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Elise Stephenson

Elise Stephenson is a PhD candidate at the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University and the Co-Founder of Social Good Outpost. You can find Elise on Twitter @EliseInTheWoods


Thanks for agreeing to chat with us Elise! Can you start by telling us more about your interests and research areas? Specifically, regarding your PhD?
Sure! So for the last two years I have been working to understand the experiences, pathways, influence and impact of women leaders in Australia’s international affairs, focusing on a comparative case study of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Defence, the Department of Home Affairs and the Australian Federal Police (AFP). The project was created after looking at negotiations and delegations internationally, and always being able to pick the one woman in room, if there was one. Research backs up that women’s inclusion in decision-making not only improves our representation (an important part of living in a representative democracy), but also our function in international affairs - lowering interstate violence, increasing collaboration, and adding substantially to the success of international negotiations. This research has given me access to interview over 70 of our foremost leaders in international affairs, to create a baseline study to understand women across diverse diplomatic and security agencies, as well as aid agencies by sharing learnings: what it’s like, what we’re doing well, and what we could improve on. We’re making great progress in some spheres, but there are still many barriers to dismantle and it really is an on-going process which requires collaboration and education across different portfolios and ranks. I love this challenge and have greatly enjoyed working with each of the agencies.

What inspired your passion for empowering women and driving change through social enterprise?
It wasn’t until I attended a workshop on gender violence prevention in 2013 that the layers of women’s disempowerment across societies of all shapes and sizes tangibly sunk in. I studied between Australia and Asia many times, working with women’s groups and researchers across Laos, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, China and beyond, and had the immense privilege of being part of the pilot program of the New Colombo Plan Scholarship in Hong Kong, where I began my first research project on the topic of women’s leadership. I quickly realised that for all the progress we were making, there remains some critical, often covert barriers to true equality in our society, and many deeply entrenched issues in our home region of the Indo Pacific too. It was around the same time that I got involved in a small group of youth creating Australia’s first youth-run youth-led social enterprise conference in Brisbane, Impact Social Enterprise. We ended up bringing 120 of Australia’s best and brightest youth together in 2014 to explore how we could tackle some of these ‘wicked’ problems through new means. After witnessing many forms of gendered violence, discrimination or inequality in Australia and the region, I strongly believe in the power of business to address issues that have fallen between the gaps. I’ve aimed to structure my life around making impact in these two spheres. My PhD has provided a rigorous basis to study women’s leadership and gender equality whilst working with different government agencies to achieve these goals. And secondly, I teamed up to co-found a creative design agency, the Social Good Outpost, as a way of tangibly applying concepts of gender equality and empowerment to the business world. Simply put, we’ve taken a standard business model and added impact: for every 10 hours of graphic or web design service we provide, we support 1 hour of low cost or pro-bono design for fledgling women’s organisations in the community. I know they seem like they are in two very different spaces of expertise, but there is more cross-over than you would think!

What advice do you have for women wanting to get into leadership roles within the context of international deployment and representation across foreign affairs, defence, immigration and policing?
At the end of each interview, I ask my research participants what advice they’d give someone wanting to follow in their footsteps in these fields. One of the first things would be that there is no ‘one’ way to go about it - start somewhere, make it known where you want to go, and then start gathering around you those who can support you. One participant’s beautifully-worded advice was to ‘paddle your own canoe’ - make sure that you are driving yourself and your own development, as others won’t necessarily be there to propel you on your journey. Secondly, depending on what agency you are working for, take a look at those already in leadership, or who get the best international deployments, and see how they got there. What have they got in common? What did they do first, and then next? What was important for them? Sometimes sitting down with your role models can be extremely valuable, but if you can’t do that, once they reach the most senior echelons of leadership there will generally be some information out there about their experiences that you can draw upon (or if you wait long enough maybe I will have written a book condensing it all!). Thirdly, do your job well, and make sure others know about it. Often, we think that just doing a good job is enough - but you do need to ensure that you are promoting yourself and making sure key people in your career understand your work. Fourthly, strategise about your career, and gather your supports. Child-bearing and rearing does continue to disproportionately affect women and their careers, so many recommended careful planning and being strategic about when the right timing is for you. For your partners, regardless of their gender, it is also important that they are also there to do their equal share. International representation presents more and often greater challenges than working domestically, from extra-ordinary hours, to crisis management and conflict negotiation, to sourcing trusted and affordable home help, and so it can be quite crucial to have a strong support network around you. And finally, leave room for flexibility and the ‘unimaginable’. As well as you might plan, opportunities will arise and the nature of the work will require you to be adaptable and flexible. Use this to your advantage!


As the Social Good Outpost Co-Founder & Director of Social Impact, what are the benefits of using a feminist approach to design?
Feminism is all about the emancipation of women particularly, in order to support the betterment of all. In the spirit of collaboration (a key element of feminism), I’ve brought in my co-founder Lara to help me answer this question. As a principle, feminism fits naturally with design, the aim of which is to use creativity and design to *do* something: whether that is communicate with your audiences, send a message, or promote action. Practically, we use a feminist approach to creating web and graphic designs in two ways: through the clients we support, and through our design ethos. We predominantly work with women-led business, social enterprises, and non-profits, (as well as some government), and we take on a number of these as low-cost or pro bono projects. But further to this, and perhaps most importantly, feminist design is about an equality of knowledge and an equality of exchange. We recognise clients as the experts in their own field, and seek to collaborate with them as equals, using a human-centred approach to put the diversity of their experiences, views and perspectives together with practical design that conveys their messages and achieves their aims. A feminist approach to design also looks at all the audiences that interact with the design, and how what we design might interact or influence and affect them. For instance, in our first year of business we worked with many domestic violence service providers, and one particular client had just come from working with a ‘standard’ design agency who designed them a logo of a woman standing behind a keyhole. To the everyday person, this might not mean much - it’s a woman and a keyhole, and it looked aesthetically pleasing enough. But to us, we thought about how someone coming from a domestic violence situation might read this - did it connote the woman was trapped? Locked up? Couldn’t escape? While the design in terms of look, colours, and artistic form might have been good, this was actually an example of poor design because it wasn’t fit for use, and so we were really happy to step in and use feminist principles of respect and understanding to inform our design.

What podcasts are you currently listening to?
I am currently listening to ‘How I built this with Guy Raz’.  It's an American podcast by their National Public Radio and focuses on unpacking the experience of idealists, changemakers and entrepreneurs. Naturally it is interesting because of my own enterprise, but the learnings run much deeper. Entrepreneurship at its heart is about solving complex problems, and if they don't work, changing and adapting -- values also key to public policy. I’ve found that learning outside your immediate field sometimes gives you the best perspective. One of my favourite episodes has to be with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. He built his company as if it were still going to be around in 100 years, and the foresight and planning that requires makes it possibly one of the best examples of designing solutions not just for tomorrow and the next day,  but for the next and next ad infinitum. And as soon as you think about tomorrow, it’s impossible to design solutions based on disenfranchisement and exploitation. This is a critical message not just for business but government and individuals too. Our strategic goals can be reached in myriad ways, but without an eye on the future we're not just digging our own graves,  but those of all around us too.

Finally, who inspires you?
In the international affairs space, it’s impossible not to admire the resilience and calm of some of our foremost women leaders, Julia Gillard, Julie Bishop and Penny Wong come to mind immediately. Beyond that, I always retreat into the words of 19th century US poet and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, for inspiration - “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

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Updated: 08 Apr 2019