The word inspiring doesn’t even begin to describe Rabia Siddique. This international humanitarian and professional speaker is a criminal and human rights lawyer, a retired British Army officer, a former terrorism and war crimes prosecutor, Master of Ceremonies, facilitator, mentor, coach, author of a best selling novel and mother to triplets!
Can you give us an overview of your background?
I am a very proud first generation Australian – the daughter of an Indian Muslim father and Anglo Saxon mother. After spending my early years in India, we moved to Perth in the mid 1970’s, where I endured a fair amount of prejudice, abuse and emotional trauma growing up. I decided as a young woman I wanted to dedicate my life and career to helping others access justice and find their voice in ways I wasn’t able to as a child. I eventually decided the vehicle through which I could realise this calling was the law.
I practiced as a criminal and human rights lawyer for 20 years – starting my career in Perth and then, after a few years of practice I moved to the United Kingdom to pursue a career in International Humanitarian Law.
That led me to commission as a legal officer in the British Army – an unexpected and unplanned career shift. During my 8 years in the British Army I served all around Europe, Northern Ireland and Iraq.
I worked in the areas of military, operational and international law, employment law, equality and diversity and also became one of the faces of a more diverse, modern British Armed Forces.
Whilst in Iraq I was involved in a high profile hostage crisis, where I was sent in to negotiate the release of two British Special Forces soldiers and then, when the situation deteriorated, became a hostage myself for many hours. As a result of a political decision made by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair and his cabinet, I was written out of the hostage incident and ordered never to speak of my involvement.
Due to the poor treatment I received and complete lack of support and recognition, I mounted a successful landmark discrimination case against the UK Ministry of Defence, which served as a catalyst for widespread change in policies and attitudes towards women and minorities within the military.
This event and the subsequent action for change that I took became the subject of my memoir, ‘Equal Justice’, which was published in October 2013.
After leaving the Army I worked for 3 years as a terrorism and war crimes prosecutor based in London and The Hague.
I returned with my young family to Australia in 2011 and worked full time as legal counsel in the Corruption and Crime Commission of WA and then as Chief Legal Counsel for WA Police.
As a result of the overwhelming response to my story and the messages highlighted by my journey, I eventually left full time legal practice in 2014 to focus on my new career as a professional speaker, facilitator and advocate.
You faced discrimination in your career, why do you think women don’t speak up in the workplace when they have been discriminated against?
Having worked in predominantly male dominated professions, organisations and institutions for most of my career, it’s notable that the first time I truly experienced discrimination was following the Iraq hostage incident in 2005. Up until then I was always treated with respect and as an equal amongst my peers, which made the discrimination I suffered so surprising and upsetting.
In our culture, there is an expectation that we will put up and shut up. No one likes a whinger and complaining is generally frowned upon, particularly in conservative professions and male dominated environments. Certainly, in my career, I picked up on the expectation that as professional women we could succeed as long as we played by the boy’s rules, had broad shoulders and are willing to ignore and take part in the ‘banter’ that often masked the bigotry. As women, many of us accepted that we had to work twice as hard to be treated as equal to our male counterparts and that sacrifices would need to be made if we wanted to have a family as well as a career.
I think the macho and often misogynistic culture that many women find themselves in, and the fear of being ostracised, stigmatised or ignored is what has prevented so many women from speaking up against discrimination. I’m hopeful from the work I do in this area that times and our culture is changing. The new generation of women by and large have a much greater awareness of equality, the importance of genuine diversity (in all its forms) and unconscious bias. They are willing to call it out and challenge it and expect a fair go at all times. Yet, still there are imbalances. Cultural change takes time, but I believe we are slowly moving in the right direction where the scales are being evened up. Vigilance is required to make sure we don’t move backward as a country.
What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?
Three things – our narrative, our culture and the leaky pipeline effect.
I am of the opinion that until we redefine what it means to be a leader we will always be aspiring to achieve the traditional masculine concept of leadership and success.
We need to challenge and change the narrative. When we do, we will realise that there is no shortage of female leaders in our society.
