Interview | Elise Stephenson (Social Good Outpost)

Michael (TLF) recently caught up with Elise Stephenson, the PhD candidate, social entrepreneur, domestic violence prevention advocate and co-founder of the Social Good Outpost.  The Social Good Outpost is a creative design agency which works with non-profits, social enterprises and change-makers to bring social impact to the field of design.  In 2016, she was awarded the United Nations Association of Australia Community Award for her services to the community around domestic violence and women's leadership, and she plans to use 2017 to bring to life her dreams of harnessing technology to solve gender inequality.IMG_4188 Explain what an ‘equal employment opportunity’ (EEO) is and what it attempts to address.EEO policies are part of an array of affirmative action measures designed to remedy past and on-going discrimination. These policies can apply to gender, sexuality, race, disability and other discrimination. In my line of work, they can be applied to improve representation of women in non-traditional roles and leadership positions. They can also help acknowledge that some people may be at the ‘intersection’ of multiple forms of discrimination, for instance, an ethnic woman who identifies as from the LGBTIQ community may face specific barriers to leadership than a Caucasian woman who identifies as heterosexual. EEO policies rely on overarching law (like the Sex Discrimination Act or Anti-Discrimination Act), as well as specific organisational policies and work environments. Most larger organisations will have EEO policies, however they may be applied at different levels and to different extents. They may include quotas and targets, mentoring and professional development programs, appeals and grievances mechanisms in the case of discrimination and harassment, and other measures specific to the organization.Your research has shown that more developed EEO policies at universities in the Asia-Pacific region demonstrate more women in leadership but what are the limitations on this?According to one researcher, Faiza Ali, in parts of Asia EEO policies represent “an empty shell or toothless tiger”. That is, EEO policies can often not exist, will be incomplete or will be improperly applied in practice. EEO policies are important for aiming to achieve gender equality in workplaces, however there are some key areas that present limitations on their ability to ensure equal gender representation. Firstly, good EEO policies often provide targets and measurable goals for gender representation, under the understanding that ‘what gets measured, gets done’. However, a lack of targets at one university in Hong Kong appeared to have a major effect on their ability to retain a minimum percentage of women in leadership, or provide a gender representation in selection panels and on boards. Secondly, transparency in promotions processes is integral to increasing women in leadership, largely due to the impact of longstanding sex discrimination, the persistence of old boys’ networks, and the prevalence for leadership to be associated with masculine attributes. Transparency can be achieved through clear criteria and definitions on leadership, and transparency on the way decisions are made. Yet, transparency was an issue frequently left unaddressed, particularly in the Hong Kong case, where back-door decision-making or guanxi (loosely translated as a network of relationships or getting things done through those you know) was employed. This can disadvantage women by not providing a clear and transparent path to leadership, as well as disadvantaging those with weaker social ties in work (predominantly, women). Thirdly, appeals and grievances mechanisms are key for advancing gender equality in organisations, and may include committees that can investigate and decide on matters of discrimination and harassment. However, if appeals and grievance mechanisms exist, they may be difficult to access or have social ramifications for individuals who access them, with many women being too scared to raise issues to a committee for fear of backlash or improper handling of their grievance. In Hong Kong, appeals and grievance mechanisms were only available to full- or part-time staff and students, with the EEO policy failing to acknowledge casual workers, which are mostly women. This can leave women exposed, even in a system where EEO policies exist.At the end of the day, EEO policies are often more ‘reactive’ in preventing discrimination than ‘proactive’ in providing pathways for women’s leadership and gender representation. In fact, one pre-eminent researcher, Joan Acker, found that successful efforts to attain gender equality have been found to have a number of common characteristics: targeting a limited number of EEO objectives; combining social movements and outside legislative support with internal organizational support; and coercion or threat of loss if gender inequality is not addressed. While EEO has been effective in addressing forms of overt discrimination, covert discrimination and unconscious bias persists in organisations and suggests that a more complete approach may be needed. Rather than EEO policies being a complete method for achieving representation or equality, they should be one of several measures deployed by organisations in this important drive to gain equality.In all your amazing work in the gender equality space, what have you found to be the most interesting or shocking revelation?For the past five years I have worked heavily in the domestic violence prevention space, however it was only this year while researching for my PhD on women’s leadership that the link between domestic violence, women’s leadership and our prosperity as a nation was made so explicit to me. Simply put, higher levels of domestic violence is linked to higher levels of state conflict and insecurity. In international relations, the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness, is its level of violence against women. What this means is that women’s treatment, inclusion and representation in international relations isn’t just ‘nice to have’ or important to include because the United Nations says so, it is integral to the peace, security and stability of states. As Leidl and Hudson state in The Hillary Doctrine, “studies have shown that if domestic violence is a routine means of family conflict resolution, then that society is also more likely to rely on violence and to be involved in militarism and war than those societies characterized by lower levels of family abuse. There is a continuum of violence that runs from the household level to the national level”. What this says to me, is that the more we can tackle gender-based violence and domestic violence in Australia, the safer, more secure, and more prosperous we are as a nation in the world, and the more likely we are to have better gender representation in leadership, too.Gender based violence discussion often focuses on heterosexual male against female violence.  