A passion for people and a “fulfilling life”
29 July 2022 at 5:03 pm
Dr Sharman Stone, the new head of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, has long been interested in the dynamics of families and how to address the harms that befall them. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Dr Sharman Stone’s career is peppered with illustrious titles and positions; after graduating with an honours degree in anthropology, a masters degree in sociology, other qualifications in education and a doctorate in economics and business, she was a pioneer as the first female manager or director in the Rural Water Corporation, Department of Agriculture, Office of Corrections and a senior executive in the Victorian Public Service.
She became the federal government’s representative on the Australian Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, was an academic at the Institute for Early Childhood Development and manager for international development at the University of Melbourne. Then she moved into politics, winning the ‘unwinnable’ federal seat of Murray.
After retiring from politics in 2016, she became Australia’s third ambassador for women and girls. Then, in 2020, she was appointed professor of practice in gender, politics and international relations at Monash University. Earlier this year, she became the new director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies. And there’s a common thread that ties all of these roles together: a passion for people and families, and creating better conditions for them within society.
In this week’s Changemaker, Stone talks about how her early life set the scene for her studies in anthropology, her new role and the privilege of serving her community.
Tell us a bit about what drives you, and your career trajectory so far?
I have always worked in public service, whether in the State or Commonwealth sector or through local or global NGO Boards whose mission was to tackle inequality, injustice and human rights abuses. From early childhood I recognised that your postcode, gender, race, age or income could define and limit life chances.
My driving passions were probably triggered very early through living the gendered realities of Australian family farms. Only my brother was eligible to inherit the property. My mother, a skilled wool grower and active farm worker was never the farmer, but the farmer’s wife. Her parents’ expectations of her were limited because she was a girl. She was deeply sad and resented her lack of education access. Her six brothers including her twin were provided boarding school options, given the remoteness of their property; she and her three sisters were not. My mother insisted her three daughters were booked into boarding school within days of our birth. She championed our education and independence.
Also having a profound influence on my early life was encountering every day the visible evidence of the original owners — huge kitchen middens, scarr trees, scattered artefacts. I was deeply curious about who they had been and where they had gone (was my family culpable?). This drove me to study anthropology, specialising in Australian Indigenous cultures, to develop race relations curriculum, to work with Indigenous prisoners and to pursue Human Rights in the UN and Geneva.
And of course my marriage at 19, those early child rearing years, combining marriage with work, study and writing (how did we do it?), were inspired by the emerging women’s liberation movement and feminism. I always felt embraced by and part of a whole way of thinking about how to live.
What are you most looking forward to in this role and what are some of the big pieces or projects coming up?
The Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) is a statutory agency mandated to research and provide the evidence found to the government about what is needed to ensure the wellbeing of all families. The legislation establishing AIFS was triggered by the 1970s increasing divorce rate, and mothers choosing to work full time. Over the last 40 years our family’s forms have become more diverse and multicultural, but the basic caring and support functions have endured, as well as the primary unpaid caring roles of women.
Our longitudinal studies are quite unique, focussing on family life, men’s health, the experience of humanitarian settlers, but we also do research for the attorney-general’s department, for Veterans’ Affairs, Defence, the Health and Education portfolios as well as of course, for the Department of Social Services. In the 1980s the Australian Centre for Gambling Research (ACGR) was legislated and added to AIFS, and that work is already identifying the alarming trends of new levels of harm emerging from on-line gaming and the saturation of advertising. Australia has the highest per capita gambling spend in the world.
I am looking forward to presenting our new insights into how, for example we can improve the mental health of our youth, reduce the sometimes re-victimising impact of family law processes, reduce gambling harms, drug and alcohol impacts and improving the lives of defence veterans. The AIFS reach is so wide, but the insights are very deep. I take it as a major future challenge to ensure the evidence and insights do help to shape government policy and improve the outcomes for the service deliverers.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I am still very new so I’m spending a lot of time meeting with staff learning about their areas of work and linkages. I am also outward facing building new networks of stakeholders, including with those of lived experience and the policymakers. No day is the same. Coming out of COVID there are some getting back into the office challenges, so a lot of time is online talking to some AIFS researchers based in places like Spain, Tasmania and Adelaide. It is challenging every day, and hugely rewarding to feel that we really can make a difference.
What is your proudest achievement so far?
Seeing my 11 grandchildren growing up sharing many similar passions and interests has been a joy. I guess overcoming huge barriers to be elected to parliament for a twenty year term has been both the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, also exhilarating, and one of my proudest achievements. It is such a glorious thing to fight for a better deal for the rural communities where you were born and bred. Every day was an honour and a privilege to serve, outweighing the frustrations and disillusionment that also sometimes prevailed. It was also such a proud moment when I stood in the UN and delivered Australia’s statement on the status of women. I am a patriot through and through, and so proud of our country, but I recognise how hard we need to work to ensure ”no one is left behind”.
What do you think are some of the challenges being faced by the sector going forward?
In the research sector in Australia we currently have a chronic shortage of skills in data linkage and analysis and also in qualitative analysis. Universities are once again recruiting so it’s a big challenge working to attract and retain highly qualified, experienced as well as early career staff. We also work as one of seven agencies allowed access to huge administration and other databases, often loaded with highly confidential information, so protecting that data and the individual’s rights to privacy is a focus and a challenge.
What do you do when you’re not at work?
I usually have some draft reports in a heap to read, but that still leaves time for my big garden, my dog Harry, catching up with friends and family, including visiting my 98-year-old father in care. Life is great, full and fulfilling.
What do you want to achieve by the time you retire?
Wouldn’t it be magnificent if AIFS evidence and insights helped eradicate intimate partner violence and the abuse or neglect of children. Imagine if the evidence of our longitudinal and other studies also influenced new policies which halted the escalation of harmful gambling, youth suicide, mental health problems, family breakdown, and our newest arrivals struggling to find their way. I have five years to go, surely all of this achievable?