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Dr Emma Fulu on the pressure to ‘have it all’

January 1 | 5 minute read

Dr Emma Fulu Hero 16x9

Words by Christie Sinclair

Originally published on | June 2

Here at MECCA, advancing equality is a key focus of our social change initiative, MECCA M-Power.

In our MECCA M-Powered interview series, fearless people from around the globe share their incredible stories – from overcoming adversity to following their passions and inspiring a future generation of changemakers.

Have you ever felt the pressure to ‘have it all’? Why is it we feel this way? Rather, why is the expectation still so prevalent for women? This is just one of the many questions we asked Dr Emma Fulu, feminist activist, author of Domestic Violence in Asia, founder of The Equality Institute, long-time friend of MECCA and a member of MECCA M-Power’s Advisory Board.

On a Friday afternoon Zoom call, we unpacked the systemic biases that continues to contribute to gender inequality – both here in Australia and across the globe.

Fulu, who is one of the world’s leading experts on gender equality and violence against women, knows exactly what it takes to ‘have it all’ – a PhD in gender studies, a successful international career with the United Nations and a young family – but she’s also all too familiar with what happens when women take too much on. In Fulu’s case, this was severe burnout and rebuilding her life from the ground up.

Here, Fulu discusses how leaving her dream job paved the way for a balanced and fulfilling life, why gender inequality remains a societal issue and what needs to be done to help working mothers achieve professional and personal success.

I never thought it was going to become a global organisation – and here we are!
Dr Emma Fulu

Balancing a successful career and a (very) young family

While leading a global study for the United Nations (UN) in Bangkok, the mum-of-three was headhunted to lead one of the world’s largest global programs on the prevention of violence against women. It was her dream role – and as the breadwinner in the family, she took it. She moved from Thailand to South Africa with her (then) husband, toddler and 12-week-old twins.

“I had a couple of weeks to settle in and then started work when the twins were four months old,” she told MECCA, adding, “In hindsight, it was crazy!”

The job, too, was much larger than she had anticipated; Dr Fulu was travelling across Asia, Africa and the Middle East, all while balancing the needs of her family – including breastfeeding.

I dedicated my life to my PhD, I was at the peak of my international career, and I was basically saying, ‘I'm done’.
Dr Emma Fulu
Dr Emma Fulu 16x9 1

The moment everything changed

It wasn’t long before the pressure started to mount. After travelling back and forth between South Africa, Europe and the US, Dr Fulu returned to South Africa to pick up her three-year-old son – then flew to Sydney to present at a conference before continuing to Melbourne to visit family.

“I developed a really terrible sinus infection once I landed in Melbourne, so I went to the doctor and I just collapsed in the clinic,” she shares. “It was quite a strange experience, a mental health breakdown at that level, because I couldn't do basic things.”

Confronted with reality, Dr Fulu made the decision to bring her family back to Australia and resign from her role, just one year into her five-year contract. “It was one of the hardest decisions I've ever had to make because I felt like I was resigning from my whole career,” she shares. “I dedicated my life to my PhD, I was at the peak of my international career, and I was basically saying, ‘I'm done’.”

Dr Fulu describes being “so burnt out” she was unable to see a way of going back; but, at the time, it was her only choice. Without her job and working visa, the family had to leave South Africa and the new life they had built; packing up, selling their home, moving back in with her parents in Melbourne and even applying for Centrelink benefits.

On her new life

“We started from scratch,” she shares – but it was this break that initiated a slow reimagining of what her new life could look like.

Dr Fulu founded The Equality Institute – a global feminist agency working to advance gender equality and end violence against women and girls.

From its beginnings in her bedroom, it quickly grew into something Dr Fulu never imagined; an organisation that allowed her to continue the work she loved while also having a real commitment to her family, as well as an environment that supports and nurtures women.

“I never thought it was going to become a global organisation – and here we are!” she shares. “We have 17 staff in three cities, and we've worked in over 30 countries doing everything from conducting research on the ground in small communities all the way up to developing national strategy for the Peruvian government. It's amazing!”

I have always felt incredibly empathetic towards other people. And particularly women's experiences.
Dr Emma Fulu

Helping people is at Fulu’s heart

It’s uncommon for an individual to know what they want to do with their lives as adults – let alone from their earliest years. Yet Dr Fulu always felt “a calling to do something to support humanity”: “It's hard to explain, but I have always felt incredibly empathetic towards other people. And particularly women's experiences,” she says.

