The Future Female Conference was the brainchild of international student Belle Lim and is run by a steering committee of international students in partnership with Study Melbourne and Victoria University.
Lim said after experiencing firsthand the cultural differences and cultural transition between her home country of Malaysia and Australia, after arriving in 2013, she saw an opportunity to help her fellow international students and make their journeys easier.
“We know that it is harder for women to advance if they don’t have this strong network”
“For a lot of international students that come from more conservative, more reserved cultures, it is a culture shock for us, making it hard to to build up our confidence in an Australian setting –for example speaking out in classes and pursuing what we want,” she said.
“I see many, many other young female students just like myself, and I just think that there is a need for a place for us to share our experiences where we can feel safe.”
In addition to offering space to share experiences, the Future Female Conference is also an opportunity to bring together mentors and mentees, she said.
“Most of the role models that we see are people that don’t look like us. However, after personally working in this space, I know that there are so many inspiring women that are women of colour here in Victoria and in Australia, and some of them were international students themselves.
“So we bring them to this platform where they share their experiences, and for our audience, it means a lot – having this space with all speakers that look just like them. They have inspiring stories and their stories are relatable.”
Participants of the conference were also offered one-hour sessions with mentors, which proved popular with hundreds taking up the opportunity to have one on one discussions with industry and business leaders.
“Increasingly, we’ve seen that for international students, students are really concerned about employment opportunities after their studies, particularly women of colour,” Lim continued.
“We know that it is harder for women to advance if they don’t have this strong network and these mentorships. We hope to explore this more as well, to build these relationships for people to help each other.”
While the inaugural conference was held in Victoria in 2019, due to Covid restrictions this year’s event was held purely online, attracting in excess of 1,100 participants, including those students stranded overseas.
“We are actually really proud that we’re able to bring this to those students, that they kind of feel this connection with Australia because they couldn’t come back physically.”
With participants of the conference increasing five times in just two years and a high demand for mentoring, the organisers recognised the need to keep the conversation going all year round with the release of videos of conference speakers from the last two years, along with a dedicated Facebook page, Future Female Conference.
“For us, the biggest thing is to keep the dialogue open, to allow the students to have a voice outside of the event. And it’s amazing how many just quickly jumped on this Facebook group – we’ve got a whole content plan attached to that now as well.
“We’re profiling different mentors and different organisations so that the students understand that there is a voice all year round if they want to speak out at any point in time,” said Natalie Zaibak associate director, Major Partnerships with Victoria University.
Plans for Future Female Conference 2021 are already underway, and will be a hybrid of online and in person delivery, subject to funding.