In her 13 years as councillor, Anna Speedie has been called "girlie" a few times. At a government conference only last month, (June) when the numbers of women in government came up for discussion, an older gentleman said, 'Oh, you can't argue those statistics; you can't argue there should be 50% women sitting at the table because most of them want to stay home and have babies.'
"My jaw hit the floor. And I kept thinking, 'this guy can't be serious'," she said. "He was. If we're still seeing that in our leaders, how do we expect to get change in our communities?"
As Mayor of Wodonga, Cr Speedie is driven to helping more women rise to government positions – and other leadership positions in the community. She believes in skills-based boards. "It shouldn't just be about quotas, in my opinion; it should be about skills. But it's about creating the framework that lets people step forward, and encourages people to step forward and enables them. Because if we keep doing the same things we're doing, clearly it's not working."
Recognising women in regional areas is just one important category in The Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence awards, presented by Qantas, which are open for entries.
Alana Johnson, recognised in 2012 and instrumental in establishing the Victorian Rural Women's Network in the 1980s, is now deputy chair of the Victorian Catchment Management Council. She said that aside from helping to connect rural women and giving them a collective voice, "what we've achieved over the past 25 years is recognition of women's contribution, women's opinions being sought, and now having women's opportunities and equal participation in decision making.
"While we're progressing, it's going to take another 75 years to get to women's equality in Australia. So, we really do need to accelerate the race."
Aside from raising the profile of women more generally, Ms Johnson is focused on gaining more visibility for regional women and is on the Victorian ministerial council for women's equality. "I am the only rural woman on it out of 20 members," she said. "One thing we have to do is take responsibility to say, where are the rural women? Why aren't they here? What are you doing to overcome all barriers to make it possible for them to participate? We all need to be that voice. We have to question all the time."
One region setting a leading example for women is greater Bendigo, where women occupy key leadership roles including Mayor, Deputy Mayor, editor of the Bendigo Advertiser, managing director of Bendigo and Adelaide Bank and managing director of Rural Bank.
Bendigo Mayor Margaret O'Rourke, a former manager of Telstra Countrywide, said five out of nine councillors were women. "That's the first time we've had more women on council than men," she said, adding that the leader of Bendigo Business Council was a female, as was the chair of the jockey club and the chair of the Bendigo water authority. "It's an extraordinary period of time that greater Bendigo has got so many female leaders."
Cr O'Rourke believed women had an ability to engage people, which was adding to participation rates. "And I would also say the success of women in greater Bendigo is supported by other women, so when they are offering leadership roles, they're really supportive of the fact that there are women stepping up."
Women in regional areas still face a number of challenges, however. Access to affordable childcare is one; public transport is another. "We know that some of our rural and regional areas can also be low socioeconomic areas," Cr O'Rourke said. "So it's really important for government, we think, to work together to improve that." She also listed access to education, health and employment opportunities as areas that need improvement.
The National Broadband Network is helping with connectivity, but isolation continues to burden those in remote areas. Moree Plains Shire Mayor Katrina Humphries said women's groups such as The Red Cross and the Country Women's Association existed to support women and help manage loneliness. She believed the women involved in such community groups were the ones who should be receiving more recognition.
Cr Speedie agreed, saying regional women often tended to be unsung heroes. She had watched people like Janelle Boynton reinvigorate Feathertop Winery following the 2003 bushfires and revive the small town of Porepunkah in Victoria. "She's just the most amazing businesswoman," Cr Speedie said, adding "you see these wonderful swathes of people out there, women, doing great stuff, but it's usually done without the fanfare."
Cr Speedie said that despite the setbacks, Wodonga had come a long way. "I look at Wodonga and I think about how much we've changed as a city in the last five years. A decade ago we were the lowest median wage in regional Victoria, 10 years later we're the highest median wage in regional Victoria. So you can change things at a regional level, and you can challenge the norms," she said. "Just accepting that that's how it is or that's how it's always been, for me, is not an option."
- To enter this year's The Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence awards, please go to afr.com/womenawards. If you nominate yourself, entries must be submitted by Tuesday, July 10, 2018. If you wish to nominate someone else, the deadline is Friday, July 6. The nominee will then be alerted by email and must enter by July 10.