Leaders

How Emma Fulu Let Go Of Superwoman And Found Herself

How resigning from her international dream job led Dr. Emma Fulu to her biggest and bravest career move yet.

By Angela Ledgerwood

Leaders

How resigning from her international dream job led Dr. Emma Fulu to her biggest and bravest career move yet.

By Angela Ledgerwood

Emma Fulu’s friends have always had a nickname for her: Superwoman. At 35 years old, she was living up to every ounce of it, with her PhD in Gender Studies, a published book, and a decade of experience implementing programs for the prevention of violence against women and girls at institutions like the United Nations. (You may have heard of it.) In 2014, she was living in South Africa where she’d moved to lead one of the largest global programs to prevent violence against women and girls in low- and middle-income countries. In tow, she had her four-month-old twins, who she was still breastfeeding, her two-and-a-half-year-old toddler and her husband who, at this time, had taken on the role of primary carer.

She had the career. She had the family. All in a swift 3.5 decades. She seemingly had it all.

“But I was not superwoman,” says Fulu. “Far from it. I was broken. I broke down.” The travel, the intensity of the job, spreading herself so thin had taken its toll. “I’d segregated myself. There was me the professional woman, me the mother, me the wife and they all felt like they were different people. And being different people was tearing me apart,” she says. “Quitting my job felt like I was giving up my whole career but at the time I didn’t know what else to do.”

Fulu resigned, without a contingency plan, and the family moved to Melbourne to live with her mother. Over the next few months she began a process of working out what had gone wrong. How had she become so fraught and how would she heal herself? She tried everything and anything to help her rediscover her sense of self and purpose. Meditation, therapy, crying, venting to friends, journalling. You name it, she tried it. And through the cloudiness – whether she realised it at the time or not – came some clarity. Whatever came next for Fulu would have to include the type of work environment that supported and encouraged working mothers and nurtured all women. A working environment that might have helped prevent her breakdown in South Africa. “I learned that we have a deep inner wisdom within ourselves, but we can drown that out with lots of external noise,” says Fulu, of that uncertain time. “If you can sit still long enough to listen to your deepest desires, so to speak, something can emerge.”

 

“There was me the professional woman, me the mother, me the wife and they all felt like they were different people. And being different people was tearing me apart.”

 

What emerged for Fulu was the idea of merging international research and creative agency solutions to issues of gender equality and preventing violence against women. And so, the The Equality Institute (EQI) was born, based in Melbourne and now with an office in New York. Fulu and her team develop research, guide policies and programmes, and design creative campaigns to incite social change across the world. “I didn’t intend to create a global organization. It was just me, in my bedroom, thinking about what I could do to help women and girls who are marginalized and who have been discriminated against in this country and elsewhere.”

Three years later the Equality Institute has worked across 13 countries, with the governments of Australia, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea, Georgia, Khazakhstan and more, to understand and improve the systems that serve women. They’ve worked with Oxfam, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Amnesty International, conducting a total of 50 studies around the world. In doing so, they have trained hundreds of researchers, practitioners and policymakers to better understand what causes violence against women.

Fulu identifies as an Australian-Maldivian. As a woman of colour she draws upon her intersectional feminist lens. She didn’t always feel accepted growing up in Australia and her awareness of the politics of race, gender and diversity grew out of her lived experience. “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t feel a strong urge to do something meaningful for humanity,” laughed Fulu. “My parents said I used to walk down the street and collect coins for charity. Then as I got older, the urge only grew. It solidified as I became a woman and I experienced all you do as a woman.”

Image credit: Beth Jennings

Eradicating Violence Against Women And Toxic Masculinity

In Australia, there’s been a shift in attitude and awareness around violence against women—it’s widely acknowledged as an epidemic—but this awareness has not reduced the deaths of women. In October 2018, six women were killed in one week. The explosive reaction to The Teacher’s Pet podcast investigating the disappearance of Lynette Dawson, has only touched the surface in terms of shedding light on misogyny and patriarchal privilege in Australian society. According to 2017 ABS statistics, on average, one woman a week is killed by a partner or former partner and approximately one quarter of women in Australia have experienced at least one incident of violence by an intimate partner. The problem is so pervasive the Australian Government has to report evidence of progress to the UN as part of its Sustainable Development Goals. “We have to drop the notion that as a high-income Western Country, we perhaps know more,” says Fulu. “There’s so much to learn from other countries about how to combat violence against women and we need to share our research.”

Perhaps obviously, the best way to protect women and girls from violence is to stop it before it starts, by addressing the root causes that drive violence against women which are; gender inequality; harmful models of masculinity; women’s subordination and the sexualization of women in society. Social norms and attitudes influence all of these outcomes and according to Fulu’s research, are set very early, before 10-years-old. Men’s perpetration of violence and sexual violence also starts early, often in the teenage years. Additionally, reinforcing positive gender norms has to start in early childhood development and across all areas of a child’s life. “If a child is learning great stuff at school about healthy relationships and equality and they go home and their parents or their sports club are reinforcing different behaviors, it’s not going to stick,” says Fulu. “You need to reinforce the core messages around equality and respect in all sectors, from peer groups, school, at home, and in the community. That’s what the research tells us. That’s where we see traction and social change. With boys, we can’t say, ‘Being violent is bad’. Instead we have to replace it with a positive norm—that being a good man is being respectful and kind to women versus being dominant, tough and unemotional. It’s not about ending one negative idea, but about creating a new positive model to replace the old one.”

 

“Toxic masculinity today is what smoking cigarettes was to the ‘70s and ‘80s—something that can be drastically reduced now that we know how deadly it is.” 

 

Fulu is hopeful. Research shows the existence of strong feminist movements championing women’s rights have far more influence on gender equality outcomes than legislation and policy. Consequently, the explosion of the fourth wave feminist movement through #MeToo is hugely significant. That said, she sees two concurrent movements emerging. The feminist movement and another that manifests in misogynist backlash online and in the political sphere. “When men feel like they’re losing power or that their masculinity is challenged, they lash out, or there’s an increase in violence as a way to reassert their power and dominance,” she says. “Unless we disrupt the idea that a man has to be dominant and powerful and is entitled to a women’s body then it is going to be hard for men to be vulnerable and explore the alternative possibilities of what their lives could look like.”

Emma Fulu and family. Image credit: Instagram @emmafulu

“Toxic masculinity today is what smoking cigarettes was to the ‘70s and ‘80s—something that can be drastically reduced now that we know how deadly it is,” says Fulu. Education and legislation are required, following cultural recognition. It’s also in everyone’s best interest to create a more equal world. Toxic masculinity doesn’t help men. It forces men to squeeze themselves into a very narrow idea of what it is to be a man, which is stifling. “We have extremely high rates of male suicide in Australia, and I have no doubt that that’s in part related to a culture that suggests men shouldn’t be emotionally open, men shouldn’t cry, they should be emotionally tough.”

Being emotionally tough doesn’t help anyone, nor does trying to be superwoman. The old adage of having to look after yourself before you can look after others certainly rings true for Fulu. And yes, she had to learn the hard way. Today, though, she’s better at making time for the joyful things in life which nourish and boost her energy for her work and the difficult issues she tackles everyday. Most importantly, the spark and spirit of that little girl who walked down the street collecting coins for charity is alive and well. There’s no telling where she’ll take Fulu next, but there’s no doubt she’ll be helping women and girls along the way.

Main image credit: Beth Jennings

Positions Of Power is a series highlighting the women leading companies and initiatives shaping our world. This series covers how she got there, why she does it, and what she’s learned along the way.