Where are they now?

 

Since our patron, Elizabeth Reid, became the first Women’s Adviser ever appointed by a Prime Minister in 1973, there have been literally thousands of women employed as staffers of ALP parliamentarians and party offices.

 

In our ‘Where are they now?’ series, now you can learn what some of these fabulous women have gone on to do in their professional (and personal) lives.

Sally Sitou

When did you first work for the ALP and what was your role?

 

I was the campaign manager for two marginal seats campaigns, the first in 2006 for the NSW State Electorate of Wollondilly and then in 2007 for the Federal Seat of Bennelong, when Maxine McKew became only the second person to unseat a sitting Australian Prime Minister.

 

It was an incredible campaign to be part. What made it more satisfying was the level of genuine engagement we received from local community groups. We were overwhelmed by the number of volunteers willing to do phone banking and doorknocking in Chinese and Korean. Maxine was a regular fixture at all the culturally significant events in the electorate and by the end of the campaign she had charmed every yum cha and Korean BBQ restaurant in the area. We had over 600 volunteers and the energy they gave the campaign was extraordinary. They made election night feel like a rock concert and I felt like I knew every one of them. The volunteers on that campaign were really something special.

 

I then went on to work for Jason Clare MP when he was a backbencher, I stayed on as an adviser during his time as Parliamentary Secretary for Employment and Minister for Defence Materiel.

 

What did you go onto do after that?

I moved to Beijing in 2008 as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development to work for a Chinese NGO that worked with the elderly. I came back and did another stint in Jason’s office. In 2012, I moved to Samoa to work with AusAID. After returning to Sydney, I went to work at the University of Sydney as the international media adviser.

What did you find most rewarding career-wise about working for the ALP?

 

The extraordinary variety of people you get to meet. There is no other job where you get to meet with a high school principal, a small business owner and a group of kids calling for action on climate change…..all in the one day. It was such a privilege to get to be part of someone’s life even for a short while, to hear from them and learn about their life. There are good people out there beavering away on issues they are passionate about and what a joy it is to see.

 

I was lucky enough to work for Jason Clare who is incredibly hard working, so the hours were long. But he was genuinely interested in helping his electorate with compassion, which meant we pursued causes and met with people who really needed our help, which made our work all the more special.

What is a highlight of your time as a staffer?

 

There were many highlights but there is one that makes me tear up a little every time I think about it. In the first few months after he was elected, Jason met with an extraordinary local resident, Leonie Sheedy. Leonie had grown up in an orphanage and had set up an organisation to support others who had grown up in institutions, Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN). Many children who had grown up in institutional care described a childhood filled with neglect and abuse. They felt their stories and experiences had been largely forgotten by our society and had coined the term ‘Forgotten Australians’ to describe themselves.

 

Leonie wanted their voices and stories to be heard, and was campaigning for an apology from the Australian Government and recognition of the trauma thousands of care leavers experienced while in care. Jason took on her cause and tasked me with helping to draft a speech for parliament. I worked closely with Leonie and other members of CLAN to help tell their stories. It was challenging because we could not guarantee we could get the public apology they desperately wanted. However, I was determined to make them feel heard and valued, so I drafted a speech that honoured their experiences. I spent hours meeting with Leonie and other care leavers, these meetings were emotional and difficult. I read their letters and memoirs and for that short while I felt like I was part of their lives. Their stories and their courage had a big impact on Jason and I, we were determined to write a speech that would do justice to their stories.

 

Once the speech was delivered in Federal Parliament, Jason received positive feedback from other Members of Parliament. The greatest feedback we received came on two handwritten notes. One was a thank you note from Leonie, and the other was from Vera, a 97-year-old ‘Forgotten Australian’, who wrote to let us know the impact the speech had on her, it was something she thought she’d never get to see in her lifetime. In 2009, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered a national apology to all care leavers, a few year later Prime Minister Julia Gillard established the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

What are you doing now?

Throughout my career, I’ve been driven by a desire to advocate on behalf of others and to improve broken systems. This year I’ve changed tack slightly and have started a PhD at the University of Sydney’s Business School looking at gender equity in finance. I made the decision late last year but with recent events in Canberra, I feel like I’ve made the right call. There is a movement being led by some incredible women – many in this group - and I want to do my bit to make sure we give the movement the research underpinnings to strengthen it further. My supervisors are leading researchers in the field of women and work, Professor Rae Cooper and Dr Meraiah Foley.

 

It’s a huge hit to our family’s budget but I’m fortunate enough to have received a scholarship courtesy of a philanthropic gift from Investec, a multinational banking and wealth management group, so I’ve got a little time and space to focus on the research.

What advice would you give to ALP women staffers?

  • What a successful and happy career looks like should be defined by you only. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing a career needs to follow a trajectory of linear progression up a career ladder. It’s taken me a little while to get this, but I think it is okay to move sideways or even down that ladder to pursue other careers and interests. Be open to all opportunities and possibilities….

  • Don’t be shy in seeking out other women for advice and guidance. I’ve been fortunate to have many strong female mentors and friends in my life.

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