With women making up 78.5 per cent of Australia’s health care and social assistance workforce, and the industry being the largest employer for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, namely Indigenous women (23 per cent), Australia’s health sector —midwifery, aged care, child care— is significantly at the hands of black women.
Working in Indigenous women’s leadership, I have been fortunate enough to have yarned with many of these women, and my current role at The Poche Centre for Indigenous Health grants me opportunities to see emerging Indigenous health academics and clinicians with passion and energy to bring about better health outcomes for our communities.
My experiences in Indigenous health is also extremely personal. As someone who suffers from chronic illness, I have spent numerous nights in hospitals, specialist offices and Aboriginal Health Service waiting rooms. Being Aboriginal, we hear that our mortality rates are higher than those of our non-Indigenous friends. We hear that chronic disease such as heart and kidney function are higher in our communities than others, and that social determinants are usually the key indicator as to why this occurs.
What is regularly left out of these conversations however, are the positive stories in Indigenous health – those who are impacting on this deficit; the communities who do benefit; the people we should celebrate and the ones we should support. My experience meeting Indigenous women who work in community-controlled health environments, public hospital settings and those who rise up through universities are nothing short of awe-inspiring.
What is more, many have come from caring and therapeutic environments and moved towards more advocacy based work in community settings. With recent damning—and unsurprising—news that Indigenous people make up merely 0.4 per cent of the overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic senior leadership positions in Australia, it's time we focus our attention to strength and leadership within our communities in this field.
The University of Melbourne's Poche Centre is currently running its second Leadership Fellows program which works to enhance the leadership of Indigenous health clinicians and academics to improve health outcomes and representation in the industry.
Within this cohort is Banok Rind, a young Yamatji woman working as a registered nurse. Banok recalls her time at school, where low expectations were placed upon her from teachers. She also reflects on racism and discrimination while working as an adult in the health system. Experiences like Banok's are just some of barriers which many Aboriginal people face to be becoming leaders. However, her desire to become a nurse came from her own families’ health issues, and her drive to make change in her community. Now, Banok's aim is to pursue further studies by doing a Masters in research with a strong focus on Indigenous health, specifically Aboriginal women’s health. Banok does work through associations such as, Culture is Life, Oxfam and the Closing the Gap campaign. She advocates for Indigenous health through social media, and recently made a speech at The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners Closing the Gap event, stating, “The targets will measure nothing but the collective failure of governments to work together”. Banok is an example of women in our community who we need to foster.
Another participant with a long history of working within community environments is Francine Eades. After completing her nursing degree in 1990, Fran has worked as a registered nurse in hospitals in both NSW and WA. Her career includes working with Aboriginal Health Services in various clinical and management roles. Francine has worked as a nurse manager in Western Sydney (Aboriginal Chronic Care Coordinator) and as a Strategic Aboriginal Health Advisor to the NSW state-wide Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network.
Holding a Master of Applied Epidemiology (Indigenous Health) from the Australian National University, Francine is currently lecturing at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies at Curtin University in Perth, which she undertakes her PhD.
It is in these women that we begin to see the seeds of strong health leadership growing. No doubt women prevail within health environments as a whole, with a large proportion of female nurses, midwives and the increase of female specialists owning space in this arena. The history of Aboriginal women working in community-controlled health organisations specifically, is built upon change and advocacy.
It comes as no surprise that health and education hold a specific interest with Aboriginal women to a point where academic leadership is so prevalent. There has been a long tradition of women trying to fill holes in areas of need for their communities. The development of Aboriginal Medical Services, for example, was an area where resistance and a want for great social change was greatly assisted by Indigenous women to build not only the physical spaces where these services exist, but also a strong commitment to social capital, service delivery and holistic well-being for all First Australians. Mum Shirl (Shirley Cohen Smith, 1924-1998) was a strong Aboriginal woman who led the way for the first Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern in July 1971. She also advocated for an Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the Children’s Aboriginal Service and the Aboriginal Housing Company in the inner-city suburb in Sydney.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have women such as Gunditjmara woman Dr Misty Jenkins in Science and Cancer research. Misty has just been awarded the 2018 CSIRO Indigenous STEM Awards, and was the first Indigenous Australian to attend Oxford and Cambridge Universities as a postdoctoral fellow.
Bwgcolman woman, Lynore Geia too has a long history in social health research and activism, as does Alyawarre woman Pat Anderson AO who has given decades of service in health with organisations such as The Lowitja Institute. The list goes on.
There are aunties who work in allied health areas too such as health educators, those running health and nutrition programs, art therapy workshops and in aged care services within health clinics. We don’t often regard these women as leaders, and yet it is in their informal leadership that many of us in the community get the help we need. These strong and determined Indigenous women are not simply working in a job; they mobilise and influence us towards better health. They may growl at us in that aunty way that sometimes we need, and sometimes that only a black woman can.
With a recent Closing the Gap report showing only minimal improvements (with only 3 of the 7 indicators showing progress), it is vital we continue acknowledging and further supporting Aboriginal health organisations, and more importantly, those that build them. Strong, black women who push for change in health policy and advocate for people every day; in hospitals, in health organisations, in higher education. Let’s honour these women because of her, we can.
Tess Ryan is Biripi woman and Melbourne-based writer and academic. Tess has recently completed her PhD, focusing on Indigenous women's leadership in Australia through the University of Canberra, and is currently a Post-doctoral fellow with The Poche centre for Indigenous Health at the University of Melbourne. Follow @TessRyan1
NAIDOC Week, 8-15 July theme recognises and celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Women #BecauseOfHerWeCan