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  • Nicole Richards

Building new pathways for working women beyond Covid

“If there’s one myth I’d like to see debunked, it’s that women with children or carer responsibilities don’t show up,” says Mikaela Stafrace, CEO and Founder of the charity, WomenCAN Australia.

“These women are the hardest working and most reliable of any workers out there – they can do six things at once and they get the job done quickly and efficiently.”

“As an employer, they are exactly the ones you want to promote or engage or give a break to – believe me, WomenCAN, yes they can!”

Straface, an MBA-qualified lawyer, spent 35 years providing insurance, risk, governance and regulatory compliance advice to corporations before rerouting her career to start WomenCAN in 2019. In 2020, Straface’s bold vision earned her a Myer Innovation Fellowship.

WomenCAN helps women become work capable and independent of government and other social assistance by connecting women to training, work, and a community of supportive peers through its program, The Placement Circle.

In November, The Placement Circle received a $30,000 grant from Australian Communities Foundation’s National Crisis Response Fund to support their work assisting women who have been disconnected from the workplace as a result of COVID. Stafrace says the grant was “a godsend and a lifeline”.

“It is well documented that women workers, especially in Victoria, have been the hardest hit as a result of the COVID-19 recession,” Stafrace says. “8.1% of female workers have lost their jobs.”

Currently in pilot testing, The Placement Circle uses a place-based model that connects communities of peer-supported women in Dandenong and Footscray to TAFE and local employers. If additional funding can be found, the pilot will include Bendigo and Shepparton so that the experience of women living regionally can be captured.

The program is being evaluated by Victoria University and the evidence base will be used to inform a white paper to government about job ready pathways for women.

“One of the biggest barriers for women returning to, or entering, the workforce is a lack of confidence,” Stafrace explains. “That might be due to life circumstances that led them to be disconnected from the workforce, for example divorce, chronic illness or migration.”

“The Placement Circle is not just only about finding pathways to education and employment but doing it with a peer-support wrap around. Going to TAFE and studying can be a solitary journey but if you go on that journey as a group, there’s real power and confidence that comes from having a shared lived experience.”

“It's become really apparent that peer support is that magic sauce.”

The current intake of students are studying for their Certificate III in Aged Care.

Stafrace says the research team at Victoria University has already several interesting observations as a result of the group dynamics.

“Most of the literature suggests that women who have come from an experience of domestic violence don’t reach out for jobs and training, but in fact, we have a number of them in our program. The peer support that’s wrapped around them seems to be having a big impact, with them reporting that they feel supported and confident. They’ve even started a WhatsApp group and they babysit for each other.

“It’s become really apparent that peer support is that magic sauce,” Stafrace says. “We’d always had a hunch about but didn’t realise it would be quite so powerful.”

Though each of the women have overcome significant obstacles to take their place in the group, Stafrace says the story of one of the women particularly moved her. The woman, who had moved to Australia from Colombia and married an Australian man, found herself caught in a cycle of violence from her husband.

“After they got married, she had a little boy and her husband’s controlling nature just went off the charts,” Stafrace explains. “She was beaten so badly and kept presenting at the hospital so many times that the hospital staff themselves told her she couldn’t keep living like this.”

The woman joined The Placement Circle on referral from the police.

“She says the women at the Dandenong pilot have become her family,” Stafrace says. “She is becoming an independent and powerful, educated, amazing lady.”


As a social enterprise, WomenCAN Facilities Services provides facilities services using female tradies, of which there are 27 at the moment, including carpenters, plumbers, gardeners, cleaners and electricians.

“We knew we wanted to lead with trades because we wanted to get a pipeline going in vocational training and that was the link,” Stafrace explains.

“All the money we make from WomenCAN Facilities Services goes in to support the charity and the operation of The Placement Circle. I don’t even get a salary – we’re all doing this as volunteers and we’re all completely in the trenches.

“On Saturday I’m heading out to quote on a retaining wall, this morning I put a door on and this afternoon I got on a call with Launch Housing. I love the fact that every day is so varied.”

WomenCAN Facilities Maintenance tradeswomen currently provide services to crisis accommodation centres.

“These are places where the women really don’t want a bloke on the ladder fixing a light,” Stafrace says.

“Our light on the hill would be to do Dame Phyllis Frost prison,” Stafrace says wistfully.

“Eighty per cent of the women who are in there are there because of poverty or addiction issues. We could provide a pathway for the women who are being released to join us.”

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