IWD 2024: In conversation with Lisa Mackenzie

Sophie Gyles

This is part four in an IWD conversation series profiling some of the incredible women we have the privilege of working with. This week we spoke to Lisa Mackenzie, Digital Content Advisor for Community Engagement at Country Fire Authority. Lisa generously took the time to share her journey with CFA, and how she’s handled a career in two male dominated industries—music and fire services—as a young woman.

Lisa Mackenzie was 19 and had just finished her first year of university when she took up a summer job at CFA’s Control Centre during the busy bushfire season. It was an admin role she could easily pick up over the uni break, not something she expected to change the course of her life. But she found herself enjoying it a lot more than she expected and becoming invested in CFA’s work and community.

“I found it really fulfilling, because you knew you were helping the community. You’d see the different stories that would come across your desk, whether it was a house fire or big bushfire, and you just got the sense that you were helping,” says Lisa.

That first Summer would be the start of a long and rich relationship with CFA, but as a student with multiple passions at the time, Lisa had other avenues she wanted to explore as well.

While on a gap year during university, Lisa had a realisation that music was more than just a hobby and a passion, it was something she wanted to take further, so she switched to a Bachelors in Arts and Entertainment Management at the Australian Institute of Music.

While studying, Lisa continued to stay connected to CFA, working in a part-time and contract capacity. “I always had my finger in the CFA pie”, she says.

During this time, she took on a paid internship with The Cat Empire, a jazz/funk band from Melbourne, famous for their big 2003 hit ‘Hello, Hello’. Lisa quickly fell in love with the music industry, finding herself involved with tour logistics, music releases, marketing and merchandising. Before long, her internship with The Cat Empire turned into a four year role spanning the release of two albums and countless gigs around Australia and the world.

Lisa speaks about her time in the music industry as a kind of golden era where she had a front-row seat to the fun and hard work involved keeping a successful band at the top of its game.

But while she loved her time in the music industry, it did come with challenges for her as a young woman. Lisa’s team at The Cat Empire were an all-woman crew, but outside of that bubble, the realities of an old school, male-dominated industry were apparent.

Lisa remembers doing some work for a company who were touring an international band in Australia at the time. With experience under her belt, she was asked to step in to help when the tour manager and production manager fell ill.

“My female line manager and I introduced ourselves to the crew, band and venue staff. But the amount of times (both men and women) went to the male driver that was standing behind us with their questions rather than coming to us, even though we had the answers they needed, was astounding.”

She says there are many more stories she could tell about sexism and bias faced by women and non-binary people in the music scene, but thankfully, her own experience was largely positive due to the strong women she worked alongside for most of her time in the industry.

Lisa worked in the music industry during her 20s while working part-time with CFA.

'The pandemic really forced our hand, in a good way.'

While Lisa was in the music industry, she continued to work on and off with CFA, ramping things up after the Victorian Government announced its fire service reforms. At 26, Lisa earned the opportunity to manage staff and lead a multi-million dollar project coming out of the reforms.

Like many young women, Lisa battled with imposter syndrome over the appointment, feeling unworthy of the promotion so early in her career. But her Deputy Chief Officer at the time saw her drive, talent and positive attitude, and offered her what she needed to do the job well: regular check-ins and a mentor.

“Having support from an external mentor who I could run ideas past and who could keep me on track or give me ideas about how to move forward—that was absolutely invaluable to me and my progress and where I find myself today.”

Lisa continued to move up the ranks at CFA, and in 2019 opted to bow out of the music industry altogether, taking on a full-time Community Engagement Advisor, Content role. She decided a career in the music industry, which would involve touring and intense periods of round-the-clock work, didn’t align with the balance she ultimately sought, and she truly believed in the work of CFA.

Since going full-time with CFA five years ago, she’s added digital to her portfolio, becoming the Digital Content lead within the Community Engagement team. Bringing CFA further into the digital era is something Lisa is passionate about. She says as an established, government-funded, volunteer-run organisation, it can sometimes take a while to adopt new technology.

“The pandemic really forced our hand, in a good way,” Lisa says. CFA went from relying on paper forms, to setting up digital forms, from delivering community programs in person to rolling out online delivery. “It’s been like turning around the Titanic,” she laughs.

Leaning more into the digital space means engaging with more people. Lisa is passionate about engaging directly with CFA’s audience to ensure the content they’re producing meets user needs and is as accessible as possible.

“So especially with multicultural communities, going out to them and asking what they want and then actually delivering that,” she says.

“It’s an interesting job, working through the user journey, trying to meet people where they’re at. We’re trying to get into the lives of people who might not even think about fire. It’s quite an interesting question: how can we attract them to learn more? How can we help them to help themselves and take that personal responsibility?”

A big project she’s been leading recently is redeveloping the content in the Plan and Prepare section of the CFA website to make it more accessible, readable and usable.

“We’re trying to lay the foundations so we can leverage [the website] more effectively with the different projects we hope to launch in the future,” Lisa explains, pointing to podcasts and other initiatives she’d love to see happen.

At 31, Lisa is the youngest person in her team. While she sometimes feels the age gap, she says as far as CFA goes, they have always supported her, and she has multiple role models “at all levels of the organisation, whether it's women at an entry level role or an executive role.”

If she has experienced barriers in the workplace due to her age or gender, it’s not been from within her team, but when out consulting on behalf of them.

“There have been times when I’ve presented the opinions of the Community Engagement team and my thoughts, opinions and expertise haven’t been taken seriously,” she shares. At these times, she’s asked her male managers to accompany her to meetings to say the same thing as her, “because they will be taken seriously.”

“It’s something I’ve had to be patient about,” she says. “We’re in a male dominated industry and there is bias, there are still some old school mindsets and ways of thinking.”

'It’s about creating a space for women to feel comfortable and confident to learn new skills.'

It’s a fire service industry-wide challenge, and something CFA is determined to see change. To address some of these unique challenges as the number of female volunteers grows, CFA has launched women-only chainsaw training and burns days, designed to support women learning new skills.

“It’s about creating a space for women to feel comfortable and confident to learn new skills, and giving people who’ve never done it before the chance to have a go and feel they can put their hand up and ask questions,” Lisa explains.

There’s also a popular ‘Women of CFA’ Facebook group, and Lisa speaks about colleagues in head office who have been offered flexibility when going through difficult situations, such as family violence. Progress is happening, and she’s happy to be part of the change.

A young, professional woman in a male-dominated space, Lisa has learned a lot about holding her own since that first Summer at CFA during uni.

“As females, we’re often taught to be quiet; don’t be too loud, be gentle, be accommodating. I’m a people pleaser, so accommodating people’s needs is my bread and butter. I’ve really taken a step back recently and asked how I can take up space whilst still being respectful of others. I need to be respectful of myself as well,” she says.

She’s also learned to care less what other people think, and lean “fully into who she is”, knowing that sometimes you’ll succeed and other times you’ll stumble, but it’s all part of the process.

“Don't be afraid to make mistakes,” she says. “Once you've made them, you can learn from them; it’s still progress. No one knows what they’re doing. As long as you’re failing forward.”

Forward is certainly where Lisa is taking CFA with her platform-first, digital focus. But it’s also where she’s taking herself. “I want to keep reaching my goals and pushing the needle forward, whether it’s physical, career-wise or financial. I always want to be working towards being the best version of myself possible.”

We think current-version Lisa is pretty great, and are privileged to partner with her and the community engagement team on the website redevelopment project she’s leading at CFA. We’re grateful for her strategic and thoughtful approach to everything she does, and can’t see where her passion and drive take her in years to come.

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