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How Indigenous women can take a greater leadership role

By Jackie Huggins - posted Thursday, 20 May 2004

It’s impossible to write about being Indigenous, being a woman and the challenges of leadership without reflecting on my own feelings and experiences, the things that guide and inspire me, and the tough aspects of playing all these roles at the same time.

To my mind, you cannot speak about the need for leadership within our communities without being prepared to take on responsibility yourself. It’s not enough to point the finger at those who have let us down and to expect others to come forward and fix our problems.

Nor can anyone afford to call themselves a leader unless they truly have the interests of our community at heart. Too many people like to think they are leaders and too many are identified by the media as leaders who are not really leaders at all.


The reality of being a leader is not necessarily about earning big money or being recognised on the street. And this is particularly true of our women leaders, many of whom work tirelessly, thanklessly, behind the scenes to make their communities healthy.

Women leaders face great sacrifices, especially in terms of the time they would prefer to spend with family, let alone having time to themselves for rest and recreation. For single mothers, like me, there is a heavy toll and were it not for family support mechanisms, these extra responsibilities would be impossible to fulfil.

So what are the challenges of leadership for Indigenous women?

Number one, it’s about putting yourself "out there" in the first place. People in our communities are very suspicious of those who stand out from the crowd or big-note themselves. There is a real danger that you can been seen as a tall poppy, and there is much jealousy and envy in our community.

It’s important to strike a balance, and there's a fine line between achieving that balance and putting people offside.

The essential rule to follow as a leader is never forget where you’ve come from or who put you there. Stay in touch with your local mob, especially the aunties and uncles. I have aunties back home who pray for me all the time in the work that I do and they tell me this whenever they see me. It is an enormous comfort to me.


The greatest challenge out there in the wider community, I believe, is that non-Indigenous people judge you by different standards. You get by if you present well and are articulate, and if you are consistent with your messages. A good education goes a long way - I have been blessed by one and am very proud to have it.

All leaders are actors in the different roles they play and in the wider community you are expected to be able to modify your behaviour and language in different situations without losing sight of who you are.

The ability to communicate with people from all walks of life is important. My son often says I am a chameleon, changing my communication styles depending on whom I’m talking to. It’s true in many ways but not a bad thing - I enjoy the challenge of good communication and using it to bring out the best in people.

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This article was written for the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

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About the Author

Jackie Huggins is Deputy Director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research Unit at the University of Queensland and Co-chair of Reconciliation Australia.

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