Dress for Success Sydney is supporting vulnerable women.

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

vulnerable women

This is a transcript of the podcast interview. Listen to the episode here.

MEGAN: Whilst you think you're worthless and nobody cares, you haven't got a chance because that's what you project. Once you think you're worth it, you're halfway there.

PREMA: In this episode, I speak to Megan Etheridge, founder of Dress for Success Sydney. Dress for Success Sydney supports vulnerable women on their journey to economic self-sufficiency through a range of programs such as dressing styling program, a career support program, providing professional development support and a mentoring program.

PREMA: I came to learn about Dress for Success from my partner a week into our very new relationship. I was a bit surprised to find out that she dedicated our first Saturday morning as a couple to a garage sale with her best friend, a longtime volunteer, for something I couldn't quite work out. It's not the type of garage sale you're thinking of. This garage sale was where at least 100 people turned up at a nearby Sydney suburb called Marrickville and paid five dollars to stuff a garbage bag with clothes. It was organized by an organization called Dress for Success. Proceeds from this were fed back into this organization that supplemented services for their clients. I would be doing this organization a disservice if I tried to summarize what they do because dress success is as much about the client journey as it is the final success.

MEGAN: A woman is referred to dress for success, usually by a job active agency with whom she is registered because she's seeking employment. Or it could be another charity with whom she is a client. It could be Corrective Services ex-prisoner programs such as community corrections, for example, or Halfway Houses Women's Refuge. However, she is referred to turns up at the appointed time for a stalling session. She's met at the front door. One of our volunteers takes her into our dressing area and she's given a dressing room and asked the sort of clothing she would like. What she needs it for. For a start. And whether she likes to wear pants or a skirt or dress. And what's her favorite color and what size she is. The volunteer will choose from a big range of clothing we have, all of which have been donated. And the woman will try on different outfits until she's happy. And the volunteer stylist is happy that she looks fabulous and she comes out, looks in the mirror, and almost without fail, she stands up straight and smiles and is actually really being overwhelmed by the difference that those clothes have made to her. She's been invited to join our career support program. The range of professional development workshops that she's invited to attend a networking program that we run on the first Monday morning of every month after she's been with us for a while. She might make an inquiry about whether she would be eligible for a mentor who will support her on the journey.

PREMA: The organization services also extend to women who may not have direct access to the Marrickville showroom.

MEGAN: They also might be packing clothes for what we call our and send program through outreach program for women in regional New South Wales for our jail program once a month, volunteers visit Silverwater and Emu Plains to dress women there for court appearances or for release from prison if they have no clothes other than their prison greens.

PREMA: There is a great deal of empathy in this service and I think this is because it is set up by women for women. Dress for Success has its loyal followers and volunteers who contribute an astounding seventeen thousand five hundred volunteer hours a year. This is nothing that Megan could have imagined when she discussed it with a few friends around her dining room table 10 years ago, inspired by a model in the US. Megan felt this idea could go a long way.

MEGAN: I really liked this really simple idea that if you give a woman a professional outfit, it enables her to stand up straight and look at other people in the eye. It helped me decide that working with and for women was something that I really wanted to do. What are the importance of clothes? Well, of course, I talked about it with my friends. Quite a number of my friends said, if you want to do that, we'll help you. None of us has ever had any experience in anything like that actually getting the word out there to not just to potential clients of dress for success, but also the volunteers. We needed to have volunteers to get this service going. The first thing we did was we held a public meeting, of all things, through friends and friends getting in touch with other friends.I think we may have had about 25 people there that night, and that's how it started.

PREMA: The meeting was just the first step. Then came the first fitting.

MEGAN: It was our opening day, and I think there were three or four of us volunteers there waiting. I was so excited and we were in a little room in Burwood. There's a knock on the door and there were four women who had come to us through the adult migrant education program.The teachers had heard about us and thought, this is perfect. These women were on the professional migrant program. And so they were here doing a program specifically aimed at preparing them for employment. And so these women came from Eastern European countries and they were very good looking, very clear, very well, quite glamorous in their own right. But no idea how to dress for the Australian workplace. And being recently arrived migrants, I also didn't really have much in the way of funding. So they were the first women that we dressed.

PREMA: Since then, Dress to Success has helped 19000 women, 4000 of those in regional parts of Australia. The numbers are impressive. Megan credits the simplicity of the idea, which allows Dress for Success to receive and offer support.

MEGAN: It is really easy to tell other people what you're about. You just have to say to them, remember when you've gone into a job interview and the first thing that happens is the panel looks you up and down and in 12 seconds they've decided whether you fit with them or you don't. It's not just a concept that is simple to grasp. It's simple to grasp the importance of what it's doing.

PREMA: Megan designed Dress for Success is something that would be very much embedded in the community.

MEGAN: We have a very strong volunteer base. We also have a very, very strong base of people who donate cards. And so we have new clothes, use clothes. We had to work out a way of how we were going to deal with the volume that we had and how we were going to actually turn that into a positive for our clients. We came up with a plan. All our sorters and we have the sorters, thank goodness, who will soar clothing for different ways. The first way is for our clients considered suitable for our clients. There are clothes that are high-end designer, vintage, brightly colored, and they go to our high-end fashion sales, which we hold three times a year. Called bubbles and bargains. We have a third category called our garage sale. And our garage sale is now held monthly. And you pay. I think it's five dollars for a garbage bag and you get to fill that garbage through bubbles and through our garage sales. And we're able to raise it's probably about 160000 a year, which is really, really important to us. And at the same time, we're keeping faith with the people who donated those clothes. If they don't go on the client's back, they go to supporting the service.

