More than a hundred people, women of all generations, men, and even students from Oakleigh Grammar gathered to engage with one of Australia’s most esteemed economists, Dr. Angelia Grant, at the 10th annual International Women’s Day event that was organised by the Hellenic Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (HACCI) last Wednesday.

“It’s not every day that you get to meet a woman like Dr Angelia Grant, who talks to and engages with power on such a level,” HACCI Board Chair, Fotini Kypraios said following the insightful discussion centred around the IWD 2024 theme ‘Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress’ between Australia’s G20 Sherpa, Dr. Angelia Grant and Executive General Manager of Good Shepherd Institute, Robyn Saranah, who acted as moderator.

Though she is one of the nation’s leading macroeconomists who now leads the G20 and Trade Policy Division in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr Grant was incredibly down to earth, and genuine, captivating her audience, as she shared her experiences, the learnings she took from the years she spent as an economics adviser in the Office of two former Prime Ministers, Chief of Staff to a former Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, and on the Board of the International Monetary Fund.

Australia’s G20 Sherpa, Dr. Angelia Grant (centre) with her mentors Penny Sahinis and Barb Wilson. Photo: Neos Kosmos

The message of hope, of persisting and not giving up, was at the heart of this discussion that revolved around her career path, the challenges she faced in a male-dominated field, her take on gender equality and ways to accelerate progress, and empowering women.

“You will all have experienced the blockage in the system that doesn’t let you do what it is you want to do. The feeling that maybe there’s quicksand under your feet, and you can’t quite figure out why you can’t get the traction that you’re looking to get”, Dr Grant said, explaining that her biggest challenge was making peace in the system she works in.

“I have spent to this date my whole career, and I expect I will spend quite a bit more of it, making peace with where I fit in the system, and finding a way to believe in myself.”

Sharing a quote by Barb Wilson, one of her mentors attending the event, she said that ‘it’s one thing to believe in who you are. And it’s a whole other thing to know it’.

“Now I know it. And therefore I would say to every single person in this room, men and women -because this is not something that only women feel, it is a system that blocks out ‘different’- I would say, find peace in the system. It’s hard. But once you do that, then you can change the system.”

Dr Grant highlighted often during the conversation qualities such as courage, kindness, and compassion, and how the impact we have on the people we work with, can have a profound effect not only our own circumstances but on the lives of others as well, creating a more equal world.

Giving her thoughts on what gender equality means for her, she said that “everyone has the right to be themselves at work. That’s what I think equality is. We don’t even really need the word gender in front of it. Just equality. We deserve to show up. We just have to be ourselves when we do. And we deserve to pick the jobs that we want to be doing. It’s about making places where we work, where we live, okay for all of us.”

In preparation for this event, Dr Grant told the audience how she was gifted a book by another one of her mentors, Penny Sahinis, about the life of an incredible Australian woman, Joice Nankivell Loch, and how inspired she was by what she had accomplished. After World War I and the burning of Smyrna that saw thousands of refugees flee Turkey to Greece, Joice provided medical aid and an education programme for girls. Settling in a Byzantine tower near the village of Ouranoupolis, this amazing woman devoted herself to improving the lives of the villagers by establishing a successful rug-making industry, where thousands of women found employment throughout the years.

HACCI Board Chair Fotini Kypraios with Jenny Mikakos and Katy Karabatsos. Photo: Peter Kakalias/Supplied

“On reading the book I wondered ‘how did she do it’?” Dr Grant said describing how she came to the conclusion that there were three steps we needed to take in order to accelerate progress and invest in women.

“The first thing we have to do is to invest in ourselves. This means investing in the principles that you want to take to work with you. It’s investing in how to be courageous, in how to be kind, and compassionate, even when that’s really hard. And how to be caring, and curious.

“And then we should invest in each other. Everyone. Not just women in women. We should care about each other, we should think about how we’re lifting other people up, the conversations that we’re having with each other, even the hard ones.”

