Women of Coogee, breaking the bias

by | Women in Business

You don’t need to look far beyond the golden sands of Coogee Beach to find accomplished women doing incredible things. For International Women’s Day (IWD) 2022, Business Coogee is proud to profile eight of the best: women from diverse backgrounds who have broken the bias to be leaders in their respective fields, and in their own right. We could easily have profiled 50, even 100, incredible women from our shores, but we had to stop somewhere.

Why do we need an official day to focus on the achievements and challenges unique to women? In the words of the former Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Roderick AO

‘We have to consciously include women and girls because the system subconsciously excludes.’

The system leans towards men having an easier path not just to the top, but through life. So we are obliged to consciously include women at all levels of society…especially at the top. 

Everyone benefits when women are included.

The theme for IWD22 is ‘Breaking the Bias.’ Each woman profiled here has faced – and continues to face – gender bias on a daily basis. They’ve published their own books, established their own companies, pursued careers in male dominated professions, and in many cases, simply stopped asking the power structures for permission.

There is still much work to do to reach gender equality in Australia but dang, these stories show that we have come a long way.

Anna Shepherd

Anna Shepherd

Ambassador for corporate kindness and champion for equality

Anna Shepherd grew up in a caravan park on the northeast coast of England with four sisters, a number of whom have physical and learning disabilities. So she spent most of her childhood fighting prejudice in the cold.

As a neurodiverse gay person, fitting into the systems and structures of life was a challenge. However, Anna was fortunate to both find and understand her why from a young age, developing early on a passion for equality, and a vision for change. She put herself through college, university, and a Master’s degree, then worked on community development projects in Europe, Africa, and Asia, before eventually settling in Sydney’s east in 2014.

Anna’s why? Kindness. After arriving in Australia, she founded Bambuddha Group, an award-winning social enterprise designed to make kindness a corporate expectation. The company provides professional coaching, education, and corporate programs for leaders committed to creating social impact in business.

She is also Founder of The Corporate Kindness Project, an Australian-based research study focusing on the business benefits of working kind. The first white paper was released in 2019 and is now a podcast called Project Good Boss. Anna is a sought after speaker and thought leader on all things equality, Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG), and… kindness, of course!

When considering ‘breaking the bias’ as the theme for International Women’s Day 2022, Anna asks “how can we achieve liberation when gender inequity is so prevalent?”, adding that

“kindness, open-mindedness, and getting comfortable with uncomfortable conversations are key to creating a new future, one in which, together, everyone belongs and can thrive.”

Connect with Anna on Linkedin

Catherine Ajaka Hui

Catherine Ajaka Hui

Performer, vocalist, mum

If you’re into live music, chances are you’ve heard Catherine Ajaka Hui sing. Cath’s cover band, Soulganic, has been filling dancefloors from the Clovelly Hotel to the Opera Bar for the last two decades. As a backup singer and dancer, she’s worked with the best in the business including Marcia Hines, Tina Arena, and Kylie Minogue.

Together with her three talented sisters, they formed the support act for Destiny’s Child in the 90s. She then went on to sing duo gigs with her future husband, New Zealander Brendon Hui.

Soulganic was formed with Brendan and Cath as lead singers and Brendan on guitar. They recruited a lineup of musicians which has remained stable for so long that Cath thinks of them as brothers. The band played an astounding 10 year residency at the Clovelly Hotel “when the venue was still small and intimate,” says Cath, and played all over the East including acoustic sessions at Little Jack Horner and the Coogee Bay Hotel.

Cath’s heritage is Lebanese on her father’s side and Fijian Indian on her mother’s. She says her work ethic comes from her parents who, in their 70s, still run a family restaurant in Maroubra. Yet it’s the role of motherhood which she believes changed her life the most.

When Cath and Brendan welcomed their first child, Cath was behind the mic again within a fortnight. “I had a baby on the boob and I was in tears!” she says. “We definitely had some adjusting to do – and we have kept on adjusting.”

Now they have two little girls and the next major adjustment came in the form of a global pandemic.

With all venues closed and dancing against the law, Cath’s positive mindset and business brain conspired to create Souglanic Lockdown Sessions every Sunday from Brendan and Cath’s garage. Initially the gigs were just for their neighbours, though before long the duo were live streaming to the world with a Paypal link for tips.

“At such a low time, the music drew people together. We could perform our best songs and tell our story in front of our own house. We had our kids with us and it was fun to do something we love for the community,” explains Cath. ‘“We could see people in our online audience chatting and making connections. One of Brendan’s performances of Imagine made people cry!”