There are endless examples of women leaders. They include advocates working on behalf of others, volunteers and frontline workers making our communities better and safer places to live, philanthropists uplifting and empowering those less fortunate, researchers and scientists whose work is contributing to fundamental improvements and developments in so many fields and artists that are challenging the way we perceive life, beauty and how we express ourselves.
We are still losing so many competent and talented women at the middle management level. This can occur for the many women who choose to have children and feel that they need to make a choice between motherhood and career, or where the battle in balancing both becomes all too difficult and so many opt out of paid work for important unpaid work as a carer. I believe this won’t change unless we as a society take a more sophisticated approach to work and productivity. It’s more than just flexible work arrangements, it’s how we perceive parental responsibilities, how we structure our homes and work places, how we use technology and how we connect and build authentic professional relationships.
Once we as a society are willing to accept that caring and parental responsibilities lie equally with both parents, and the extended family in some cases; that we shouldn’t feel we must always separate our personal and professional lives; and that we must become more innovative and creative with the way we use our work time and how we carry out our work, then not only will there be more leadership opportunities for women, but more women will be around to take up those opportunities.
We need more female role models for our leaders of tomorrow to aspire to and we need more women at the decision making tables and on recruitment and selection panels. We need more fundamental changes for women to ultimately receive the ‘fair go.
What was the best advice that you have been given?
To be courageously unique and always live a life in harmony with my values.
What do you think your key to success has been?
Being able to clearly identify my ‘why’ – my essence and the values that drive me and the life I live, hard work and a commitment to excellence and service. Most importantly however is how I define success in my life.
How have you personally measured your success?
It’s never been about money, position or profile for me, but always about joy, serving others and contributing my best to create maximum impact – or as I call it, creating ripples and turning them into waves!
Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader?
My father was probably the first person that inspired me. He had a way of dealing with the prejudice and ignorance he experienced in those early days as a dark skinned migrant in Australia with such grace, dignity and a sense of humour that was admirable. He was quite the philosopher and he was the first person that taught me that success is about living a full, enriched and meaningful life.
My high school principal, Graham Rixon also had a tremendous impact on me. He taught me to embrace my uniqueness and provided opportunities for me to shine and demonstrate my leadership qualities. This was all instrumental in helping me make some profound life decisions as a young woman.
Finally, my hero, and the person that has been my greatest source of inspiration is Mahatma Gandhi. What he stood for, his commitment to peace, tolerance and love, and the sacrifices he was willing to make to live a life in absolute harmony with his values have been my guiding light.
Other than your business, what other hats do you wear?
I am a committed philanthropist and advocate, serving as a patron, ambassador and board member on a number of charities and not-for-profit organisations, all of which work in pursuit of social cohesion and harmony, education, enlightenment and empowering women and children. As well as 20 years as a lawyer, I am also a professional speaker, educator, mentor, facilitator and coach.
But by far and away my most important, challenging and rewarding role, is along with my partner Anthony, being a parent to my 8 year old triplet boys!
When you think of your journey, what is the thing you are most proud of?
I have so much to be thankful for and proud of, but I guess if I was to sum it up in one sentence it would be – knowing when to step up, speak out and stand and fight, and knowing when to walk away, and never having regrets afterwards. I guess that’s a life well lived and lived in harmony with my essence – and hopefully I’m only half way through it!
What’s a typical day like for you?
Anyone who wears a multitude of hats, that’s a parent and that runs their own business will tell you that there’s no such thing as a typical day. I love the diversity that comes from living such a life.
One day I could be travelling to the other side of the country or globe to present a keynote address to a convention centre filled with thousands of people, the next day I could be working one on one with a client that I’m mentoring or coaching. Another day I could be lecturing a group of law students and the next day attending various board meetings, a charity event and then helping my sons with their homework and piano practice.
I’m truly blessed and whilst I could never have had it all at once, I do feel as though I have so much to be thankful for and that the future is bright and exciting. I guess you could say I’m a natural optimist, and optimism is what we need more of in this world of ours.