Interview: Susan Harris-Rimmer on Women's Empowerment

Dr Harris-Rimmer, or Sue, as she often refers to herself, is Director of the Asia-Pacific School of Diplomacy and recipient of a prestigious ARC Future Fellowship for 2015-16. Her unassuming office in Hedley Bull belies her position as a critical public intellectual, who bridges the sometimes-oppressive divide between research and public policy. Her genuine warmth and popularity with colleagues is obvious as she greets colleagues before our coffee meeting at the Gods café.

Dr Harris-Rimmer grew up in country NSW in the small town of Coonabarabran, the closest town to the ANU’s Siding Spring Observatory, five hours north-west of Sydney. After completing an Arts/Law degree at the University of Queensland, she took a series of jobs in the NGO and legal sectors and at DFAT, before completing her doctorate at the ANU. Dr Harris-Rimmer has made issues of women’s empowerment her life’s work and is one of the ANU’s most prominent female voices.

Where does the feminist movement have to go? Do you consider yourself a feminist and is it an important title for young women to claim?

I consider myself a feminist but young women can call themselves what they like. We should celebrate outstanding women even when they don’t claim the title of feminist. But there is value in nailing your colours to the mast, particularly as a senior woman, to make sure more vulnerable women have somewhere to go for support.

In terms of the feminist movement, we need to stocktake many of our rights which have yet to be claimed. Particularly economic and structural rights such as a recognition of the value of unpaid labour, which isn’t recognised in a country’s statement of accounts and the international economic system.

Much of your work is centred around international, gendered issues of justice. For those women among us who are from developed countries, is our role speaking out about gender issues abroad problematic?

You just have to be critical of yourself, and if you’re not, don’t worry, people will do it for you! Be respectful and curious. My colleague Dr Hilary Charlesworth calls it a “world travelling” perspective, where your own perspective has no primacy. Offer your life experience and ask genuine, open-ended questions of the women you meet, “what do you think is important?”—that is so rarely done.

The integrity of your research needs to match that of your methodology as a human rights researcher. It’s a very extractive activity, research. Our current university ethics approach is not deep enough. Ethical research in development is about the power relationship. In my previous role at the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), we worked to develop new standards for ethical research which I’m really proud of and try to implement. I use reversals or inversions a lot—if I were being interviewed in my office in Hedley Bull by a bunch of researchers, what would make it acceptable? What would make it beneficial for both parties?

What kind of challenges do you think female academics face at the ANU and elsewhere?

The ANU’s metrics on gender equality are not where they want to be and the university accepts that. There is a lack of women in senior appointments—in fact we have the least female professors in the Group of Eight. It’s a problem across the whole university and all colleges. It’s partly about publishing. Women tend to do teaching more, [something] which is undervalued by promotions bodies [that] are all about publishing.

Talk us through your current project, which is about women in transitional justice in Burma and Afghanistan.

When a state is in a transitional moment, there are both opportunities and dangers for women’s rights. While rhetoric on human rights is that they are inalienable and indivisible, in reality in these circumstances they become tradeable; that is, women’s rights are seen as a secondary consideration and are compromised upon to achieve other, more “primary” rights. But is it legitimate to trade up your rights? I’m looking at a new type of diplomacy which privileges the rights of women in the transitional state, where women are put in the middle of a peace negotiation. Trying to create as much space for women’s voices at these pivotal moments is the goal.

You were named one of Westpac/Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence in 2014. How do you see your feminism in action? And who are your career mentors?

That award thing: Australian feminists don’t normally go in for awards. Women seem to have this “retiring buttercup” kind of quality, and often don’t step up and put their names out there. It’s a lot of effort when you don’t think you’re going to get selected. You just have to get used to presenting your credentials every chance you can and being confident. It’s excruciating, squeamish, it takes a lot of undoing of your own upbringing—the good girl stuff. You have to let it go: it doesn’t get you anywhere.

Because it’s so hard, it’ll be your girlfriends or more senior women who do it for you—a patronage system. I do my best to encourage and nominate women where I can. You should do that too for your friends. At the ANU the Gender Institute does a great job at this. The only way you get anywhere is through building your network and taking your whole network forward, like a driftnet. University friends are really important and will be for a long time.

Hilary (Charlesworth) in particular is a mentor of mine. Reading my first article of hers was like a religious experience. Keep your eye out for people you really just admire. They are usually pretty easy to approach, granted that the contacts are really genuine, that you have really engaged and done your homework. If you ask them a specific enquiry, they’ll be delighted to help. These days you can find your tribe on the internet, Facebook and Twitter. It doesn’t have to be senior people.

Is it easy to cross the boundary between policy and research? How can students both study and make a difference in the world?

It’s a lot harder than it should be in Australia. Universities don’t give credit for policy work, only for academic publications. But you just have to decide what you care about. It is such a privilege to think and write for a living, I think you have a duty to try to enter the public conversation if you can. Our students expect it of us, particularly those from developing countries. They expect expressions of solidarity to come with some action! I think they’re right. We are so lucky to have them.

Do you have any advice for current students?

University is such a precious time, you should make the most of it. You’re never going to get the ability to explore different fields, disciplines, self-identities, politics again. Don’t just spend your time on disastrous love affairs, learn what you can, it’s not just about getting a job. I know how hard it is to work and study as well though. I worked at the refectory peeling eggs. I smelt faintly of eggs for my entire undergraduate degree. I still have pretty good thumbs!