Although we know this is the most common, how can we better form this discussion to include all survivors?The gender-based violence you mentioned is incredibly important to understand, because it often forms the basis of other forms of intimate partner violence in our society. This has been a main occupation of mine alongside tackling gender-based violence - how we can include other communities in the discussion. Since 2013 I have been working with Dr Shannon Spriggs Murdoch at Griffith University to develop intimate partner violence prevention training and strategies for LGBTIQ communities. This type of violence could be between two women in a relationship, two men in a relationship, between someone transitioning from male to female, or vice versa, and their partner, and so on. While ‘gender’ is obviously different in this equation, it has been interesting to see how men’s violence against women often forms the basis of how LGBTIQ communities experience intimate partner violence. Regardless of gender or sexuality, violence is a tool used for purposes of power and control. For instance, some studies have found 41% of women in lesbian relationships have experienced forced sex with their current or former partner. You might immediately assume, ‘but they’re two women, they can’t hurt each other!’ or ‘we’re both women so we understand what the other one wants or needs’. When you delve behind the statistics, you see a lot of issues recur around what it means to be ‘in control’ or ‘powerful’, and how many of these notions are informed by traditional male masculinity – i.e. to be strong, to be in control, to be big, to be powerful, to be dominant, to be violent, to have the last word, etc. I also see a lot of people in the LGBTIQ communities struggle to recognize what violence is in their relationship, because there might not be many good role models, or they themselves might be of the assumption that because ‘gender’ is taken out of the equation, there can’t possibly be violence!When I talk about domestic violence, I have started to get into the habit of talking about everyone as potential ‘leaders’. No one is a potential victim/survivor or a potential perpetrator. Rather, we are all leaders with the potential to be active bystanders where we witness or suspect violence, with an ability to not just change or challenge particular troubling situations, but also change our wider culture around violence. Men’s violence against women does predominate in Australia with the statistics clearly representing this. However, all communities experience violence, in multiple similar, and different, ways. What I’ve found is that people often just want their experience to be recognized, so talking about how domestic violence affects LGBTIQ communities or other communities and including their examples can be a powerful way of bringing everyone into the conversation about healthy relationships.How have you seen technology be used to ‘close the gap’ and attempt to enable women to have the same opportunities as men in the professional workforce?I think this is one of the great underutilized spaces for innovation - gender inequality is a space I would like to see more technology try to solve! Online training courses have been a way to address some things, such as the Queensland Government’s Boardroom Bootcamp Scholarship ( which has been supported by the Office for Women as a way of training women for board readiness. Further, the Office for Women and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) have both developed online gender analysis toolkits for organisations to assist in policy or program development, implementation and analysis. Outside of this exist few, but unique, ways technology can change the game. In India for instance is a comic book called Priya’s Shakti (, which features a female rape survivor-turned-superhero with the capacity to inspire and promote change. The comic book was developed after the gang rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi in 2012. The comic book is aimed at young boys, designed to shatter taboos around gender based violence, and empower young girls to know that they are strong, important and have power. It uses technology in an innovative way, by incorporating augmented reality (AR) so that when you hover your phone over the comic book or one of the murals of Priya now dotted across India, the images come to life and videos of rape survivors, acid attack survivors and sex trafficking survivors pop up to tell their story. While not directly relating to equal opportunities in the professional workforce, this innovative way of using technology helps to create a culture which respects women and their contributions to society. This is important because we know that one of the best ways to improve women’s experiences in the workforce, is to improve women’s experiences in the home.Time for you to save the world – what innovation in our society’s way of thinking would genuinely help create some gender equality?This might not sound innovative per se, but I believe that genuine equality within the home would have one of the biggest effects on gender equality in every other sphere in society. Equally sharing domestic tasks such as caring for children, cooking, and cleaning would have a massive effect not only on how ‘unpaid labour’, currently predominantly undertaken by women, is valued. It would also give women more opportunity and time to invest in their professional lives, and more opportunity and time for men to invest in their families and creating prosperous home lives. According to the World Economic Forum, in Australia women carry the highest burden of both paid and unpaid work. Women do 483 minutes per day of paid work, compared to 476 minutes for men. Women also do 64% of all unpaid work per day, predominantly the caring responsibilities in the home. Combined with reducing domestic violence and calling out sexism where you witness it, equal sharing of work in the home generates a powerful pathway for creating gender equality which benefits everyone. Innovative thinking is that: no one gets harmed or brought down by gender equality. Genuine gender equality means that women, men and everyone in between, all benefit and will all be in better positions. If you would like to be interviewed or offer your thoughts on a recent event, book or article, please contact our Editor In Chief, Michael Bidwell, at