Leading as a First Nations woman in a male-dominated industry

Celebrating NAIDOC Week 2024 and the leadership of First Nations women 

4 minute read

Urapun Muy by Deb Belyea

Leadership is rarely easy for anyone, but it can have challenges for First Nations women working in a male-dominated industry.

However, with workplaces becoming more diverse, more leaders are becoming rising stars regardless of their gender and ethnicity.

Many First Nations women have overcome the struggles they faced, and encourage others to do the same to create more diverse workplaces.

Leading as a First Nations woman

From working at a top-tier Perth law firm, teaching law at The University of Western Australia and being an advisory board member at Federation University’s National Centre for Reconciliation, Truth, and Justice to founding her own boutique sustainability and communications firm, Garlett Group Director Emma Garlett has held – and currently still holds – myriad leadership roles across her illustrious career.

A Noongar, Nyiyaparli and Yamatji woman from Geraldton, Ms Garlett has extensively discussed the issues First Nations Australians face, primarily in the law space.

Many places where she has held leadership positions are often stereotyped as dominated by men, but Ms Garlett said this perspective was changing, with exemplary leaders and workers encouraged regardless of their genders and nationalities.

“There are some spaces which are not as inviting to diverse views, but it is slowly changing with more education and understanding,” she said.

“I have always worked in multicultural offices with people from all backgrounds, and I have found many non-Indigenous people have been supportive of the Indigenous reconciliation, understand the reasoning and want to help.

“They are educated about our history and the treatment towards Indigenous people in the past, working to rectify this to allow us to have an inclusive future.”

After such a well-established career, the crucial support Ms Garlett was given has encouraged her to give back and support the next generation of First Nations leaders through their own struggles.

AIM WA’s landmark executive development program for First Nations leaders

 “My work in this space as a First Nations woman has enabled me to provide support to other First Nations businesses and peoples,” she said.

“Through Garlett Group, I have been able to work with First Nations-led-and-owned businesses, Aboriginal corporations and not-for-profit organisations to provide advice from which they can further their own goals.

“The aim of Garlett Group is not only to support and empower other businesses but also to provide support to First Nations people as a whole through workshops and programs for young leaders and emerging businesses.”

A commitment to justice

For Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia Youth Engagement Program Manager Sasha Greenoff, her heritage as a Jaru and Jawoyn woman, with family from the East Kimberley region and the northern region of the Northern Territory, has been a central part of her career journey from the beginning.

“I have always wanted to do preventative work in the criminal justice space,” Ms Greenoff said.

“It comes from the injustices which have happened to my past leaders and Elders.

“First Nations young people and First Nations adults have the highest incarceration rates.

“My passion is young people and changing the high incarceration rates of First Nations people in the criminal justice system.”

Now a leader in the justice sector, Ms Greenoff said her path had not always been easy, but it was one she has been glad to walk – and one she did not walk alone.

“It has been a bit challenging at times as a woman – and not only a woman, but a First Nations woman.”

“There have been challenges in this space, however, I’m just grateful I have had a lot of mentors around me to mentor me through the journey,” she said.

Supporting the next generation of leaders

Facing the world as a new or established leader can be challenging, especially for First Nations women working in male-dominated spaces.

However, in the more diverse workplaces we see today, Ms Garlett encouraged others to do as she had done – to make their own way as a leader and to lift up others along the way.

“Do not be afraid to have a go and get in amongst the action,” she said.

“It is refreshing for many clients and members of the public to see women creating a space for themselves in male-dominated industries, and there is no better time than now to be a role model for other women looking to do the same.”

Ms Greenoff said as time had gone on, more First Nations women had been welcomed into leadership positions, which she was glad to see.

Though Ms Greenoff stressed the importance of community support and mentorship in the journey to leadership, when sharing her advice for new leaders, she noted the importance of having confidence in yourself and walking your own path.

“I would say the first thing would be to be strong within yourself,” Ms Greenoff said.

“If you are strong within yourself when you are entering this level of leadership, nothing will be able to bring you down.

“Secondly, is to have a good support system around you and, thirdly, is to be authentically your own leader.”

An increase in diverse leadership has also led to a rise in support for diverse leaders, with many programs, workshops and networks available for First Nations women – and other new leaders – to hone their skills and boost their abilities.

“Opportunities for emerging Indigenous entrepreneurs and leaders are becoming widely available,” Ms Garlett said.

“Support is out there and many people want to help all women, not just First Nations, to make their impact on this world.”