MÉABH ELSIE LOUGHNANE

SOCIAL CHANGE ENTREPRENEUR 

Until a few years ago, Melbourne University law student Méabh Elsie Loughnane had never really thought about feminism or been actively involved in its promotion. It was only when she started working in politics that she became aware of feminism's great inherent value to society. Faced with acute gender imbalances in her workplace, any thoughts of feminism as an old fashioned and irrelevant relic from a by-gone era gave way to the idea that she herself could — and should — take a more active role in supporting feminist causes. This transformation would eventually culminate in the founding of Chalk Circle — a Melbourne-based organisation working to promote gender literacy among young people:

“I started working in politics and quickly found it to be a sexist experience with very traditional roles and expectations, including the way women's voices were much harder to have heard. I started reading a bit more and chatting with other girls — and this was when Julia Gillard became Prime Minister, so I was developing a much deeper awareness. That then lead to wanting to learn more, so I read a lot of feminist literature and philosophy and began to actively identify as a feminist.”

Méabh’s thinking continued to evolve as she moved into a position as the State Director of a youth think tank. She was the only female in a senior position, a situation she learned was not unique for an Australian organisation. She was inspired to run an event for school students that empowered young women; its success gave her the impetus to apply for a substantial grant in order to continue this work. She won the grant, coming first in the application process and receiving almost $50,000.

Méabh used the funds to co-found the gender literacy foundation Chalk Circle, with herself as its CEO, and enlisted the support of former colleague Michelle Noon as co-founder and mentor. The non-profit organisation engages the community with credible, relatable and empowering information relating to gender literacy. It predominantly works with young people and people from traditionally marginalised demographics, and runs educational programs and events that combine critical engagement with fun, safe and interactive conversations:

“Michelle became my mentor and we started discussing what we wanted to do. We felt that there was no organisation working with school students on issues such as sexual harassment or body image; there’s no go-to. It’s your parents or teachers — neither of whom are relatable for a lot of people. We wanted to create this organisation for young people for when they need to feel like they’re being understood and know they’re going to get reliable information.
We look at the project of teaching gender literacy in the community as being true primary prevention, and one that fits into the great work that’s already being done by other organisations in this field.”

Méabh and Michelle conducted workshops and focus groups with young people to gauge the best language to employ in discussing gender equality and feminist principles. At this point they realised that the phrase 'gender literacy' was appropriate for their organisation.

“We’re looking at feminism and gender-related issues in general, which means everything from body image, to women’s underrepresentation in the media, to the gender pay gap, to domestic violence. We teach young people to be gender literate and to understand the way gender is socialised and the serious consequences that it has for the population. In a world where everyone is gender literate, you shouldn’t have gender inequality.” 

Méabh hopes that her work with Chalk Circle will help create a world where, one day, gender inequality ceases to be an issue:

“The whole purpose of our organisation is to teach people to see the world through a gender lens — so for example, when they’re walking down the street and are inundated with ads saying they need to look photo shopped to be acceptable, they can be more aware of why that is, and that they don’t have to accept these negative (often unachievable) messages and spend the next ten years of their life worrying about how they look or whether they fit in to one ideal.
Our theory of change is that once you teach people to see the world through a gender lens, not only can they not un-see it, but they can no longer feel it’s acceptable. We’re not prescriptive, we don’t dictate to people what they need to do and how they need to change but I believe that the logical conclusion is that most people are good and will want to do something once they become gender literate — whether that’s in an active way by joining a movement or an organisation, or whether it’s just in conversation and pulling people up when they say something that’s sexist.”