What skills help you with this & where did you learn them?

I’ve had some extraordinary mentors throughout my career who threw me in the deep end and gave me the chance to swim.  They’ve shown me the passion, determination and vision that makes a great leader, as well as given me incredible opportunities to grow and be challenged.  These are the skills I take into this new role, with a commitment to create the same opportunities for the people I work with.

What does an average day look like for you?

I’m a mother of two children, so my day starts with juggling breakfast and lunch boxes and digging through the laundry basket for clean clothes. Then I use my commute to start planning the day and check emails. My average day at work is always varied. This year has seen me travel to places like Fiji to meet with a coalition of women’s groups ActionAid is working with to respond to humanitarian emergencies. And to Myanmar where ActionAid is piloting an innovative partnership with ethical fashion business, The Fabric Social, and Myanmar-based collective, MBoutik, to support women craft producers to export clothing to ethically conscious Australian consumers.

I’m regularly in Canberra for government and sector meetings, and when I am in the office, the people I work with are my first priority! It’s important to be across what’s going on in the organisation and to provide support and guidance where it’s needed.

My commute home gives me a chance to do some thinking about the issues facing the organisation, and to disconnect from a busy day before it’s back into a hectic family life. I always try to give myself an hour before I go to bed for me time, which may be reading or watching my favourite tv show.  I’m a big GoT fan so this is definitely my Monday night pleasure!

What key things have helped drive your career to date?

Inspiring mentors who showed me what it means to really lead an organisation rather than just manage well; access to training and learning opportunities to continue to grow my skills and capabilities; and the chance to push myself beyond my self-imposed limits.  I’ve been blessed with lots of opportunities to challenge myself in new areas throughout my career, and this has helped me get to where I am today.

What are some of the best things you’ve learnt about disruption.

Disruption is part of our changing world as a result of political, economic and climate crises.  We need to plan for this and be steering the ship, not getting caught in the waves.  There are tremendous opportunities to harness disruption for social change.  In ActionAid’s work this is central – a crisis can be a moment to catalyse dramatic changes and achieve significant advancements in women’s rights if women are supported and prepared to succeed.

How do you look after your wellbeing and health outside of work?

I definitely make sure I switch off outside of work hours.  With a family, this is a must do.  I love long walks where I can take in fresh air and dream a little, and always build walking into my daily routine.  When I have time, I do pilates and yoga at home in my living room.  And as a vegetarian I have always had a good healthy diet!

Why do women make great game-changers?

We live in a system where men have designed all the rules and institutions that we live under, so when women bring their visions, their dreams and their unique capabilities to the table, they are changing the game for the better –   rewriting those rules, reshaping institutions and creating a new game that is more inclusive of half the world’s population.

What have your mentors taught you?

I have had many mentors throughout my career.  They taught me to dream bigger than my imagination, to believe in myself and not be afraid to take risks. I’ll always remember the wise advice to aim for the stars, because if we only aim for the treetops, we’ll never get off the ground!

What are you doing to inspire more women and girls into leadership?

I am working with my colleagues at ActionAid Australia to open space for the women we work with to be at decision-making tables, actively targeting sectors where women are under-represented, where the result is gender-blind policy and practice. Our sights are set on humanitarian response, trade negotiations and the extractives industry.



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