Some of you who know me might know that I used to work for the Australian Tax Office (ATO). I never disclosed it when I worked there, because extremely strict social media rules within the code of conduct. But I am able to tell you now, because I resigned in November 2017.
I was invited back to the ATO last Friday 27 April to give a talk on confidence, resilience, speaking back to power and creating positive change. It was strange to return – some people didn’t even know I left as I left after a years leave without pay, and before that, a secondment.
The audience I had was excellent, though I was sad that more than 15 or so people didn’t attend. There we’re some friendly familiar faces in the crowd, but for this to truly make a ripple and get people thinking about inclusive workplaces, more people – especially senior staff – needed to have been there, you know?
Thanks for having me back. I really hope this resonates with many emerging and senior leaders and everyone in between – some audience members took lots of notes and the questions I received after my speech certainly indicated that it did.
Here is the transcript of my talk.
I pay my respects to the people of the Kulin Nation, and recognise Aboriginal Elders past, present and future. I also acknowledge the disability activists who have and are still paving the way for equity today.
I’m Carly Findlay, and I used to work at the ATO. Now I’m a writer, speaker, trainer, podcaster, occasional model, and access and inclusion coordinator at Melbourne Fringe. I’m also writing a book called Say Hello, which will be published by Harper Collins early next year.
This has been such a varied work week. I’ve worked on the edits of my book, written an article for a feminist website, flown to Newcastle and delivered disability training there and in Sydney, worked on this speech, worked at my day job, and delivered this speech. It’s far from the structure of 8:30-4:51 at the ATO.
I worked at the ATO for 15 years. For just over one year of that, I was at the Australian Charity and Not for Profits Commission (ACNC), I spent another year as EA to the Aged Care Complaints Commissioner and my final year on unpaid leave. I do miss it – especially running events for Site Leadership, the friends I made, the regular and satisfying paycheck, and the generous superannuation.
I was afforded so many great opportunities here – highlights include being a site coordinator for around six years – the best job with the best managers I’ve ever had – they were supportive, nurturing and great fun; getting a good insight into government social media and communications at the ACNC; communicating the move from five CBD buildings to one building in Collins St in 2012, and winning an Australia day medal.
But I also experienced some difficulties including bullying, discrimination and the low expectations that come with being a disabled person.
I identify as a disabled woman with a facial difference. I’ve been forced into being confident and resilient – to advocate for myself and others, to ensure I lead a full and active life, and also to prove people wrong – inside and out of work.
From being stopped by strangers to enquire about my face and be offered some multi level marketing face cream (that’s happened at the ATO too!), to the unconscious – or conscious – bias in recruitment processes (like the time I was told I didn’t get a job because the clients would be too interested in my skin condition rather than the government product I would be promoting), to being refused service by taxi drivers and cleaners; and being expected to work for free – these things all knock my confidence, but I have to get back up again to prove to people that I am in fact capable, worthy and not what they expect me to be. When it comes to the selection criteria about negotiating difficult situations, I have a lot of examples to list!
People make assumptions about me before I even speak, and these assumptions are often limiting. I feel I have to work harder than many others I know, in defiance. Quite often I went to work when I was very unwell, because I felt I had to show gratitude for the opportunity and for the right to work. That’s resilience.
I lost some confidence while working at the ATO because no matter how qualified I was or how much experience I was getting both within the organisation and working outside, I just wasn’t being promoted. I guess I was seen a risk – assumed I would have a lot of time off work, or didn’t fit the area’s image, or the assumption that my media profile was compromising the ATO’s reputation. So I chose to progress my career outside, writing for the media and speaking at events. This prepared me when I made the leap to quit.
Towards the end of my time at the ATO, I experienced a funny parallel between work in APS and my media and speaking profile. I was often unable to speak in meetings as I was merely an APS 4, sometimes 5, yet my writing was regularly on the front page of The Age website. I once took an extended lunch break to attend a conference where I spoke ahead of Julia Gillard. I returned to my desk, where I filled envelopes and reconciled cab charges. Such a stark difference.
And so I made the decision to gradually go it alone – to do my own thing. I took a year leave without pay to work part time and freelance on the side, and later last year, I resigned. I chose to forgo a stable job and regular pay so I could speak up more about things I couldn’t in the ATO – like echoing Senator Jordon Steele-John’s call to increase the number of disabled employees in the APS, or the concerning decision for the NDIS outsourcing operations to Serco and ditching the increased Medicare levy, or the Victorian Government’s decision to source work from Australian disability enterprises – most pay employees less than $3 an hour – all announced in the past week, and all things I’ve spoken up about on social media. And I took the leap so I could progress my career and not be defined or limited by my APS level.