Those sessions led to booking leads and the band played corporate live streams every Friday and Saturday night for the rest of the 2021 lockdown. Now that venues are open again, Cath and the band are back creating the energy in the room like never before.

How does this creative working mother make her life work? And who is her inspiration?

‘​​Being a mum is my most cherished role. I adore my girls,’ says Cath. ‘I feel so lucky to share my journey with my talented husband, driving and inspiring each other, sharing our love of performance and music. I constantly visualise where I’m going and what I want for my family and future. I make short term goals and move towards them. Most importantly I focus on all I have to be grateful for.’

‘The strength of my precious Mum and her example is my ultimate superpower. She has faced endless adversity in her life. Despite all she’s endured she effortlessly radiates class, wisdom, strength, love and kindness,’ says Cath.

‘I believe that breaking the bias starts with respecting your neighbour and appreciating the value in our differences. There is so much learning and growth that can come from an open mind and heart.’

Connect with Cath and the band on Facebook

Jo Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, ocean swimmer

Joanne is a long-time Coogee local who hails from South Africa. In her twenties, Joanne studied Law, including a Masters at Yale, before creating an advocacy centre in Johannesburg to address violence against women. She also helped draft new domestic violence legislation in South Africa.

“One of my grandest achievements was in 2004 when Hustler magazine named me ‘Asshole of the Month,’ for the racket I was making against violent pornography,” Joanne says. “I knew then that I’d shaken the misogyny tree.”

She’s been a lover of words since she was a child, but it wasn’t until 2005 that Joanne published her first novel; a book which took a decade to write.

After immigrating to Australia, settling in Coogee, and having a couple of kids, Joanne focused on writing full-time. She is now the author of fourteen books, including Secret Mothers’ Business, When Hungry, Eat, and Your Story: How to Write It so Others Will Want to Read It. Joanne runs a series of popular online writing courses in addition to writers’ retreats to Bali, Fiji, and Tuscany.

Her most recent novel, Unbecoming (2020), is described as “a funny, heartbreaking and provocative homage to the midlife unravelling as women on the brink of elderhood speak honestly about their lives and wonder what the hell to do with vaginas that are not ready to be put out to pasture just yet.”

In 2021, Joanne co-authored a book with her father, political cartoonist Dov Fedler. Gagman (2021) tells the tale of a man who survives the Nazi concentration camps by telling jokes to the commandant. Funds are being raised to make the book into a film for Holocaust education.

Her latest contribution is to a book of poetry called the Alphabet of Women (2022), edited by Bondi local Miriam Hechtman. The collection was inspired by a single poem Miriam wrote, an ode to the letter P. Joanne’s poem is an ode to the letter J called Jewgirl Juju.

When she is not writing and publishing, Joanne is in the sea. A back injury in 2018 led her to ocean swimming. “Now the ocean is my biggest love, addiction, and passion. I just finished my Austswim teacher’s training. My plan is to teach women to love their bodies and the ocean by putting their bodies in the ocean,” she explains.

When asked about the theme of IWD2022, breaking the bias, Joanne prefers to focus on words which build something good rather than break something bad.

“I use positive ‘action’ words rather than give focus to negative words. I prefer ‘building’ or ‘creatively engineering’ equality than ‘breaking’ inequality. Bias, like privilege, is an abstract idea and doesn’t make people feel anything.”

“After decades in advocacy,” she adds, “I’m drawn to calls to action that stir my life force. I’m not moved by calls to destroy anything, particularly something as invisible to the status quo as ‘bias’.”

Building equality, it is.

Connect with Joanne on LinkedIn

Jo Obrien

Joanna O’Brien

Educator, business woman and Jiu Jitsu blue belt

On Father’s Day in 2016, Jo had to turn off her dad’s life support. A few months later, her business, Platinum Preschool Randwick, copped a set back. Then her husband asked for a divorce. “challenges seem to happen in threes,” says Jo. “I needed to reboot my life and create an empathetic community around me and my kids for our future.”

Jo joined community groups Coogee Lions, Business Coogee (formerly Coogee Chamber of Commerce) and a local Jiu Jitsu Club – three groups where she found community spirit.

“I didn’t have any hobbies at the time, just my four kids,” said Jo. The practice of Jiu Jitsu appealed to Jo because it’s a method of self defence which teaches composure, resilience and courage with no room for ego. “And the community that comes with it is incredibly inclusive.” Jo’s son Henry has special needs. He’s 90% non-verbal with a global delay and Jo describes him as the happiest kid on earth.

