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Cracking the Code

The first female Senior Under Officer (SUO) of the Shore Cadet Unit in 110 years, Ms Charlotte Collier (2019), addressed current Wenonians in Assembly for International Women’s Day, encouraging them to seize this year’s UN Women IWD theme Cracking the Code.

On the one hand, it feels like I left Wenona so long ago, with my five-year reunion coming up next year. However, on the other hand, it feels like I was sitting in one of those audience chairs just yesterday.

Thank you Dr Scott, teachers, and girls, for inviting me to speak to you about this year’s International Women’s Day theme – Cracking the Code: Innovation for a gender-equal future. I was flattered to receive the invitation – shoutout to Mr Morton and Miss McFetridge, but then I started to have a mild panic, thinking, what on earth can a broke, fourth-year university student contribute to this incredibly important discussion? I have not started a charity or made a big research discovery, in fact, the other day, I was asked at the airport if I was travelling as an unaccompanied minor – very humbling. 


I would describe myself as a typical uni student who has recently moved out of college in Canberra and into my first share house. I’m currently learning how to meal prep and what night to put the bins out.

However, suppose you asked someone else to describe me. In that case, they might tell you that I am a first-year Doctor of Medicine and Surgery student at the Australian National University (ANU), who has just graduated with a Bachelor of Health Science, during which I maintained a high distinction average and two scholarships to my name.

Now you’re probably thinking, settle down Charlotte, and have some humility, but I want to illustrate that my education at Wenona has been fundamental to my cracking the code and being where I am today. I am a proud woman in STEM, in my dream course and en route to becoming a doctor. I wouldn’t have even dreamt of becoming a doctor without my experiences at Wenona, which gave me the confidence and determination to pursue this male-dominated arena. How you embrace your time here at Wenona, both in and out of the classroom, will give you the tools to start cracking the code of whatever profession you choose to pursue.

I still remember sitting in Miss McFetridge’s office in Year 12, discussing the different avenues I could follow to try to get into medical school and feeling so overwhelmed about whether I had the grit and determination to pursue this career. When I sat the HSC in 2019, although female students made up approximately 50% of med school cohorts, only 12% of Australian surgeons were female – a terrifying statistic that shows just how male-dominated the world of medicine still is. I have been fortunate to have supportive and friendly guys in my cohort, but there have already been moments where I’ve had to back myself and feel comfortable being a female surrounded by many male peers.

Just last week, the ANU Medical Society (equivalent to our student leadership team) held elections for their various positions. One of the roles on offer that caught my attention was the first-year Surgical Society rep, which is peer-voted. A few days later, I was chatting to a guy about how I was hesitant to apply. His immediate reaction was, “Yeah, understandable, you don’t want to get the reputation of being that hyper-feminist power-hungry, wannabe surgeon”. Well, this really caught me off guard because the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. I was nervous to apply because I wasn’t sure if I had built a strong enough rapport with my peers, not because I was worried it would paint me as a bra-burning feminist.

At this moment, I found myself having major déjà vu back to when I was a Cadet in Year 12 and had people question my appointment as Senior Under Officer. For those of you who don’t know, I was humbled to be the first Wenona girl to lead the Shore Cadet Unit in its 110-year history and naturally jumped at the opportunity.

After just one week in the role, however, I began to receive some direct and unpleasant feedback from parents who suggested I had taken the role from a boy or had been appointed to enforce a quota.

We female Cadets were simply participating in a co-curricular activity and, for better or worse, had outperformed the boys on the Promotions Course. It really surprised me that such a misinformed patriarchal comment could be raised by an adult to a school child.

For the record, everyone who was part of the Shore Cadet Unit was incredibly supportive of me in the role. But, moments like this have taught me the importance of staying true to myself and pursuing my passions despite what other people say.

After reflecting on my Cadet experience, I realised that I would be selling myself short if I did not put my hat in the ring for the first-year Surgical Society role. So, I did end up applying, as did five other boys, but I’m very happy to say that I got the role!

So, what does this anecdote have to do with cracking the code? For me, this theme relates to the need for females to learn to navigate male-dominated professions, to create environments where we can work alongside male colleagues on an even playing field and salary. And, I can, hand on heart, say that my time at Wenona gave me the confidence to pursue my dream of becoming a doctor, despite the statistics being unfavourable towards women in medicine.

Wenona provides a space where we can try new things, make mistakes, learn about our strengths and weaknesses, and test our own limits. It wasn’t until I was invited to write this speech that I realised how my Wenona experiences had unconsciously paved the path to where I am today.

Working in School leadership and sporting teams taught me some of the most valuable lessons; the importance of working together, having a plan, listening to and supporting your peers, and finding the courage to voice your opinion.

The message I want to leave you with today is that I am still working on cracking the code. I’m only a few years ahead of you but you are in the best place to seize opportunities to find out who you are, what you enjoy and what your strengths are. Don’t be afraid to try to push the boundaries, whether they are self-imposed or constructed by society.

There are other like-minded females out there who are also striving for gender equality. Once you find them, embrace them.

All of you here today are the future. By being active Wenonians and discovering what makes you tick, you are already starting to crack the code.