A lot has happened since I left the ATO. I got married, got verified on social media and got reading glasses! Some highlights have been getting a book deal with Harper Collins, appearing on ABC’s You Can’t Ask That, the rich and varied work I’m doing including being a regular on the ABC, writing for more mainstream media, lecturing medical students, speaking at councils, conferences and NSW Parliament House, and being recognised as a leader in my field.
I now have a part time job as access and inclusion coordinator at Melbourne Fringe – where my lived experience of disability is valued, and I’m able to provide advice on access and inclusion to artists, venues and audiences. My goal in my three year tenure is to increase disabled and deaf artists and audiences to reflect the population – 20 percent – and to make Melbourne Fringe an leader in the arts sector.
And even though I’m often working way more than 36.45 hours a week, my confidence levels – and health – has never been better. Sometimes I can work from bed – like when I wrote this speech – and that helps my pain levels a lot.
Of course, I still experience moments where I lack confidence – and the best thing that has helped me has been to surround myself with people who get it – other activists, writers, and people outside of my industry. Reflecting on those who I have helped through my work, like the woman who read my blog and discovered she was not alone after living with this skin condition for over 60 years, rather than dwelling on the hideous trolling I so often receive online helps too.
Confidence can be lacking because of bullying or discrimination, as I’ve mentioned, because of physical appearance and the way society perceives those who supposedly don’t fit the beauty ideal, and because people feel they’re not listened to.Sometimes I’m forced into situations when I have to speak back to power. It can be pretty scary, to be honest. I’ve lodged a complaint to the human rights commission after being discriminated against by a taxi driver, I’ve addressed bullying with colleagues, and I’ve been assertive to big business after they’ve asked me to write or speak for no pay. It’s not easy, and I suspect I’ve been labelled loud and troublesome more than once.
Most recently, I spoke back to power when Jon Faine suggested my face would be good at Halloween, among other things – live on radio. Faine is a powerful middle class middle age non disabled white man who has his own radio show every day. I’m a regular guest on the ABC. There was a power imbalance.
I was asked to speak about micro aggressions – the exclusionary and discriminatory ways I’m often treated. His interview demonstrated the micro aggressions clearly. I remained cool and calm – answering his questions clearly and politely.
After the interview, I bumped into two of my music idols in the ABC foyer – Tim Rogers and Julia Zemiro – and debriefed with them, and went back to work at Melbourne Fringe. When I told my colleagues what happened, they all gasped and fell silent. No! He didn’t. At the end of my workday, I checked my Twitter and a friend had live tweeted the interview, summarising what had been said, and her feelings about the ableism and intrusion within. Her tweets went viral, with many people in the media and the general public weighing in. I didn’t create a social media storm – others did. I blogged briefly, sharing the audio and wrote how this interview is demonstrative of the microaggressions and intrusions I face. I was a trending topic on Twitter and Facebook. And the next day, it was all over the media.
On advice from my agent, I chose to do two interviews – The Age and The Project, and the story was covered by about six other outlets. Jon Faine apologised on air, apparently his first in 21 years. And I was really careful in how I responded to the social media outrage – I didn’t share any news story apart from The Project, I expressed my love for The ABC, and didn’t berate Faine, instead offering gentle education like sharing the video I did, ironically for the ABC, offering tips on how journalists can cover disability in the media. So many people reached out to see if I was ok, and to offer praise on how I handled it – from Yassmin Abdel Magied – who has experienced her fair share of media storms, to Andrew Denton – one of my favourite interviewers.
I was most worried that this situation would hamper my future with the ABC, but I’ve been invited back to speak already! It’s rare that non disabled people call out ableism and discrimination – often it’s left up to disabled people to fight. But the public had my back. And it was good to see that perhaps the work that myself and so many other disabled people are doing to highlight disability rights issues is becoming a part of the public conscious.
I think I succeeded in this situation because I was polite and gentle during and after the interview, showing gratitude to the ABC, but I was also assertive and educative.
It’s really important for senior leaders to create a safe space for employees to disclose and speak up. Many people I know don’t feel safe speaking up about their disability or being Aboriginal or LGBTI in the workplace – for fear of stigma or losing their jobs.