“I’ve discovered that the more local I am, the better it is for me and my kids. The more people who know Henry, the more people include him in everyday life. I always go to the same butcher and he says, ‘G’day Henry!’ and my boy puffs out his little chest, like he’s Thor.”

Jo’s challenges raising Henry inspired her to start a support group for women in the same position.

As she describes it,

“we are women from all walks of life who have been handed a rotten deal of cards. Some have children with serious disabilities, others care for a sibling or parent. These challenges do not discriminate.

When we get together each month, you would never pick how such a mixed bag of women would know each other. We laugh, we cry and we share the load.”

When asked to comment on ‘breaking the bias’, the theme for International Women’s Day 2022, Jo quickly moves away from gender. “In my world as an early childhood educator, the bias I have suffered has been ego-driven rather than gender driven. I have pushed back against bias by sticking to my values, never backing down and ignoring the critics.”

Jo’s next project is Athena Fightwear – custom made Jiu Jitsu Gi’s and rash guards for women. “Women wear the standard Gi but it’s designed to fit men. We love our fighting, our workouts and rolling with the boys but it needs to fit… and some of us still like a bit of bling.”

Connect with Jo on LinkedIn.

Lucy Andre

Lucy Andre

Principal, Randwick Girls’ High School

When she was in high school, Lucy Andre had a knack for maths and science. She’d planned to pursue a career in computer science before her old school principal asked her to come back and help out at the school. And so Lucy became a science teacher, not a computer scientist.

Education suited her. She progressed to the Head of Science before becoming a Deputy Principal. Now, she’s the principal of Randwick Girls’ High, the only all-girls state high school for miles around. In fact, you have to go all the way to Burwood for the next non-selective all-girls government school.

“I am a huge advocate for single sex education for girls,” says Lucy. “It’s critical that we offer an environment where girls can have a voice without encountering the gender imbalance they will face in the real world. In a society which is (still) not in complete tune with women’s voices, we give them practice in the school environment first.”

Born in Malaysia to Mongolian parents, Lucy has extended family in Australia. During the 2021 lockdown, she cooked more than 100 meals for others. Online learning was quite a challenge for her teachers, but she believes the school community handled it very well. Despite that, “it’s so good to be back to face-to-face learning,” she says.

The Australian theme for International Women’s Day 2022 is Changing Climates. “I like the double meaning of this theme,” Lucy explains. “Changing climates has prompted us to make changes for a sustainable future. But we also need to change the social climate so that women are represented throughout society.”

“At Randwick Girls’, we’ll mark International Women’s Day with a special assembly on or just after the official day, and we will keep working towards an environment where girls across Australia have a voice.”

Photo credit: Daily Telegraph

Marjorie O'Neill

Dr Marjorie O’Neill MP

State Member for Coogee, rugby player

She’s not your average politician. For a start, Marjorie O’Neill is the first woman to hold the marginal seat of Coogee. That’s breaking the bias right there. She’s also single, childless, and lives with her mum. Some would say this means Marjorie has less life experience to draw on as a politician, but they’d be wrong. Marjorie has more time than any other politician you will ever meet to focus on the constituents of the Coogee electorate. She’s a career politician to watch.

If you take a look through Marjorie’s official website you can see details about the community campaigns she’s working on including Save our Buses, Save Coogee Village, and Save Our Parks.

Save our Buses should matter to anyone living in Coogee, whether you catch the bus or not. The NSW Government has made major cuts to bus services in the East over the last two years. “These cuts are designed to force people to use the light rail and to streamline bus services before being sold off and privatised,” says Marjorie. Now a 30 minute express bus to the CBD from Coogee Beach is a one hour and twenty minute trek by bus or foot and then the light rail.

Marjorie has won some key victories with this campaign, including forcing the NSW Government to halt the privatisation of the buses indefinitely. She’s also secured an Upper House Public Enquiry into the cuts, and the impact of privatisation of public transport.

Save Coogee Village is in opposition to the proposed development at the Coogee Bay Hotel. The DA which is currently being considered by the Eastern Planning Panel would change Coogee foreshore forever. “The bulk of this mega development would destroy the amphitheatre that the geography of Coogee naturally provides. It would privatise the air space and sunlight above Coogee beach and surrounds, shadowing those to the west at dawn, to the south during the day and those enjoying the beach surrounds later in the day.”

Before she worked her way into local and then state politics, Marjorie earned a PhD in business economics and played representative rugby for Sydney University. She spent 10 years lecturing and playing rugby at Essex and California Polytechnic State universities. She’s also a volunteer lifesaver and rides a motorcycle.

