“Women, if they’re trying to do things that get them into places they can’t usually be a part of, are labelled as ‘aggressive’ or ‘strident’. They’re not said to be ‘strong’ in the way that people think men are when they behave in the same way.” WOW Festival Executive Producer, Cathy Hunt, on the process of transforming an idea into reality, and the importance of empowering women in all aspects of life

“For the first time in conjunction with the 2018 Commonwealth Games and its statewide cultural program, Festival 2018, WOW is bringing together women and girls from over 20 countries in the Commonwealth of Nations. This is your exclusive chance to join thought leaders, artists and women from around the world, including many First Nations women, at Brisbane Powerhouse over three incredible days as we celebrate our passion, cultures and diversity and talk about the real issues affecting women and girls at this landmark event.”

Emma Kate Lewis: Hey Cathy, can you tell our readers a bit about what you do?

Cathy Hunt: I’m a cultural strategist, and one of the things that I do is to work with the Southbank Centre in London to develop the Women of the World Festival in this part of the world [Australia]. That’s a part of my job, but a lot of my job is actually as a cultural consultant to governments and arts organisations.

Image by Jody Haines

EKL: What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced to get to this point in your career? Bit of a broad one for you!

[Laughter]

CH: Gosh, some of the challenges I’ve faced… I’ve been running a business for over thirty years with my partner, who’s also my former husband. I don’t know if people are still going through this so much now in the way that they did when we set up our small business at the time, but a challenge was being accepted for what we were doing. [For example] by the banks, when you’re trying to do things yourself like taking out a loan.

I think that certainly, as a woman, you probably find that a lot more—I was guilty at times of pushing my partner forward to take a lead on something because I knew that [his presence] would make things happen. I’d say that everybody played that game.

I remember meeting a woman in Chicago, who worked for a company whose name made it sound like [it was being run by] a bunch of blokes. But she was the head of the company, and an African American woman—she’d specifically made it sound that way to get her foot in the door, because only once you’ve done that can you then sell yourself in terms of what you do.

At the same time, I was lucky because I worked at the Arts and Cultural centre, so it’s always been an acceptable thing for women to work within that sector, at least up until a certain point.

EKL: So in order to gain support when starting your business, you’d say it was more beneficial to put your husband’s name forward?

CH: Oh, gosh, absolutely! But that was then. It was outrageous that you did it, but at the same time you were thinking, “Well, y’know, stuff you!”

[Laughter]

CH: “If that’s the way you behave, more fool you, because I’ll play your game!” More so, I was part of that generation that kept our own [surnames]. I kept my name, and never used a married name, which was still confusing to people. When I came to Australia it was even more confusing that it was in the UK—people just didn’t seem to do that as much. Whereas I was strong from the start, because that was my name—I’d had it from birth, and I wasn’t about to change it for anybody! [Laughing]

EKL: Did that come with a stigma in itself? Introducing yourself as a married woman who’d kept her own name?

CH: Oh, absolutely, but that’s back to that whole thing about being ‘bossy’, ‘strident’…

Women, if they’re trying to do things that get them into places they can’t usually be a part of, are labelled as ‘aggressive’ or ‘strident’. They’re not said to be ‘strong’ in the way that people think men are when they behave in the same way.

So you were seen as bossy, strident, and aggressive rather than strong, determined, and forceful about what you believed in. You’re always crossing [a line], and that’s the line that I’ve found really hard throughout my career: you didn’t want to be seen in that way, but you knew that at a certain time you would be, and that once you had been seen in that way it would be detrimental to where you were going. I look back and think, “Oh my god, it seems so ridiculous” but it’s true, and I know that there are still a lot of young women today who face that.

EKL: Absolutely. There are certain women I’ve noticed whose work has been overshadowed by this idea that they’re there only to be confrontational. It must be interesting to see how it’s changed over the years in how it presents itself but not disappeared.

