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Highlighting women in business in rural and remote Australia

18 October 2021

UN International Day of Rural Women highlights the contribution rural women make to the world. The announcement of the winner of the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award, which Westpac sponsors is a calendar highlight. The award and provides a $10,000 bursary for innovative ideas and projects, access to professional development opportunities and the alumni network.

Belinda Allitt, General Manager of Capacity Building at AgriFutures Australia, says women are problem solvers. She’s talking about the increasing number of rural women starting businesses and becoming entrepreneurs.

Belinda believes it’s a trend that will accelerate: 22 of the 36 recipients of AgriFutures’ Horizon scholarship current cohort are female, and the new AgriFutures Rural Women’s Acceleration Grant, which is all about new and impactful ideas, received more than 70 applications.

Peta Ward, Regional General Manager, Commercial Banking, Agribusiness in Queensland, wants the contribution rural women make to be valued equally.

“Physical strength is not as important as it was in the past,” she says.

“We’re seeing women’s contribution through financial literacy and all of those things. Women are bringing those skills to the table, which is why I warn all my bankers, ignore the woman at your peril… she’ll be the one making the decision.”

Simone Clarke, CEO of UN Women Australia, says digital inclusion and the impact of climate change are among the biggest challenges facing rural women. Better financial literacy is crucial to ensuring women can maximise opportunities.

“I’d like to see a rural approach to addressing the barriers. I’d love to see more work being done to co-create solutions for rural women,” she says.

“Financial literacy and inclusion are really important. Rural women are often the financial decision makers in their homes and businesses. This needs to be recognised more, equipping women with the tools they need to manage their businesses and their lives.”

Then there are the issues of climate change and remoteness. UN Women is working with the Australian government to build disaster resilience among women.

Remoteness is an issue in terms of digital inclusion, with some women unable to take advantage of opportunities due to lack of access to technology or a reliable internet connection.

The internet can help women run businesses and work remotely – but this can increase their risk of becoming overwhelmed, says Stephanie Schmidt, South Australian Rural Woman of the Year and a finalist in the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award, sponsored by Westpac.

“I think for rural women there’s a stereotype we have to stare down: the idea that we do everything, and have to do everything,” she says.

“Rural people are known to be resilient, but sometimes people feel that means they can’t let others know when they’re struggling.”

Women she goes on to note can be especially vulnerable, doing off-farm work more than ever, either remotely or in small businesses while still working on the farm; still helping with the harvest; still feeding shearers; still doing the farm books.

Stephanie, a psychologist, is encouraged to see attitudes towards mental wellbeing changing: “I did a workshop on mental health recently which was well received. I don’t think it would have been nearly as well received 20 years ago.”

Peta Ward has also noticed slow change: “We’re sitting down and talking through the financials or what’s happening on the farm with both people in the partnership. Go back 10 years and we were more dealing with the male side of the farming partnership.”

But Belinda says for change to really take hold, the stories of rural women need to be told and retold, and women need a stake and a voice in decision making about their future.

“I’d like to see more executive, decision-making roles located in the bush,” says Belinda.

“Imagine the opportunities these roles create for rural and regional Australia. Women in rural areas can do these roles, they just need the opportunity to apply for them and to be able to do them from the bush,” says Belinda.

Watch live: AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award

Time/date: 12:30pm - 2:00pm (AEDT) on Wednesday 20 October

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