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Leading the Social Movement to End Violence Against Women

2 July 2018 at 7:30 am
Luke Michael
Tracy McLeod Howe is the incoming CEO of White Ribbon Australia, a not for profit leading a social movement of men and boys working to end violence against women. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Luke Michael | 2 July 2018 at 7:30 am


Leading the Social Movement to End Violence Against Women
2 July 2018 at 7:30 am

Tracy McLeod Howe is the incoming CEO of White Ribbon Australia, a not for profit leading a social movement of men and boys working to end violence against women. She is this week’s Changemaker.

McLeod Howe has extensive expertise working in government and non-government settings, including previous roles as CEO of NSW Council of Social Services (NCOSS), CEO of Domestic Violence NSW and as a senior legal advisor to the federal government.

She was recently appointed as the new CEO of White Ribbon Australia, following the retirement of Libby Davies.

McLeod Howe – who will commence as CEO on 16 July – has also served on a number of advisory committees including the NSW government’s Social Impact Investment Expert Advisory Group and the NSW Domestic and Family Violence Council.

In this week’s Changemaker, McLeod Howe discusses why she has never been more excited about starting a new job, explains the role of White Ribbon when violence against women is placed in the national spotlight, and talks about why Real Housewives of New York is her not-so-guilty pleasure.   

Tracy McLeod Howe headshotWhat has been your history working in the sector and what drew you to work at White Ribbon?   

My background is actually originally in government. I was a senior legal adviser in government and I was always very interested in the not-for-profit space and doing some work that I felt had purpose. And so I went to the women’s sector and I ran a women’s domestic violence service and that was around 2008.

My passion has always been the concept of working around gender inequality and supporting those who are impacted because of the structure that gender inequality creates; family violence particularly. I was lucky enough to be able to take that leap of faith and work in the not-for-profit sector and the women’s sector in particular. And I ended up as CEO of a peak body, which is Domestic Violence NSW.

I did that for a couple of years and then went broader to the whole social services sector, where I progressed to be the CEO of NCOSS, the peak body for the social services sector in my state. That gave me a really broad remit, looking at all of the community and the disadvantage and poverty that impacts it.

So I feel that what I’m doing by coming to White Ribbon is firstly that I get to have a national agenda, and the second piece is that I feel like I’m coming home to the issue of domestic and family violence and what we can do to change that story regarding violence against women. I’m really interested in violence against women and how that also flows on to children.

What are some of your initial goals for White Ribbon when you assume the role of CEO?   

I’m very interested in looking at the landscape… and creating really fruitful relationships with organisations who I know are already doing really good work in the sector. I know that White Ribbon already has lots of partnerships and are very strong in the corporate and not-for-profit space. But my view is that there are more opportunities to be had… and the chance to formalise exciting new coalitions.

I think the second piece is to really move on the mobilising of young men and young people overall. Because it’s a men and boys’ movement and I think there’s an all new generation that I’m really excited to tap into. This is a grassroots movement at its core and I think it’s our point of difference. The White Ribbon movement is a total change movement, that is continually evolving, for every day of the year, and it’s for all men and boys to participate in.

I also would like to tap into the wisdom of the Aboriginal community, because I see the traditional owners of the land as those most impacted by domestic and family violence. I’m also honoured to build on Libby Davies’ work. She has built such a solid foundation and created really solid partnerships. I’m moving into a space that’s solid under my feet and so I’m very lucky to have that opportunity.  

You have had a number of CEO roles at different social sector organisations. Are the major challenges similar across these organisations or are they unique to each organisation?

A perennial challenge for social movements and member organisations is that people get very busy at the coalface or at the grassroots and they become tired, or there are funding issues that come to play. So I think it’s around refreshing, reassessing and always being mindful of putting the cause front and centre.

It can be easy to become sidetracked by other issues. I saw that certainly at Domestic Violence NSW, and at NCOSS we could go down a rabbit hole of bureaucracy because of a clause in a contract, and it can take you off the track of what your core purpose is, which is really about being a voice in support of and alongside your brothers and sisters who are experiencing poverty and inequality, or women who are experiencing domestic or family violence.

So you can get led off track with your core because of things that are less important. It’s just the tyranny of existing in an NGO space. The difference with White Ribbon I would say is that it is actually a social movement that is made up of many parts, from corporates, to academia, to the grassroots community.

And for me I suspect it’s important to stay on track because our remit is very clear. Whereas when you are the CEO of an industry body, there are so many other things that you’re having to juggle around government funding for services, and different capacity building issues and things that take you off the core business. So that’s the plus for White Ribbon, that I can very clearly stay focused on the core issues.

The issue of violence against women has again been in the media spotlight recently because of the murder of Eurydice Dixon. What role do organisations like White Ribbon have to play in times like this, when discourse around violence against women and toxic masculinity come to the fore?

It’s about really raising the voice of the core issue, which at its very core is gender inequality. Absolutely there are structures in place where women have to adopt certain behaviours. Eurydice was adopting that behaviour as she was checking in on her phone that night. We know that is how women have to operate and that says something about the structures in the community.

From my perspective, White Ribbon is in a privileged place where we have a platform, particularly with the men who can speak and who are ambassadors for White Ribbon, to say that we’re not going to stand for this anymore and that it is not on. [Men] have to take responsibility. And I don’t think that it’s helpful when people make the argument that not all men are like this.

That not the point that’s being made. It’s not about “not all men”, it’s about the structures and the prevalence of violence against women and the systems that make them feel frightened, which makes it a reality for women that this is how they are. And because men hold the power overall in the systems and the structures, we want them to say “we don’t want this to happen anymore and we’re going to take a place to break this cycle”.

Someone who is violent is not the only person who is part of the solution. We want people who are violent to stop being violent absolutely. But we want all men to say “we don’t think this is a fair situation for our sisters and our daughters and our mothers”. We all have to be part of the solution.

We have really relied on women to be the solution to the violence that happens from men. When what’s really necessary is for men to be part of the solution and for men to be the movement. It’s a men’s movement.

Does that frustrate you then? That there has seemingly been a lack of progress despite increased awareness and education?

It’s not so much a lack of progress. We’re continuing to have the conversations which is really important. Discussions around toxic masculinity are not something unusual now. So we know that the conversation is being had and certainly, because there is a level of impact and acknowledgement of the system in place that makes women feel unsafe, we know that we are always going to get push back.

And so it’s unsurprising that this is happening. But I am very hopeful that we can turn the corner on this. Because something is happening in communities, where we are taking charge of this. So what I see is a great deal of hope and potential, and I think all of that is ready to mobilise and come together as a coalition to make a change. I’ve never been more excited about going into a job than I am now, because I feel like we’re at the beginning of a new chapter.

What do you like to do in your spare time away from work?

Real Housewives of New York has always been my guilty pleasure, but I’m not that guilty about it. I can say after all these years of doing long hours of work and travelling hard, that I’m not guilty at all about the fact that I love Housewives of New York.

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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