CH: Yeah, it hasn’t disappeared, absolutely not. I was recently having a good chat with one of the speakers for WOW about the issues surrounding social media and cyber bullying, and how people do and don’t deal with that. Obviously, you put something out there now, are seen to have a particular opinion on something, and are jumped on. Particularly if you’re a woman, particularly if you’re a young woman of colour, the response is almost “How dare you [have an opinion]!”

EKL: I had a similar conversation about trolling and meninists—

CH: Meninists?!

[Laughter]

EKL: Wrong term! I mean MRAs, Men’s Rights Activists. There are Facebook pages and Twitter feeds all about the supposed male alternative to feminism—a fight for men’s rights.

CH: Oh, yep. Unbelievable. They should just go back to the dictionary and there they’ll find what feminism actually means.

EKL: Can you tell me about what an average day looks like for you as Executive Producer of WOW Festival?

CH: [Laughing] There is no such thing as an average day! The role of Executive Producer, in the context of this, has been essentially about having the idea to do it as part of the Commonwealth Games celebration and then selling that idea to everybody who needed to be on-board as key stakeholders. We were originally working with Southbank in London—they thought it was a great idea to do a WOW Festival as part of this—and then with some of the Commonwealth institutions, and then obviously the Queensland Government and other supporters. Part of my role is to pull everything together in relation to the shaping of it, the money, the people, the consultations… So it changes, depending on the phase you’re going through. Say we’ve been going for a year to make this happen; the first six months are very focused on getting key players behind it and the initial money to kick the whole thing off. Getting everybody behind it, doing the consultation on the ground here, which involved over a thousand women.

WOW Festival isn’t shaped by us, it’s shaped by the community in which it’s happening. This one’s slightly different, because we’re celebrating the lives of women from many different countries, but also on the ground here in Queensland. We’ve done a big regional programme; we wanted to make sure regional voices were heard because I think that’s really important.

So that first six months was about getting the money, the consultation, shaping what it is that people wanted to talk about, and then we had to put that in place in terms of who the people might be and what the conversations might be and what the workshops might be, and what the performances should be. The next three months was very much about putting the program together to reflect the consultation, finding the people able to talk about those topics and the individuals who people wanted to hear from. And continuing to raise the money! [Laughing] Raising money doesn’t stop; it happens all the time, because you’re doing it in many different ways.

Then the big push is obviously when you get the programme together and you push it out there and sell it! Which is the final phase we’re in at the moment, so my day is a twelve hour day, finishing off a lot of the administrative stuff that needs to happen around this and the protocol that needs to happen, particularly because we’ve got a lot of international individuals coming. So half of my day is on the computer with the phone to my ear, and the rest is out there like now, talking to different groups of people about WOW and getting people excited about being a part of it.

EKL: That sounds as though it’s been busy from the start.

CH: It has. It’s been busy the whole time. If you think about it, twelve months ago there was nothing. Until it was accepted twelve months ago, that the Premier announced in London that the Queensland Government would put up part of the money to make it happen. We did a lot of planning before that, but it wasn’t full-time and full on. For the last twelve months it has been, and I’ve had a number of people helping me—obviously it’s not just me—but my role has been pulling it all together.

EKL: What’s one thing that’s given you a really great sense of achievement throughout the process?

CH: The regional programme that we’ve done. We’ve worked with five communities, and built relationships with those communities—not to create something new, but to help them strengthen what it is they’re doing around the issue of gender equality in their regions. We’ve got groups of women from Lockhart River, Torres Strait, Katherine, Groote Eylandt, and Bundaberg, where we’ve got the Songbirds of Childers, which is the project that Creative Regions developed as a result of the relationship. Its purpose is to combat isolation amongst older women, and they’ve done this big music project with a professional musician, composer, and they’ve been working on it and fifty women are coming and will be singing at WOW. So that’s a great one! And I think also pulling together the international participants as well, with the help of WOW London. These amazing change makers from around the globe: women who are making changes in their communities who we never hear from. And the day I found out that a group of women from the Solomon Island Women in Business Association had just booked to come to WOW.

So it’s the stories like that. The ones that, when it’s over, you will hear all about from women who were inspired by something they’ve seen or heard to leave the festival going, “Yep, I can do that. I can make that change in my life, as an individual or within my community.” Because they’ve suddenly seen someone who has done it!

