World renowned academic, gender equality advocate, leader, mother, and Kuku Yulanji woman, Michelle Deshong is not someone to shy away from a challenge.
Deshong’s lifelong passion for politics and activism is a direct result of growing up in North Queensland in the 1970s and 1980s, where racism and discrimination towards Aboriginal people was rife.
This experience drew Deshong into the Indigenous rights movement, which she says set the trajectory of her leadership journey into academia and advocacy.
“I left Townsville when I finished school, and came down to Canberra and became a public servant. I got to know very well the mechanisms of government, and working in that public service space with its highs and its lows, and all the challenges in between.”
Deshong went on to receive a scholarship to study political science, a move that she felt was critical to advancing her leadership potential.
“I was able to put an Indigenous lens on my work, as well as a gender lens. I looked at the complexities and challenges of participation for Aboriginal women, and considered what kind of contribution I could make to influencing women, and the political system itself.”
Deshong’s research saw her receive the prestigious accolades of NAIDOC Scholar of the Year in 2015, Fulbright Indigenous Professional scholar in 2015, and Fellow with the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation.
A key theme of Deshong’s work is the role of Aboriginal women in public and political life, and unpacking preconceived notions of the capacity and capability of Aboriginal women in leadership.
She believes that to see more Aboriginal women in leadership roles, changes need to occur at both the individual and systemic level.
“We’ve got to change the language, we’ve got to change behaviours, we’ve got to change structural and systemic policy issues that affect women in a negative way.
“From an Indigenous woman’s point of view, one of the things we have to do is back ourselves. We need to silence the voices in our heads that say we’re lesser, or that we can’t hold our own in some spaces.
“We need to be Aboriginal women in places people don’t expect us to be. We’ve got to break down some of those stereotypes or perceptions of limitation, and show people our capacity, and our brilliance, and our strength,” she said.
Deshong also flags that leadership can take many forms.
“Leadership doesn’t necessarily have to translate into a job context, you don’t have to be a senior person in a workplace to show good, strong leadership,” she said.
For those of us who are leaders within a workplace context, Deshong urges us to fight back against the idea that we need to work around the clock to demonstrate our worth.
“Balance is really important, and making time for family and community is paramount. Good leadership also involves maintaining your wellbeing and practicing self-care.
“The idea that if you’re not working until eight o’clock at night, and putting in hours on the weekend, then you’re not a very good leader or operator is ridiculous. It’s actually quite the opposite,” she said.
Through her advocacy work, Deshong encourages governments, businesses, and community organisations to focus on providing meaningful opportunities for Aboriginal women to get involved, if they want to see more taking up leadership roles.
“I think it requires genuine engagement, and sadly at times it’s a bit tokenistic, or can be a bit half-hearted.
“If people want to engage Aboriginal women, they have to be authentic and real and have purpose. If you get those things right, then Aboriginal women will want to work with you,” she said.
And if you’re wondering how you can better support Aboriginal women to rise in the ranks, Deshong says that sometimes stepping aside is the best way to make an impact.
“Part of our challenge is being at the table, right? But if the table’s full, that means women are actually putting barriers up for Aboriginal women,” she said.
If you want to hear more from Michelle, register to attend the She Leads Conference on 1 June at QT Canberra here.