2023 First Nations Women’s Leadership Symposium Wrap Up

"There's magic when First Nations Women Gather" - Sasha Kutabah Sarago
WLA - Symposium 2023
Women & Leadership Australia
3 min read

“There’s magic when First Nations women gather” – Sasha Kutabah Sarago

On Thursday 3 August, Women & Leadership Australia, in partnership with First Nations-led organisation, Women’s Business, delivered an inspirational First Nations Women’s Leadership Symposium in Naarm/Melbourne. Fifty First Nations women from all levels of leadership gathered to connect and share lived experiences and insights from their respective journeys in personal and professional life.

First Nations 2023 Panel and room
A full room at the 2023 First Nations Women’s Leadership Symposium

Women & Leadership Australia CEO, Karen Taylor and Founder and CEO of Women’s Business, Kat Henaway, opened the proceedings and set the tone; “Our aim is to create a safe space here for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to express ourselves in our way, using our language and honouring our values. “

Attendees were inspired and empowered

“Gaining confidence to lead my team with conviction whilst standing strong in my cultural identity and background.”

The event was truly inspiring, and we received exceptional feedback, particularly around the high levels of respect and psychological safety the women felt in the room and the relief they felt being in a space that had no cultural load.

“Being with mob [at this event], speaking our truth in a safe environment is important and empowering.”

Keynote speakers shared their powerful stories

Councillor Ashleigh Vandenberg, the first and only Indigenous Councillor in Melton City Council, shared her upbringing and painted a picture of her experiences in council.

Courtney Ugle, Essendon VFLW Player, showed courage and strength as she spoke about her traumatic experiences as a young Noongar girl and how it shaped her today: “Sometimes things falling apart are actually things falling together.”

Adjunct Professor Sue-Anne Hunter, Deputy Chair Commissioner, Yoorrook Justice Commission, spoke of her experience as a single Aboriginal mother in leadership.

Sasha Kutabah Sarago shared her story on the perils of being a woman of colour in the fashion industry, and how she carved her own path including creating Australia’s first Indigenous and ethnic women’s lifestyle magazine.

Panel Discussion: For our Elders

Nornie Bero, Carly Jia, Elverina Johnson and Rachelle Towart reflected on the 2023 NAIDOC week theme, sharing their insights on how their elders helped shape them and the values they instilled.

“I wouldn’t change anything about my experiences, the good, the bad, it’s all lead me to here and here is where I want to be”, said Ms. Bero.

First Nations 2023 Panel discussion
The Panel Discussion – (L-R) Rachelle Towart, Carly Jia, Elverina Johnson, Nornie Bero

Why a First Nations Women’s Leadership Symposium?

Women & Leadership Australia and Women’s Business were particularly interested in the recent  Wiyi Yani u Thangani (Women’s Voices) Report 2020’s aspiration to advance Indigenous women in leadership and decision-making. The report’s theme ‘Leadership and decision-making for self-determination’ aims to:

  • Establish women and girls-led models of leadership to elevate voices in all levels of decision-making.
  • Grow the women-led workforce to invest in career and leadership development; and
  • Reshape structural and institutional arrangements with shared accountability, decision-making authority, and respect to guarantee full participation and leadership.

It’s a harsh reality for First Nations Women

First Nations women are among the most marginalised people in Australian society.

The Gari Yala: Speak the Truth – Gendered Insights report explained:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are underrepresented in the Australian workforce with 51.5% participation compared to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men (65%) and non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women (59.2%).
  • Indigenous women in culturally unsafe workplaces were over 10 times more likely to be often or very often treated unfairly at work than those working in culturally safe businesses
  • 20 times more likely to hear racial or ethnic slurs


Where to from here for First Nations women?

“I firmly believe that the more we empower our First Nations women to lead, the sooner we’ll heal this country and set it on a path towards peace,” says Ms. Henaway.

Women & Leadership Australia is proud to work with and support First Nations women through a number of initiatives, in line with our Reflect Reconciliation Action Plan.

“As Australia moves ahead on its path towards equity and inclusion, Women & Leadership Australia is providing the training, resources, connections, and thought leadership to support individuals and organisations on this journey,” says Ms. Taylor.

In 2024 Women & Leadership Australia will expand our First Nations events and programs to continue delivering meaningful development opportunities for First Nations leaders.