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Professor Larissa Behrendt

07 March 2011

Name: Professor Larissa Behrendt
Position: Director UTS Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, lawyer, indigenous advocate, author

Are there still barriers to women achieving in the workplace?

\"When people like Tony Abbott and Mark Latham - people at the highest levels - make comments about Julia Gillard having children or not, you have to ask how far are we behind in this day and age?

\"It's reflective [of existing barriers] that people hold those views... but that they think it's alright to say them in public... they don't understand how offensive and ignorant they are.\"

According to the online betting agency,, Professor Larissa Behrendt was odds on favourite for the top gong of Australian of the Year. In fact, the NSW contender was such a strong favourite as the January 26 announcement approached that the betting agency reportedly judged it 'prudent to close its market on the awards' early. Eventually pipped at the post by Victorian social entrepreneur Simon McKeon, Larissa, the Director of UTS's Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, is no stranger to public recognition - positive and negative.

A former NAIDOC person of the year (2009), she is passionate and articulate in her advocacy for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

At just 41 years of age, Larissa is a lawyer, professor, author, advocate and reformer, board member and ambassador. A Harvard graduate, her work on the impact of the Northern Territory intervention, the causes of crime in Indigenous communities and improving education outcomes aims to facilitate social change and better inform government policy and the law.

However, Larissa's experience of advocacy hasn't always left her feeling energized and positive about outcomes and she is quick to note that her experiences have their parallels in areas such as women's, migrant and asylum seekers rights.

\"In Australia today it is still a really unpopular thing to advocate for rights for the most disadvantaged. You don't get the response of a sense of things must cage. You get resentment or stonewalling and people just want you to shut up.

\"On an individual level people can be very open but on a systemic and governmental level, once you start critiquing government policy and challenging government - and this goes for both sides - you're often met by hostility.

\"I puzzle about it... people say they have good will about change, but you look at the evidence - and there's hard evidence that [the Northern Territory intervention] policy is not working - and they still won't change it. It does make you question motivation.\"

Larissa suspects the political cycle and \"wanting quick wins\" is part of the problem. She also believes there is a permeating racism within law making and policy making which still believes that Aboriginal people are incapable of looking after themselves.

\"It is so frustrating because all the research shows, if you want to make a difference and improve things on the ground the only way to do it is to include Aboriginal people in the process - in the policy making and program delivery.\"

Light-bulb moments

For Larissa, her social justice epiphany came at around the age of 11 when her father gave her a copy of George Orwell's \"1984\" and when he himself began his own journey of self-discovery through his family and eventually the wider Indigenous community. Larissa's father, the Indigenous activist Paul Behrendt, has played no small part in his daughter's life and figures large in her novels \"Home\" and \"Legacy\" - fictionalized accounts of historic incidents.

But it is her mother, she says, who instilled in her and her brother, Jason, a pride in their Aboriginality and fed their interest in social justice, dropping them to indigenous political meetings from a young age.


Larissa explains (over coffee in a city café close to where she lives when in Sydney) what drives her: \"There's a very strong thing about reciprocity in Aboriginal community. If you've been given the benefits I have, then your obligation is to give back and to be an advocate for people who need it.

\"It's always a cheap shot but people attack me for being middle class. They say I can't be middle class and advocate for rights for disadvantaged people. I find that extraordinary. Do they think my dad was advocating for social change so I can still be poor.\"

She also willingly admits she's never been good at balance. Her personality, sense of obligation, and time management skills (learnt from her mother) have let her fall into the trap of never being able to say no. It's been the hardest lesson to learn but for her personal relationships and her own health, she has learned to say no.

\"Some people crave public life. It can be addictive. I don't think that is the case in the area in which I work because the attention is just as easily balanced with personal attacks.

\"It is actually tough and the strongest thing I get from Michael [former attorney-general Michael Lavarch, Larissa's partner] is that he gives me a place to go where that doesn't matter.

\"People need to understand that without a place to retreat to how do you get through it.\"

Among the hectic academic work, her public advocacy and committee work, writing novels, and this year moving into non-fiction resource writing with titles such as \"Indigenous Australia for Dummies\", Larissa also finds time - lots of time - for her arts and education board and ambassadorship work.

\"I'm interested in the arts and we [Michael and Larissa] do try and balance things. I am ambassador for a school here in Sydney - an indigenous campus called Bulwarra, based out of St Andrew's college.

\"Then there's the rebuilding of the MCA and the exciting growth for Bangarra Dance Theatre. It is just so uplifting and rejuvenating. It's not just about closing the gaps and having equal opportunity and equal outcomes in terms of health and education. It's about keeping Aboriginal culture relevant and strong, attempting to find the synergies so that we can have meaningful conversations cross culturally.

\"I give a lot to these positions but however much I give they give so much more back.\"

Not long into this conversation, we begin to discuss the difficulties of financing and fundraising for the arts segueing into her dream to be able to write full time across the whole gamut of her interests, especially writing non-fiction resource material: \"These are a bit of a departure for me. My last non-fiction was about The Doctrine of Discovery,\" she says with a wry smile.

Her best financial decisions have been investing in education and more recently buying her own home and an investment property.

\"Buying my apartment has set me up and given me financial security - well, some. I'd love to write more and my research projects will take several years and require authorship and that means having financial stability. I remember how vulnerable my mother was after her divorce from my father and the vulnerability of older women in the community and I am taking steps to make sure this does not happen to me.\"

As for investing in her education, the story begins around a kitchen table with her father and Dr Roberta Sykes, the Aboriginal civil and political rights and education advocate.

\"I don't know whether you know the story... but my father and Roberta Sykes were in a relationship and she had been to Harvard. She was quite a formidable woman.

\"I had come out of law school and was working in Parramatta. I had this year of doing the most procedural, mundane legal work and I found it incredibly unsatisfying. I wanted to change the world. I'd loved university so I thought going back to do some more study was a plan.

\"Roberta said, you should apply to go to Harvard. I thought, 'come on. I'll never get in'. She got the forms, sat me down at the kitchen table and made me fill them in. I just remember thinking, this is going to be so humiliating but at least it will get her off my back. The next thing I was on a plane to Boston.

\"It was that typical way that I have of not having the confidence in myself and then people I've met have taken an interest in me and have mentored me and pushed me. I've always been very lucky about having that around me.

\"Originally, I was only going for nine months [in the end Larissa was away five years]. It took me that whole first nine months to realise how rich the opportunity was and to stop sulking about not being at home and missing everyone.\"

(Larissa Behrendt's novels have won numerous awards. \"Legacy\" and \"Home\" are published by UQP.)




  • Debbie Holland

    Debbie Holland 10 years ago

    I have to day that I agree with Eliza. Unless you have had children, you have no idea of the demands it places on your time and energy. It is easy to devote yourself 100% to your career, when there are no other demands on you, but once you have to juggle all the other family and financial commitments it is a whole different ball game.

  • Louise Upton

    Louise Upton 10 years ago

    The more life experiences we can draw from the better. I am imagining our Prime Minister was once a child in a family and has a very strong family life from which she draws her values.

  • Eliza Foster

    Eliza Foster 10 years ago

    I'm old-fashioned I guess. I believe that women with children have a better understanding of what \"family\" life is like with dependent children, than women who have never had to juggle their careers around the demands of motherhood (and the demands are huge!) I think it is fair enough that political leaders should question someone who is always talking about \"family values\" when they are not able to draw from their own life experience like the majority of women.