I was forced to be confident early on in my career at the ATO when my health suffered due to being in a job that wasn’t the right fit for me. I’ve got no choice about disclosing, my skin condition is obvious, but the physical symptoms aren’t well known. I chose to tell my managers and colleagues about my skin condition – that it wasn’t just cosmetic – in the hope they’d understand I wasn’t just going to hospital to let the work pile up for them, I was actually quite unwell.
When I got the confidence to speak up then, I realised that if I told my managers about my skin, and what I needed in terms of flexible work hours, and understanding, my access needs were met and I was happier and healthier and more productive at work. Most years, my sick leave was below the public service average. Since that nervous discussion with my managers and colleagues in 2005, I’ve been able to talk to all of my new managers about my skin and access needs, and regularly disclose when applying for jobs and also in the media.
So how can you create a safe space for diverse people to disclose and speak up?
- Walk the talk that your diversity policies state.
- Be inclusive by inviting people from diverse backgrounds to lead initiatives about people from diverse backgrounds.
- Don’t just recruit diverse employees, but nurture us, promote us and retain us.
- No more straight, rich, old, non disabled men as diversity champions – give those roles to diverse people. Nothing about us without us. [This bit got a cheer!]
Finally, I’ve been asked to provide some confidence boosting tips
- Don’t let your APS level define you. You all have value.
- Have a passion project that’s different to your job – within the ATO or outside. Use that do develop your skills – especially if you feel you can’t within. Writing and speaking outside of my ATO job was how I developed the skills and networks to make the leap to a career outside of the public service.
- Educate confidently yet gently. Prepare well. Make notes, source quotes from other experts. Offer your guidance. Teach someone how to do better by setting a good example.
- Use your difference to your advantage and create change. Join a committee in the diversity networks, speak at events, offer your expertise.
- Don’t be afraid to talk to colleagues more senior than you. If they’re in the field that you want to be in, send them an invite to have a coffee. I’ve connected with APS commissioners on twitter in the past year, and have worked with two of them.
- Have the courage to start difficult conversations to create change. People are uncomfortable with conversations around diversity – especially when they’re led by diverse groups. But they should be, and we should be heard.
- Dress fabulously. It might seem superficial, but a well fitted, bright dress gives me confidence no matter how sore I feel.
- Become an expert on something. Research, write about it, collaborate with others, share work by others in the same field, become a trusted source. I’ve done this on social media.
- Amplify other voices that are often not heard, as well as your own. Put someone else’s name forward for an opportunity. I regularly use my social media platforms and media opportunities to ensure a wide range of disabled people are heard.
- Take opportunities. Get out of your comfort zone, that you might not be ready for. Do something that scares you. In 2016, just as I commenced leave without pay from the ATO, I made a list of all the things I could do to supplement my part time income – which was 40 percent less than my wage at the ATO. My partner suggested I pitch to big business. I don’t believe in woo, but the day after I added his idea to my list, I got a call from a manager within a large not for profit in NSW. They found me on social media, and were interested in my work. They asked me to do a tender to deliver training to 400 employees. And I didn’t know how to do a tender, nor did I know what to charge. But I did it, asked some advice from mentors, and I won the tender for a two year contract! I now travel to Sydney once or twice a month to talk to employees at a refugee settlement service about raising the expectations s of disabled people.
- Read the room – gauge when it’s ok to speak up. Perhaps it’s better to send an email or talk to someone quietly after the meeting. Choose when to call someone out publicly – will it benefit more than just that one person?
- Find mentors – especially ones who align with your values.
- Know that it’s ok not to do something you don’t enjoy. This doesn’t mean you need to be entitled and avoid the mundane tasks. But if something is not fulfilling you, create a path to what you do want to do.
- Be the change you want to see. I was tired of the way my skin condition was portrayed in the media. So I changed it by participating in the media.
- To the senior leaders in the room – if an employee has the confidence to speak up about something concerning like being bullied or facing discrimination, have the confidence to listen and act. For many of us who have endured constant bullying and discrimination, we come to recognise behaviours, and are the experts in how we are treated. Don’t take the side of the bully.
That concludes my talk today. I am Carly Findlay, you can find me online, or on my book tour next year. Thank you.
Has this speech transcript helped you or made you think? Will you use it in your workplace? Please consider buying me a drink to show gratutude. Thanks!
Sign up to my mailing list to be updated about my book.