It’s little moments where you just to have one person saying, “God, I’m so excited, listen to what happened today!”

EKL: That leads into my next question, which is to ask what’s something you believe can be done to help empower all women and help them reach their goals, especially if they’re to obtain leadership positions, or those in the corporate world?

CH: Let me say that this is not about getting women into leadership roles within the corporate world.

Leadership happens on all fronts: in the family, in communities, and in the business sector, but this is not about creating the next generation of corporate leaders. What we’re talking about is the fact that you can be a leader regardless of what it is that you want to do, and being on the board of a company isn’t something that you have to aspire to.

Being an entrepreneur isn’t something that you have to aspire to. I think there’s a bit too much emphasis sometimes on the fact the only way you’re ever going to succeed, as a woman, is to be a corporate leader. We’ve got some, and we’ve got some brilliant entrepreneurs, but that’s not what we’re all about. We’re focusing on women who might have got into leadership positions at a corporate level or a political level or a community level, but they’re all women who have then used their leadership roles to take action and make it better for women and girls in the future. So that’s the stance that we’ve got, and I think that at the end of the day, while many things are about leadership, this takes many forms and we’ll be highlighting those.

EKL: Absolutely. Certain positions in the world are only now accessible to women because of those other women who used their leadership to make them accessible to others.

CH: That’s right, and it’s beyond the corporate world. It’s in every world.

EKL: Who are some of the women who inspire you most and why?

CH: [Laughing] Gosh… Well, have a look at the programme!

EKL: [Laughing] Don’t worry, I have, and it’s fantastic!

CH: I find that a really, really hard question at the moment, because I am surrounded by women who inspire me. I think women who make change, and that goes from, y’know, my grandmothers and my mother, who were incredibly strong women in their own right—not in terms of leadership positions, or even education, but still very strong women who completely believed in what women could do. I often say that most of us wouldn’t be standing here today if it weren’t for what our mothers and grandmothers have done.

Jude Kelly, who is Founder of WOW, is an incredibly inspirational woman. I was very lucky because I met her thirty years when she gave me my first job. So we connect back a long way, and I’ve watched her career. She inspires me because she has a belief in something; belief in changing the world and making it a better place for all, belief in the power of the Arts to do that in particular, which I also have, and the determination to never give up.

Another woman for me, and one who’s coming to the festival too, is June Oscar. She’s a remarkable woman. What she did in the Kimberley region was incredible, and now to be in that leadership role… And I would also say some of the other leading First Nation women who are coming to WOW, and all the First Nation women who are coming. To achieve that, and still within the colonial construct that they’re living in within Australia… Everything they do is fantastic.

EKL: What will you be doing after WOW Festival?

CH: Taking a long break!

[Laughter]

EKL: A well-deserved one, by the sound of it.

CH: I’m still involved in a lot of other projects. I’m working with the Australian Council for the Arts at the moment on the development of a micro loan scheme. That’s something I’ve done for many years, and now the Australian Council are looking at developing some of that work further, which is terrific. The financing of art and culture is very important to me, in terms of creating more opportunities within that sphere. That’s definitely something I’ll remain involved in, but I am, quite seriously, going to take a break and think about the next stage of working with Jude and WOW globally, and what the next stage for WOW is in Australia and the Pacific, and what might happen next. It looks as though every time there’s a Commonwealth Games, there’s going to be a WOW Festival. We won’t be involved in that, but we will be writing a fairly significant report on how we’ve found doing something like this in the context of a major sporting event like the Commonwealth Games.

EKL: That all sounds incredible. I hope you can unwind with a good book and take your mind of it too.

CH: Oh, absolutely. I’m going to be doing a lot of reading, and swimming, and walking; all the other things I like to do.

The global phenomenon WOW (Women of the World) Festival is in Brisbane 6 – 8 April. Follow WOW on Facebook for updates and grab your tickets to the festival here!


Images as individually credited, provided with permission from Agency North

Compiled and Edited by Emma Kate Lewis

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