Despite growing up in a diverse family – her dad a Muslim from the Maldives, her mum raised as a Catholic in Australia and her sister a member of the LGBTQIA+ community with a disability – that simply wasn’t reflected in her world; a small, predominantly white Australian town, where she experienced racism and sexism.

“That juxtaposition of my internal life and what was going on out in the real world motivated me to pursue work around social justice, and particularly women’s experiences,” she reveals.

Fulu’s experience of inequality as a working mother

Although she spent much of her professional life working to improve gender equality, Dr Fulu recalls the inequality in her day-to-day life becoming “obvious” after having children. “I am privileged; I have a career, a higher education, a supportive partner – and even with all of that, I still struggled to find balance within the system didn't support me, even within the UN, of all places.”

Tellingly, there was no breastfeeding policy and no breastfeeding room at a global organisation that advocates for breastfeeding.

“I would go to meetings – international meetings – and people would always ask me who's looking after the children. And I’d tell them, their father,” she recalls. “No-one would ever ask any men in the same room who was looking after their children.”

On every level, women are still so far from having equal opportunities and equal support.
Dr Emma Fulu

 Back to the pressure on women to ‘have it all’

Any working mother would be able to relate to Dr Fulu and her experience. When women return to work after having children, they often take a less competitive or ambitious career path in order to achieve a degree of balance between work and family.

Is it even possible for mothers to truly fulfil their career satisfaction while simultaneously being genuinely present in your family's life? “It comes back to gender inequality,” says Dr Fulu.

“When you look back to the ’50s and ’60s, the first wave of the feminist movement, there was a real push for women to have the right to work and for women to be able to have career,” she says – but that was never balanced, from a societal perspective: “When we’re sharing the work in the public sphere, either we need to be sharing the workload at home or society needs to provide better support.”

Dr Fulu believes there’s an ongoing narrative that serves the system: “’You can have it all’ – go to work, have an amazing career, but you still have to look after your children and be perfect while you do it. And you have to do it with very little help.”

Recalling her own experience, she says, “On every level, women are still so far from having equal opportunities and equal support.”

We need structural, systemic change from government, from workplaces, from local councils.
Dr Emma Fulu

Improving gender inequality at a structural level

Why are women and the marginalised forced to bear the burden of a system that doesn’t serve them? Dr Fulu believes it’s structural. “Often we believe it’s the individual’s responsibility, but we need more – we need structural, systemic change from government, from workplaces, from local councils – for example, government-funded early childhood education. We need men to take parental leave and organisations to provide equal parental leave.

“We need to reduce the superannuation gap, which is caused by women not being paid superannuation when they take time off to look after children or work part-time,” she says. “One in three women experience sexual harassment in the workplace, so you can't tell me that women are going to progress and make it in work if they're literally being abused in their workplaces.”

On burnout and preventing it

“I think too often women are burnt out in part because they're doing everything. But also, they're doing all the stuff that's not for them. They’re basically living someone else's life,” she says. Dr Fulu believes women haven't been taught to value their own desires and goals – “Not what society says you should do, not what your partner thinks you should do, not only what’s going to help your family; ask yourself, what do you really want?”

She confesses that finding balance is a lesson that will take her forever to learn, but that her prior experience means she can catch herself when she’s feeling overworked. Self and collective care, too, is also central to culture of The Equality Institute – “Not that we’re perfect,” she remarks, adding, “but we are always thinking about issues of work-life balance, and workload and self and collective care.”

The organisation has increased annual leave, flexible work practices, family violence leave and introduced collective care retreats, as well as continuing to pay superannuation when people are on parental leave. “We're trying to embed that into our policies and ways of working, and that also means we try to keep each other accountable,” she says.

Fulu’s advice to others seeking to balance a career and motherhood

The power’s in your hands, according to Dr Fulu. “There is a reckoning around work and culture, a disruption to the way we've done things in the past,” she shares. “I do think people have power to negotiate different options; flexibility is really important in terms of working from home or working different hours.”

At the same time, Dr Fulu says we should simply give ourselves a break. “I speak to friends all the time – young mothers – and they feel like they’re failing. And I say: you're not supposed to be doing it like this! This is not how we were designed! You're not supposed to work and be a mum with no other support.”

I want to create beauty in the world in the sense that I want to create a better world for people.
Dr Emma Fulu

On the role beauty plays in her life and work

For someone who describes finding inspiration in the “women who have experienced incredible trauma, and yet still use that experience to create positive change,” it’s no surprise that Dr Fulu finds beauty in her connection to humanity. “I want to create beauty in the world in the sense that I want to create a better world for people, particularly for women and girls. And for me, that's kind of the essence of beauty.”

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