PREMA: The organization also ensures that their volunteers can support a culturally diverse community.

MEGAN: We did get a few grants early on and we were able to purchase appropriate clothing if we didn't already have it for Muslim women, for example. It's also we run training for our volunteers around diversity in terms of our clients and their dressing requirements. All our volunteers are very well aware of the issues that they may encounter. And we have the sort of clothing that will enable those women to be dressed, but to be dressed in a way that enables them to feel confident in our workplace.

PREMA: Here, giving clients their confidence takes sensitivity, consistency, and dedication.

MEGAN: It doesn't matter what sort of job you're going for. You really have to be confident that you can do it. And many of our clients have very low self-esteem. So we work really hard starting with the clause which is is the soft option. And that's why it's so successful because vulnerable women will respond. And once you get that positive response, stand up, self-esteem, confidence. We also give them makeup and underwear, jewelry and the whole thing, and suddenly they think they're worth it.

PREMA: These women aren't the only one struggling with what to project. They just have a longer way to go.

MEGAN: I also have done some work with some academics from the University of Sydney who did a research paper for us on the issue of lookism. Lookism is the discrimination in employment based on how you look and it exists. And there's been a very large number of research papers published around the world. For example, there's one in Israel that says you better not sending a photo with you with your résumé because you could be discriminated against in terms of how you look in that photo and you don't even get to interview them. There is a lot of work around that. It points to this very real discrimination. And in fact, it's enshrined in legislation in Victoria. It's really about trying to educate not just employers, but people in the workplace to recognize that you don't have to look a particular way to be successful in business.You do not.

PREMA:  Dress for success has succeeded in educating a number of employers.

MEGAN: We've got quite a few success stories, actually. One time I remember I was at a function that was put on by Accenture. They're a big, big supporter. And this woman was serving there. I said, hi, thanks very much. And she said I was a client of Dress for Success. We've had that more and more. And we say our clients in various places across Sydney.

PREMA: The organizations work with their clients has opened Megan's eyes to the depth of vulnerability across all of Sydney suburbs when talking about her work. Megan stresses the importance of educating others.

MEGAN: Do not think you know what a vulnerable woman looks like because she may be your next-door neighbor. We don't define vulnerable women in that way. I think I've got a lot of love people to reconsider the stereotypes that they have in their heads. I have all also always urged people to sign a conversation about it.

PREMA: Megan has big plans for the future

MEGAN: We're enriching our career support program. We're identifying more groups. Target groups, for example. We have programs prepared specifically for women over 50 trying to re-enter the workforce. Refugee and asylum seeker women. Youth is an area that we've been very active in and developing specific programs for young women, many of whom have never had a role modeling work. So they actually have no idea what it means to dress for work and go to work every day. Also applying for funding at the moment to put our career support programs online and our success works program. We also have opened a branch in the Illawarra and we have a presence in Newcastle now that's building on our regional Parkinson program. We're actually having a presence. Areas of need. But so areas where other women have expressed interest in being more involved.

PREMA: Megan is encouraged by the community that supports Dress for Success.

MEGAN: But you'd be surprised at the number of people who've heard about Dress for Success. We have never had to ask for volunteers. It's absolutely extraordinary for a little charity and in Marrickville to be able to say that, I think that's really amazing. A number of women who want to be involved in our prison program to me says a lot about hopefully about our future and about how our community is. More forgiving. Willing to give people another chance. And willing to support people who've paid the price and they'll want to get back and contribute positively.

PREMA: Megan is certain that there are people out there who want to help and can help. This is her message to them.

MEGAN: Well, one of the golden rules is to ensure that there isn't already a service similar in the area that you wanting to set up in. Talk to people. Don't keep it to yourself. It doesn't become real. It's like when I was trying to give up smoking and I'd think, oh, I'm gonna give up smoking. But I didn't tell anyone in case I really decided that I didn't want to give up smoking, you know? And as soon as you you say it, then it's like you are serious about it. Talk to like-minded people or friends, I guess and see if it resonates. Because if it doesn't resonate, then forget it.Because if you don't have those friends right from the start. We'll see you later. You know, it's not going to happen.

PREMA: Listening to Megan, I realize that it isn't just the quantifiable support that counts when providing services to a vulnerable population. It's also the respect, dignity, and courage we can provide. All of this made possible by a group of women who want to help other women.

MEGAN: There are so many different ways that you can volunteer. So if you wanted to, you could you can be a stylist and you can come once a week and come twice a week. Income once a month. And you can be a soldier or you can help at the fashion sales. That's really fun. Or you can be on the committee and you can help organize our fundraising events. You can help spread the word to our referral agencies so that we get the word out. More and more clients. There are lots of ways you can be on their board. You can be a presenter in our career support program. You can be in our job program. And you go into one of the jails once a month and dress women there.

PREMA: There have been many more Saturdays since that first one, and sometimes I tag along to. We've also brought friends visiting from overseas, and it doesn't take more than a minute to convince them why they should come. At some point, it stops being about what clothes you can get for yourself in a garbage bag and becomes all about being involved in a movement that is engaged and helped so many. Dress for Success Sydney has created numerous ways for everyone to commit to offering what they can do to help our community.

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