Leadership, resilience and the importance of rural women in community

Leadership, resilience and the importance of rural women in community

At La Trobe, all four of our regional Heads of Campus are women. This reflects something very special about the University, as well as the communities we support.

Dr Deb Neal (Mildura), Dr Julie Rudner (Bendigo), Dr Guinever Threlkeld (Albury-Wodonga) and Dr Elizabeth Capp (Shepparton) all set positive examples for young people in the region and, as decision-makers, their influence helps guide discussion on issues of local import and diversify the range of voices at the top.

Education plays a central role in helping regional communities become stronger and innovate in the face of changing circumstances — such as the wake of a pandemic. Yet, a growing body of evidence also indicates that gender equality is inextricably linked to regional development.

Our campus heads reflect on what they’ve learnt about leadership, defying unfair expectations and advancing equality in the regions.

On being a public figure in a regional community

‘It’s a privilege to have this leadership role in a regional community, and be constantly reminded of education’s transformative power,’ says Elizabeth. ‘Being part of a university committed to providing greater access to opportunity for those who would otherwise miss out is inspiring work.’

A perspective Guinever agrees with: ‘To be one of the leading voices for education in a regional community is a privilege — it brings opportunities to work with some fantastic people to make a difference  to our community.’

Julie, by contrast, doesn’t see herself as a public figure. Rather, she feels part of like-minded cooperative where vision and leadership is a shared action:

‘I see myself as a node within a network of individuals, groups and organisations that are seeking to make the world a better place. We all have a part to play, and we all have our moments of leadership.’

Deb also emphasises that the transformational power of education forms part of her purpose: ‘I have had the privilege over the last 29 years of seeing women in this community change the outcomes of their lives and their families. It is a great privilege to have spent most of my working life working at a university that committed to public good.’

On leadership: Empathy, clear communication and big picture thinking

With collective decades of leadership experience, we asked the heads of campus what attributes have served them best in leading their communities.

‘Empathy,’ says Guinever. It’s the ability to listen, hear, step into others shoes, and acknowledge diverse experiences.’

Both Elizabeth and Guinever highlight kindness, self-awareness and sincerity as core traits in the leader’s toolbox.

 ‘It’s the capacity to inspire and make others feel enabled,’ say’s Guin.

‘I think it is important to see the bigger picture, to communicate goals well and in a relevant way, and to listen,’ adds Julie. ‘Leadership is supporting others so they can develop or refine their knowledge, skills and confidence in what they do, so they can grow and thrive. I think it helps to be an independent thinker who is willing to take risks, while having due respect for facilitating systems and structures.’

Elizabeth echoes this sentiment. ‘Strategic thinking alongside the capacity to deal with the detail when needed,’ are practical skills worth developing.

Deciding on a course of action and owning your choices means ‘having the strength to make decisions, to admit mistakes and learn from them,’ says Guinever.

Similarly, it’s important to have the capacity ‘to deal with disappointment and things not going to plan,’ says Elizabeth.

Guinever points to clear values, the ability to tell a story, to educate and inform others and bring them along and to think on one’s feet as some of the most useful qualities in a leader.

‘The capacity to inspire and make others feel enabled; courage; willingness to risk popularity; the capacity to link the big picture and the small stories of our lives.’

Overcoming obstacles (and the spectre of imposter syndrome)

‘Being female, small, and for much of my life, young looking – I was not always taken seriously,’ says Julie, revealing the barriers that many women face when moving up the career ladder.

‘I recall informing a past manager that I was not the “power-point girl” in response to the assumed assistance I was frequently asked to provide, even though my role included project management, policy development and regulatory compliance! Other times, people would be (patronisingly) amazed at what I had achieved based on their assumption of my age.’

Assertiveness is not a skill that comes naturally for everyone; it’s a tool that has to be practiced and polished over time.

‘I had to learn not to be intimidated by others who are very confident and to have very clear cut views,’ Guinever reflects. ‘Shyness and the sense of being an imposter,’ were concerns she learned to master over time, helping her rise to the position she holds today.

On cultivating a more equal and inclusive society

When it comes to helping communities recover and look beyond the pandemic, the social and economic divisions that COVID-19 has amplified urgently need addressing.

COVID has affected women disproportionately,’ says Guinever. ‘We need to be alert for opportunities to address this dimension of inequality.  Education of all forms is critical to a more inclusive and gender equal society. That so many women study at our regional campuses is important for advancing gender equity in non-metropolitan communities. We all need to reflect and question our underlying assumptions and biases.’

‘As leaders, we need to actively look for ways to promote/pursue affirmative actions that address gender equality and inclusivity agendas,’ Elizabeth says. ‘We can all educate ourselves more about our own unconscious biases and assumptions, and build our collective capacity to manage difference and conflict.’

‘62% of our students are the first in their family enrolling at the Mildura campus— and 79% of those are women,’ remarks Deb. ‘La Trobe gives women in this community the opportunity to have a career and also changes the lives of women in their careers (predominantly as nurses, teachers and social workers).’

‘In my position, it can be easier to forget the deep systematic inequalities that women, Aboriginal people, GLBTIQ people of colour, people of different abilities encounter – and the debilitating way that policies, especially those related to economic mobility, can entrench inequality over generations,’ says Julie. 

‘It is paramount that we actively advocate for public education, public health, and our social welfare system to ensure it is appropriately funded – punishing people for life circumstances is not motivating. Providing security so people can make easier choices to commit to personal health, work and study will be far more effective in supporting people, and creating change in the long run.’

The critical role of rural women in improving livelihoods and wellbeing

International Day of Rural Women recognises the critical role and contribution of rural women, including indigenous women, in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty.

Want to make a positive impact in your community? Consider upskilling in Business, Law, Social Work or Agriculture