Licia Heath is the CEO of Women for Election Australia (WFEA) a not-for-profit, non-partisan organisation encouraging and supporting more women to succeed in Australian politics.
The former Wentworth by-election candidate began her role at the WFEA last December, and believes the NGO’s non-partisan approach is the perfect platform to ensure Australia has a more gender-balanced, representative Parliament in coming years.
She took some time out to share more on role at the WFEA and the future of women in politics.
She says one of the biggest barriers for women in politics is simply how to get involved, stating that “How you run for office is still a very opaque process in Australia”.
WFEA is aiming to make the process more transparent and accessible — and ultimately help get more women election.
When you took on the role of CEO at WFEA last December, you listed your top three goals as securing ongoing funding, locking in an academic partnership, and encouraging more women to run for office. In the last 8 months, how have you made gains in these three areas?
We launched our crowdfunding campaign via Chuffed, have run our inaugural “Meet the Politician” event and we’re about to launch our Sydney conference at NSW Parliament House, including a never-done-before second day of workshops at UTS Business School. We’ve announced our Canberra conference later this year in partnership with ANU, we’re exploring making part of our training modules online so they can be accessed by more women, and I’m hopeful we’ll soon be announcing a NSW Regional Roadshow specifically designed to encourage more women to run for the Local Government/Council elections in Sept 2020.
I can’t wait until we can start moving these events interstate. We are still in the process of seeking multi-year funding and corporate sponsors as well as individual donor commitments to ensure we can build on the ambitious programs.
What’s been the most challenging aspect of your role as CEO at WFEA so far, and why? How have you managed or overcome this challenge?
Because our mission is so big and bold, the constant challenge is managing my time, raising funds and proving that we’re an non-partisan organisation, but it’s a challenge that I’m relishing. I have a very supportive Board, an amazing group of Ambassadors (including Ann Sherry, John Hewson, Anna Bligh and Diana Ryall) and a strong set of advisers all helping behind the scenes.
One of the goals of the upcoming INSPIRE and EQUIP conference is to encourage women from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds to participate and put their hand up to run for office.
What strategies does WFEA have in place to reach out to these individuals from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds?
WFEA has made a dedicated effort to form a relationship with as many culturally and linguistically diverse women’s organisations and associations as possible to introduce ourselves and our work. We’ve sought, and found, donors to help us provide scholarship tickets to CALD women, as well as Indigenous, LGBTIQ, disabled and regional and remote women.
I’m frequently presenting at different women’s forums (breakfasts, PD days, conferences) but we still haven’t met with everyone. I’d encourage people to contact me if they’d like WFEA at a future event or attend our conference at the end of August to learn more!
What do you see as the biggest barriers for women of colour, women from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds to enter into politics as a career?
The biggest barrier for all women at this point is information on how they can get involved. How you run for office is still a very opaque process in Australia and WFEA is helping to make it more transparent and hence more accessible.
In addition, CALD women often have to contend with unconscious bias that’s exhibited in the pre-selection process and at the ballot box.
In America, the Democratic Party are seeing a large increase of women of linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds take office (ie. The Squad)
Why do you think Australia still lags behind in terms of our representation of women of colour in politics?
There’s a number of reasons. Firstly, our pre-selection is still largely party-based and branch-based in Australia and it’s not the whole branch or party that gets to vote for a candidate – it’s a select few. This means unconscious (or sometimes conscious!) bias can play a part in which candidate is pre-selected.
The pre-selection process in America (or Primaries) is more democratic in the sense that it’s open to all party members to vote. Secondly, before ‘the Squad’ there were many politicians in America who came from different ethnic backgrounds; a black President who served 2 terms is the standout.
Meanwhile, Australian Politics is not even closely diverse, leading to the “You can’t be what you can’t see” theory. But we believe groups like WFEA are helping to change that.
Finally, we can’t ignore the fact that America is the 3rd most populous country in the world with 300+ million people and shared borders. Australia has 25 million people – just behind the population of Texas. So by natural law of numbers, America has historically been more multi-racial than Australia.
How many presenters and workshop leaders at the conference in August will be women who are from this community of linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds?
We have the wonderful Dr Michelle Evans presenting on leadership and the importance of more Indigenous women having a voice in Australian politics at all levels. We also have Councillor Nadia Saleh speaking about her journey into Local Government, why she wanted to represent her community and what it was like breaking ground and being the first female Councillor in Australia to wear a hijab.
WFEA wants to help women participate in politics by offering tailored training courses and digital support. How is the curriculum for these courses designed and by whom?
We have an amazing volunteer Board who have a broad range of skills including course and training-program design. Our Chair and Founder, Jenny Morris, has had her own leadership training and coaching business for 20 years and one of our Directors works with the Male Champions of Change. We also partner with different universities and training bodies to implement training events so we utilise their knowledge and skills when designing agendas.
You are obviously a very busy professional. How do you practice self-care or relax?
I’ve recently got back to regular exercise and that makes a huge difference. Being diligent and quarantining weekends for my family and friends is also important to me. Plus, doing something with purpose, that I know will create positive change in Australian politics, helps me get through the tougher weeks. “Creating a life that you don’t need to escape from is the ultimate form of self-care”, a wise woman once told me.
The annual WFEA Sydney conference will be at NSW Parliament House on Friday 23rd August. More details at www.wfea.org.au