The third step is to invest in the system. Outcomes are important she emphasised, adding that the more she sits in her career the more she has come to realise that outcomes matter but it’s the people that make the difference. “I can’t get stuff done without my people…. Over time, you start to think about your impact on the system, because of the people that you are impacting, the people who work with you. And we have to be very conscious in how we do that. We are role models, every single one of us, men, women. So change the system, by being incredibly conscious of the people who are with you in it.”

“A man who works for me, recently said that I have taught him that kindness is a leadership technique. That leadership can be gentle, but still strong.”

The IWD 2024 theme, ‘Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress’ is so important because “we matter”, Dr Grant continued.

“Imagine if we could be all that we want to be. Imagine if we had a system that didn’t put barriers in our way. But instead said, let’s let them do what they came here to do. Imagine if we had a system that said to everyone, ‘We want all ideas, all sorts of choices and a discussion about it, then I think we will reach true potential. I think it could be incredible.”

It would be the kind of system that would empower women, because there would be more ease, more flow in the system, and we would spend less energy navigating things and more energy in solving problems, she added.

Addressing the women in the audience, and each generation separately, the inspiring G20 Sherpa saluted her mentors, and the generation of women who have gone before her. “I say to them a huge thank you. Because you have made a huge difference in my life. I love the generosity and the fearlessness and the simple ‘let’s just get it done’. These are women who have supported us, who have shared their time and their experience with us, and who have had hard journeys, and I’m incredibly grateful to them.”

HACCI Chair Fotini Kypraios with students from Oakleigh Grammar who were escorted by their teacher Leanne Gaimo (L) and career advisor Michelle Mascaro (R). Photo: Peter Kakalias

She highlighted the importance of remembering that we are doing our best, as she addressed her own generation of women. “I understand sometimes the sadness, because maybe we don’t get to live fully the lives we thought we could, or the anger that it’s really tiring to fight a system all the time. And I would say that in all of that it is important to remember that we’re doing okay.”

Finally, to the younger generation now starting their journey she stressed that “it is the prerogative of youth to be optimistic and confident and to think that you can change the world. You follow a whole lot of generations of women who’ve been trying to change the world. So keep changing the world,” she said adding that there will be hard times, but “when you need us, come and find us. We’ll help you through.”

“I think about what women have achieved in what is a fairly short amount of time for society. And I think we’re incredible, I think we are unstoppable. And I think the what the world needs right now is to accelerate progress, so that we can tackle the big issues that this world needs us to tackle. And I know the statistics are slow, but now is our moment. Change is here.”

The conversation continued during the rest of the night, with those present -among them prominent members of the Greek Australian community- mingling over drinks and food, and taking the opportunity to further discuss these issues with Dr Grant.

To our question if she ever felt like giving up, due the challenges and isolation she faced at the beginning of her career in a male-dominated profession, Dr Grant told Neos Kosmos, that what she did give up on, early on, was the idea that she would ever be promoted to senior positions.

“I decided to simply do jobs that I liked – I chose jobs in economics and just put my energy into learning things and to not do anything I didn’t like. I figured that I should let it liberate me – if I can’t work towards getting promoted, I can work towards being a good economist and a good person.”

She added that this also had a positive impact on her because she let go of the need to prove herself. “It was common for us to be told we had to prove ourselves. And then there was a massive cultural shift in the workplace to be more diverse and inclusive and a job opening came up in a senior position and I was asked to apply because they needed a good economist who could work with a large team of people and to help build capability.

“And it turned out that I was promoted to a senior position. This is a big lesson that I took out of Joice’s story as well. Do your best and learn what you can and then see what opportunities arise. We are not in control of the opportunities, but we are in control of what we learn along the way.”

She also described to us how incredibly important mentoring is to her. “I get a lot out of being mentored – having people who understand you, teach you and support you gives you practical help and builds your confidence. It also often leads to friendship. And women connect you to other women. I would also say that I am a mentee as well as a mentor, and it is good to be both.”