Women in politics and sport are constantly breaking the bias, and Majorie O’Neill is no exception.

Image by Daily Telegraph.
Connect with Marjorie on LinkedIn

Nicola Logan

Nicola Logan

Vice President Coogee Surf Life Saving Club, Toastmaster, Year 6 teacher

Nicola Logan, a keen runner and swimmer, left London in 2004, inspired by the clean ocean and white beaches she had seen on Home and Away. After settling in Coogee, she joined the 2500-member Surf Life Saving Club to connect with the local community. Nicola was the very first woman at Coogee Surf Lifesaving Club to be awarded the Gold Medallion, the minimum requirement for work as a professional lifeguard. Nicola can swim 800 metres in under 14 minutes and can handle board rescues at sea, among many other things.

Eighteen years later, she is still competing and is now Vice President of the Club, Chair of the Member Services Committee, and sits on the Major Events Committee (“I’ve learned to be on a thousand committees!”). The club runs iconic ocean events in Coogee including the Coogee Island Swim in April and November and Run Swim Coogee in May.

Nicola’s involvement with surf lifesaving enjoyed an injection of professional support when she was accepted into the second cohort of Surf Life Saving’s Women in Leadership Mentoring Program. She was paired up with life saving professional Cheryl McCarthy, Director of Lifesaving for Far South Coast Surf Lifesaving NSW. With Cheryl in her corner, Nicola says she went from strength to strength.

“I’ve learned how to step up in a traditionally male-dominated organisation and say, ‘I can do that’,” she says. “I joined Toastmasters so I could learn to give memorable speeches. Next thing I know, I’m MC for the club’s awards night, which had never been hosted by a woman before.”

Nicola’s day job is as a well-being coordinator and junior school teacher at St Catherine’s School for Girls in Waverley. She also tutors kids with long term illnesses through Ronald McDonald House.

When asked about ‘breaking the bias’ in surf lifesaving, Nicola says it’s all about confidence. “If you have confidence in yourself and your abilities, you can step up and into the roles that men have held for so long. I’m proof of that.”

Connect with Nicola on Linkedin.

Rona Wade

Rona Wade AM

Information Technology pioneer, community and bushcare campaigner

Rona Wade has lived in Coogee for forty years. She settled here from Perth to head up a consortium to share information technology. They say it takes 20 years to become a true Coogee local, so at around the 20 year mark, Rona and her partner Mark began attending Coogee Bay Precinct meetings.

The Precinct is a committee of passionate locals who take an active role in protecting environmental and community features of the Coogee Bay area. It has had many important successes over the years which have been integral to Coogee retaining its unique village nature. Recently the Precinct worked with Council to create bird habitat areas in the reserve in Neptune Street.

In 2008, Rona and Del Buchanan, a third generation local, initiated opposition to the building of a large amenities block at Dunningham Reserve. From a simple petition table on the Coastal Walk, their efforts lead to widespread community opposition, and Council eventually voted not to proceed.

The following year, Rona and Del joined forces again to petition against the proposal for a high rise development on the site of the Coogee Bay Hotel. Rona progressively presented sheets from the fast growing petition to both houses of Parliament, thanks to then local MPs Paul Pearce (Labor – Lower House) and Don Harwin (Liberal – Upper House). Parliamentarians were reminded of the issue every sitting week for 13 months. At the time, it was the largest petition ever presented to the parliament (in the days before online petitions).

The original application was eventually withdrawn, but the Precinct’s opposition to a brand new high rise proposal for the Coogee Bay Hotel site is being revived. “If the new development application goes ahead, it will set a dangerous high-rise precedent for the eastern suburbs,” Rona explains, stressing that “it will have a huge [negative] impact on traffic.”

Sign the petition here.

Over the past 20 years Rona has also taken up the issue of alcohol-related violence in the Coogee Bay area and supported many community campaigns. Enthusiastic gardeners, she and Mark are committed environmentalists and both active in local bush care and bush garden initiatives. In 2011, Rona was named Coogee Woman of the Year and in 2015, she was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for her contribution to information technology.

She’s clearly a local woman to know.

When asked about ‘breaking the bias’ in her IT career, Rona had some sage advice. “In the early days of being a CEO in the IT and higher education space, I was often the only woman in a group of men. My strategy was to stay focused on what I wanted from the situation.

“My area was library and information systems and over the 40 years of my involvement, more and more women were appointed to leadership positions. My advice for women today remains the same as it was then: stay focused and if you or anyone else is demeaned or dismissed, call it out in whatever way suits the situation.”