Department of Family and Community Services

Focus Topic: Aboriginal women leaders

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What does ‘leadership’ mean to Aboriginal women and why is it important?

The United Nations, World Health Organisation and OECD consider that focusing effort specifically on raising the status of women and girls has tremendous multiplier effects throughout their communities, as it brings educational, economic, health and social benefits to all in the community, not only females.1

Aboriginal women consulted recently on the issue of leadership reported that it is important for leadership to be shared between men and women as a means of strengthening communities and sharing responsibility for facing problems and making decisions about the future.2

Many Aboriginal women fulfil a leadership role within their families and communities in an informal capacity. Aboriginal women play an important role as influencers, informal decision-makers, and initiators of projects to improve the lives of their families and communities. In this way they carry significant responsibility for others’ wellbeing now and in the future.

What are the socio-economic conditions that affect Aboriginal women’s ability to take on leadership roles?

Aboriginal women are more likely than Aboriginal men to have in place some of the conventional foundations for leadership – to have completed year 12, to be undertaking post-school studies, to have completed a Bachelor degree and to be living with their family rather than serving time in prison. This is similar to the pattern between non-Aboriginal women and men, where women are doing better than men on these indicators.

In comparison with non-Aboriginal women, however, Aboriginal women’s outcomes on these indicators are low, and the gap between Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal women remains just as wide as the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal men (except in relation to rate of imprisonment). See Tables 5.5 and 5.6.

What do we know about Aboriginal women leaders?

The small number of Aboriginal people in leadership positions makes it difficult to draw reliable conclusions. On the limited data that is currently available, however, the gender gap in leadership seems smaller between Aboriginal women and men than it does in the population as a whole.

1. Higher status occupations – professionals and managers

In NSW in 2011, 7 percent of employed Aboriginal women were managers, and 18 percent were professionals. Comparative figures for employed Aboriginal men were 8 percent as managers and 10 percent as professionals. While Aboriginal women and Aboriginal men are almost equally likely to work as managers, Aboriginal women are nearly twice as likely as Aboriginal men to work as professionals. See Figure 5.14.

2. Electoral representation

The first, and still only, Aboriginal member of the NSW Parliament is Linda Burney, who was elected to the seat of Canterbury in 2003. There has not yet been an Aboriginal woman elected to Federal Parliament, for any State.

3. NSW public sector – Senior Executive Service

As at June 2012, there were only 12 Senior Executive Service (SES) people, out of a total of 1,942, who identified themselves as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Aboriginal women’s and men’s representation in the SES is exactly equal (six women and six men). Looking at Aboriginal representation in the entire NSW public sector, at all levels, 62 percent of Aboriginal public sector staff are women. This is 24 percentage points greater than for Aboriginal men.

4. NSW Government boards and committees

As at 30 September 2012, Aboriginal women held slightly more positions on NSW Government boards and committees than Aboriginal men: 146 positions (51 percent) for Aboriginal women, compared with 139 positions (49 percent) for Aboriginal men. The total number of government board positions in NSW is 4,490. Unlike non-Aboriginal women, who hold fewer board positions than their male counterparts (see Indicator 2.1), the gender gap is in favour of Aboriginal women on this indicator.

5. Peak NSW Aboriginal representative organisations

The organisations included in the table below are all peak representative bodies for Aboriginal people in NSW in their respective areas of land rights, health, education, out-of-home care and law. Overall, women hold 51 percent of total board positions across these organisations.

6. Board directors of Indigenous corporations

There are about 405 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander corporations registered under the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006 that have a head office in NSW.3 As at 3 January 2013, the total number of directors of NSW-based corporations was 2,162. Of this number, 56 percent were women and 44 percent were men. This excludes directors whose sex cannot be identified, which is in 440 cases.4


Except in the public sector, data on Aboriginal leadership is usually not collected or not readily available, and much in this area is still unknown. To understand the leadership experiences of Aboriginal women in NSW more fully, we need more information about the positions that Aboriginal women hold. For example, do Aboriginal women on government boards mainly fill identified positions? Are women on the boards of Indigenous corporations clustered in a particular sector, such as childcare? Are Aboriginal women mainly filling paid or volunteer board positions? Are their positions mainly in community organisations or in larger, wealthier corporations? We also need a better understanding of the informal leadership that Aboriginal women and men undertake regularly within their communities. At this stage, the evidence is still incomplete.

On the face of it, however, especially in the areas of NSW Government board membership and SES positions (although these numbers are very small), the leadership gender gap between Aboriginal women and Aboriginal men is smaller than it is for the general population.

Aboriginal women have higher rates of educational attainment than Aboriginal men, and are well represented in a number of Indigenous peak organisations.

1World Health Organization, Investing in women and girls: progress in gender equality to reap health and social returns at; United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Gender Equality: Empowering Women at; OECD,Investing in Women and Girls: The breakthrough strategy for achieving the MDGs [Millenium Development Goals] at

2Hugging, J. (2012) Towards a National Approach to Promote the Leadership of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women, Draft working paper for the Office for Women, unpublished.

3Indigenous corporations deliver a range of services, in some cases essential services, to remote communities, and some hold land. See the website of the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations for further details:

4Data provided by the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (unpublished).

Table 5.5 Selected educational indicators by sex and Aboriginal status, NSW, 2011

  Aboriginal Women % Non‑Aboriginal Women % Aboriginal Men % Non‑Aboriginal Men %
Completed Year 12 27 60 23 57
Attending university 11 34 6 27
Attending technical or further education institution 11 9 11 13
Completed Bachelor degree 6 20 3 17

Note: ‘Completed Bachelor degree’ refers to people whose highest completed non-school qualification is a Bachelor degree.
Source: ABS, Census of Population and Housing 2011.
Population: For ‘Completed Year 12’ and ‘Completed Bachelor degree’ the population is people in NSW aged 20 to 64 years. For ‘Attending university’ and ‘Attending technical or further education institution’ the population is people in NSW aged 18 to 24 years.

Table 5.6: Imprisonment rate by sex and Aboriginal status, Australia, 2012

  Aboriginal women Aboriginal men Non‑Aboriginal women Non‑Aboriginal men
Imprisonment rate per 100,000 population





Source: ABS (2012) Prisoners in Australia. Cat no. 4517.0.
Population: All persons in the legal custody of adult corrective services in Australia as at midnight 30 June 2012. Imprisonment rates for these categories were not readily available for NSW.

Figure 5.14 Managers and professionals by sex and Aboriginal status, NSW, 2011

Fig 5.14

Source: ABS Census of Population and Housing 2011.
Population: People in NSW aged 20-64 years, not including those who were unemployed, not in the labour force, or whose labour force status was not stated.

Table 5.7 Board members of peak NSW Aboriginal organisations by sex, February 2013

Women board members % Total board positions
NSW Aboriginal Land Council



NSW Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council



NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group



NSW Aboriginal Child, Family and Community Care State Secretariat



NSW/ACT Aboriginal Legal Services






*Does not include honorary board members.
Source:;;;;, all accessed on 13 February 2013.