When Melissa Petrakis’ mother was about to migrate from England, her father paid for her to get a hairdressing qualification, so that when she moved to Australia she would have a trade. When the 19-year-old arrived in the country, her qualification was not accepted. “She was not allowed to cut anybody’s hair here,” her daughter says laughing, and stating that this is a story like thousands happening over and over. “You hear it again and again,” she says and tells the story of one of her colleagues, a psychologist from South Africa, whose husband, a psychiatrist, had to retrain to be able to work here. “Psychiatry is quite a skilled profession,” she says, stressing the absurdity of these rules.
“We just have these experiences many times, when migrants come and they are not integrated in a welcoming way. If none of these voices are on committees and boards, there’s a gap in terms of decision-making.”
Which brings us to the main topic of our discussion. Because Dr Melissa Petrakis, a senior lecturer at Monash University, Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, is one of the dozens of significant, exemplary women on the Here She Is directory of the Victorian Women’s Trust, an independent advocacy organisation for women and equality. The directory was relaunched this week at an event aptly named Here she Is and Dr Petrakis was more than happy to be part of the group, putting her two decades of experience in mental health services both as a clinician and as a practice-based researcher, to good use.
“I’m pleased that there’s a number of women involved and I’m part of a fabric of diversity, in terms of age, gender, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds,” she says.
“I’m pleased that mental health work is represented and I hope to contribute. I’m open to be contacted and maybe I would find other women and they will find me. It’s a great opportunity for people who might otherwise be hidden or invisible to be engaged and collaborate. I think it’s a nice initiative,” she says.
She reflects on how she first came across the organisation when looking for funding for her work, as an academic at Monash University, where she teaches social workers, to upskill clinicians to be aware and intervene in cases of family violence, particularly when the safety of women and children is concerned.
The momentum of the directory’s relaunch is not accidental, in a day and age when women reclaim the spotlight, redefining feminism in modern terms.
“There is still a misconception that feminism is about being against men or angry at men,” says Dr Petrakis, reciting here experience teaching young women who are now entering the workforce.
“I don’t think these are accurate views of modern feminism. The Victorian Women’s Trust is coming from a feminist perspective, but not screaming feminism. There is still a need to promote women and highlight them and their successes and their work,” she adds, describing the absence of women in many platforms of public life – “on boards, in higher levels of decision-making, in the public sector, in the private sector, within the government.
“Women struggle to have a seat at the table, and even if you do get a seat at the table you’ll be one voice talking about maternity leave, or picking up children from school, which is still predominantly forced to women.”
One could be mistaken to think that these issues would have long been resolved. “The problem is that these issues vanished from discussion, there needs to be an ongoing discussion about how we structure sharing workload and how we think about workplaces and how we respect diversity – all sorts of diversity, not just gender,” she says.
“I think it’s just about not doing it in a ‘tick-box’ way, not this old-style representativeness, one woman, one older person, one ethnic, but being more aware of what we should be looking for.”
Her description of high-level decision-making is very insightful, talking about “little clubs”, where “middle aged white men from similar background, usually of private education, often with money that already came through the family and paid help and a wife who doesn’t work,” pick their friends for top positions.
“You don’t get very creative decision-making if everyone just agrees with each other because they come from similar backgrounds and have such similar lives now.”
She knows, because she’s seen this kind of phenomenon taking place at the highest levels of academia. And she knows, because she comes from a completely different background. Which brings us back to the 19-year-old woman who migrated to Australia where she ended up doing basic clerical work and got married to a man who had migrated from Greece at a young age.
“After the war, while there was still turmoil in Greece, my papou and yiayia came here for opportunities for a better life,” she says.
“They were both working split shifts so one was always at home with the children but were working round the clock. I know all the stories and the background of people struggling with language, working in factories, raising three children and aspiring for something more – to send at least one or two of the boys to university, so that they might have more opportunities.
“That’s my background,” she says. “I was this short plump, very happy Greek child, eating different food than my friends had at school – I had my dolmades, my keftedes, tiropitakia, these yummy little things that were part of my culture,” she remembers.
“And while I looked very Greek, I used to speak with quite an English accent, because that’s what I would hear at the house. My father was a high school teacher by day and at night he would do training to become an accountant. And he was often called to help other families coming from Greece. Being educated, he was called upon to help them understand the paperwork and how to navigate the system.”
She muses that she has had second-hand familiarity with the migration experience, and watched it play out many times, referring to the dignity she observed in how people managed to not complain but just to try and work out how to navigate things.
This kind of upbringing certainly played a part in her choice of profession, admits Dr Petrakis.
“It probably, indirectly, sparked my interest in trying to understand people, because I always felt I was between two cultures a little bit, growing up.
“This sense of being an outsider but wanting to fit in, an outsider but curious, but also sort of an insider with diversity, has made me go into a career where I try to make sense of things and help people navigate things.”
So she ended up studying psychology and social work, with a break during which she worked as a salesperson, and as a carer for aged people.
“The council would pay me to do people’s shopping, to help people with showering, and cleaning their houses. They were often isolated people, so that was also company for them. That was very humbling work and useful work for me to think about this next stage of my study.”
After her studies and before returning to pursue a PhD, she worked for a decade as a mental health social worker in hospitals and in the community, working in fields such as suicide prevention and helping families who first experience psychotic illness, which, she says, is not unlike the challenge of migration. “When you first experience a psychotic illness, the service system is like a foreign country,” she explains. “The diagnosis and the way people talk about you is like a foreign language. And helping the people themselves, their family feel more confidence and gain knowledge about what’s going on, it’s a very honourable thing.”
What is it that she has learnt about the human condition through all this work?
“I have learnt that people are very resilient and even in tragic circumstances, they cope, they still have a sense of humour they still do day-to-day things. That’s reassuring to me.”
The Victorian Women’s Trust directory Here She Is features hundreds of successful women with a range of backgrounds, disciplines, and professional expertise. Find a speaker or mentor and browse the directory at vwt.org.au/directory/