This blog is part of our Expert Commentary series, bringing you insights into some of the unspoken challenges people face in the workplace, from experts with lived experience. The series explores a range of topics and perspectives to highlight the ways inclusive and compassionate leadership practices can benefit everyone.
In early 2017, a friend and I were discussing the absence of young women from politics, how to start a much-needed conversation, and potential actions. We knew from our previous work that young people were engaged and action-oriented, yet this hadn’t translated to our national representation. We applied an already-used tactic, the “take over”, and partnered with 20 politicians who agreed to let a young woman “take over” their office for a day. This action was heralded as “visionary”, “disrupting the status quo,” and was cited by the ALP as one of the factors that saw them center gender in their 2019 election strategy. While this was an incredible win, we’re yet to see substantive change – a change I’m still fighting for through my social enterprise Raise Our Voice Australia (ROVA) which amplifies the voices of young women and gender diverse people in public policy and politics.
I’ve long had a keen sense of justice – at 14, I couldn’t wait to vote. I’m in the first generation to grow up with the internet, who’s had unprecedented access to information, and who’s connected with peers like never before.
Over the last 10 years of working with young leaders I’ve observed this same sense of justice, unbridled optimism, and frustration at feeling sidelined from critical conversations.
Young people are leading the way
The last few years have seen a groundswell of youth leadership. This isn’t new; young people have always been on the forefront of social movements.
It’s a rite of passage for the youngest generation to challenge those who came before them. But with tools like social media, young people in the digital era are organising and leading like never before.
We’ve seen this leadership in many spheres; most notably in climate protests run by School Strike for Climate. On 15 March 2019, 1.6 million students across 300 cities made history, uniting in the largest day of protest ever recorded. The catalyst for these protests, and for the global conversations that followed, was the leadership of a 16-year-old girl who refused to accept a status quo which jeopardised the future of herself and her peers.
More recently, we saw the power of young people during Australia’s 2022 federal election. In April 2022, the Australian Electoral Commission recorded its highest day of enrolments ever, the majority of which were by people aged 18-24. For weeks leading up to the election, my social media feeds – including my own content – was centered on the importance of voter enrolment, with many young people leading peer to peer conversations.
The impact of this campaigning (which some termed a youthquake) was evident at the election.
Of the five seats with the highest youth voter enrolment (18-29), four swung Greens. The seat of Canberra was the exception, though the Greens attracted 25 per cent of the primary vote. Young people were more likely to cast their vote on policy as opposed to party, with this issue-based voting on matters such as climate action driving unprecedented success for independents and the Greens. Young voters challenged the two-Party system which has dominated Australian politics since federation and rewrote the rules.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise
Since January 2021, young people – young women – have been leading visibly, challenging existing rhetoric and driving national conversation on climate, sexual assault and consent education. Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins, Chanel Contos, and organisations like the Australian Youth Climate Coalition have revolutionised our thinking, holding institutions to account.
But, much of this leadership remains in informal spaces. We haven’t seen a significant uptick in youth leadership in the public nor private sectors, or in politics. Despite engagement in the federal election, only two elected candidates under 30 – Stephen Bates, Member for Brisbane (29), and Fatima Payman, Senator for WA (27) – were elected. This is despite recent census data, which reported there are only slightly more people aged 55-74 than there are people aged 25-34. So, where are the young people?
While we don’t have consolidated demographic data on the 2022 federal candidates, research conducted by Raise Our Voice Australia (ROVA) found that young women and gender diverse people were more likely to participate in informal actions such as protests or signing petitions over joining a political party or running for office, and only 13 per cent of respondents felt represented in politics. This is our loss – and reflects the decreasing faith and legitimacy young people see in traditional institutions.
Young people aren’t the leaders of tomorrow, we’re leading today. We’re also the future, but are less likely than other age groups to have a formal role in shaping this future.
Young people bring a different perspective. We’re more likely to ask “why not?” and challenge those who say “that’s how it’s always been done”. We’re dreamers with big ideas who understand the potential for global action and digital organising. But perhaps most importantly the challenges of COVID-19, such as unemployment and rising inequality – both of which have hit young people hard – require innovative solutions. Change equals opportunity and we must lay the foundations for a better world. It’s critical we get this right.
So, next time you run recruitment, plan a conference or set up an advisory group, I encourage you to ask “where are the young people?” – and when seeking young voices, “WHICH young people?” and “how can I get them in the room?”
And please, next time you go to call us the leaders of tomorrow, reflect on what we’ve already done. What we’re currently doing. We’re not just the leaders of tomorrow; we’re here, leading, today. Please don’t leave us behind.
Described by Forbes Magazine as a “youthful visionary”, Ashleigh Streeter-Jones has worked in advocacy and campaigns for nearly 10 years, with a focus on youth and gender. She is recognised as an international thought leader on the importance of young people in the public sector, having written and presented on the topic to both domestic and global organisations including the World Economic Forum and World YMCA. In 2022, she was a guest speaker on former Prime Minister Gillard's "Not Now Not Ever" speaking tour to mark the 10 year anniversary of the misogyny speech, and hosted an event with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
In 2020, Ashleigh launched Raise Our Voice Australia (ROVA), a social enterprise working to amplify the voices of young women and non-binary voices in politics and policy. ROVA runs trainings, campaigns, builds communities and conducts research. In 2021, ROVA ran the first ever Youth Voice to Parliament week with now nearly 1000 speeches submitted, and over 100 young women and gender diverse people participating in training, and 2 research reports published.
Ashleigh has advocated for youth and gender equality on an international level, including at the Commission on the Status of Women, the largest annual meeting on gender equality, at the United Nations. In 2019, she was recognized as one of Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence and in 2022, she was selected as one of 50 young global leaders to attend Davos at the World Economic Forum, and by Young Australians in International Affairs as a Woman to Watch in International Affairs. She has held various leadership positions within the Global Shapers Community, and is currently the Oceania Community Champion, supporting young change makers across Australia, New Zealand, Samoa and Papua New Guinea to make change in their local communities.
Ashleigh has a BA(Hons) in Politics and International Relations from Monash University, and a Masters in Diplomacy from the ANU. She works in foreign policy, and is also an experienced speaker and writer.
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