Marie claire 2021 WOMEN OF THE YEAR
Marie Claire Australia|December 2021
From Brittany Higgins to Grace Tame and many more, join us in celebrating the women who have fought with passion, led with bravery and inspired with their triumphs in 2021. We salute you!
SARAH GRANT AND COURTNEY THOMPSON

GRACE TAME

Ask Grace Tame to sum up 2021 and the Australian of the Year’s initial response is typically candid and unapologetic: “I. Am. Tired.” And no wonder. Since her impassioned acceptance speech captured the attention of the nation on January 25, the advocate for survivors of child sexual assault has become a powerhouse of progress, her stance igniting a reckoning for the women of Australia. Just don’t expect her to take any credit for it.

While acknowledging the “seismic shift in the conversation” on sexual abuse, Tame insists she is “just one domino” in the contribution. “I stand on the shoulders of giants,” she says. “Brittany Higgins, Chanel Contos, Julia Banks and Christine Holgate are all women who’ve bravely stood up against abuse culture in all its forms. And there are so many unsung heroes. I share all my achievements with a huge collective.”

While her tenure as Australian of the Year is drawing to a close – a shift she says will provide relief – the fight is far from over for Tame, who hopes to overhaul legislation and education on child sexual abuse when she sets up the Grace Tame Foundation in 2022. Meanwhile, her legacy as one of the most profound and proactive recipients of the award will endure. “I think I started the year with a lot of naivety, and I’ve realised that it’s dirty out there,” she concedes. “But I’ve also learnt that one of the most important things about being an effective leader is knowing when to admit weakness and error, because there’s great strength in [that]. You have to know the difference between having power and empowering.”

BRITTANY HIGGINS

Brittany Higgins will never forget the year that was. And history won’t forget her. The former Liberal staffer will forever be synonymous with sparking a furious debate on gender-based violence following her brave decision to publicly allege she was raped by a colleague inside Parliament House.

And while it’s been a year riddled with anguish and anxiety, it has also been one of immense personal growth for Higgins, ultimately leaving her empowered by her ability to demand change and encourage countless others to do the same. “Going back to Canberra – and specifically Parliament House – to speak at the March4Justice rally was extremely difficult, but I’m so glad I did it,” says Higgins, naming the emotionally charged March 15 protest as her year highlight. “There is a devastating banality of sexual violence in our community. The truth is most women have a story like mine or know somebody with a story like mine. March4Justice was a cathartic moment for women across the country to feel heard, and being afforded the opportunity to stand with so many wonderful people and say ‘enough is enough’ will forever be a moment in my life that I’ll treasure.”

Her status as a change-maker became official in October, when she was appointed the inaugural visiting fellow of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, established by former prime minister Julia Gillard. Naming her position a “privilege”, Higgins believes there is still much to be done to improve workplace gender equality, starting with the government embracing the moment of change created by 2021’s national reckoning. “Cultural change comes from the top down,” she says. “If the leadership of this country takes the issue seriously, I think it’s more likely to be taken seriously by businesses across the country.” Her ongoing objective is clear: “I encourage women to feel empowered to speak up, call out bad behaviour and share your truth with the confidence of knowing you have a generation of women ready, willing and able to support you.”

CHRISTINE HOLGATE

On April 14, former Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate was inundated with so many thousands of messages of support that her inbox crashed. Most were from people she didn’t know, people who had seen Holgate give evidence at a Senate inquiry the day prior, where she defended her decision to gift four executives Cartier watches.

Admirably, Holgate used the inquiry as a platform to speak out about the bullying that forced her out of her job in November 2020, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressed outrage in parliament over Holgate’s “appalling” and “disgraceful” decision to gift the watches – even though she had authority to award executive bonuses and had increased Australia Post’s profits. “Receiving all those messages was the moment I realised how important it was that I spoke out,” says Holgate, who believes sexism is being perpetuated at the top level. “It was not just for me, but for so many other people who haven’t been able to speak up.”

While she was left suicidal by the humiliation she endured from the ordeal and subsequent media commentary, Holgate’s brave stance has inspired her to invest in tackling the issue of workplace bullying and mental health. It’s also enabled her to forge strong bonds with other women who have spoken truth to power this year, namely Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins and Julia Banks. “This year all four of us, for very different reasons, have stood up and spoken out,” explains Holgate of the group, who catch up regularly over Zoom. “We come from different careers, separate backgrounds but we’re all absolutely united – we love Australia and just want it to be safer.”

Her biggest takeaway from 2021 will help define the rest of her life: “I learnt that women are stronger than we’re given credit for,” says Holgate, now CEO of Toll Global Express. “And yet we’re painted as not being equal. They underrate us.”

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