As part of the Telstra Health celebrations for International Women’s Day 2021, National Rural Health Commissioner Professor Ruth Stewart joined an all-staff address to share her insights about navigating a non-equitable world, based on her 30-year career as a rural generalist doctor and educator.

Professor Stewart joined the virtual session from Dubbo as she travels regional and rural areas with The Hon. Mark Coulton MP, Minister for Regional Health, Regional Communications and Local Government, helping to develop rural health strategy and policy.

Professor Stewart began by sharing experiences from her days as a young child during her education, where her behaviour was labelled as ‘naughty’. In reflection, and very mindful of the stereotypes associated with how a woman should behave, Professor Stewart says she was actually challenging the status quo.

Speaking in line with this year’s theme of ‘Choose to Challenge’ for International Women’s Day, it still comes naturally to Professor Stewart to challenge the norm – to think about the best way to do something, to consider the best people for the job and to consciously address our unconscious bias.

Challenging the status quo requires mindful and deliberate action to create change for those who are not part of majority culture – whether that’s based on gender, sexuality, culture, ability or otherwise. For any minority or marginalised people, “you have to be better than good to succeed”, as Professor Stewart said, especially when the concept of merit often means choosing people who are already like those in power.

So, what is Professor Stewart’s advice to navigate a non-equitable world, to create change, to lead and succeed?

1.      Be different but relatable

It’s okay to be different – this can be an advantage. But also focus on building relationships by identifying what you have in common with other people. Professor Stewart used the example of how her skills and strengths in English, acting and debating set her apart in medical school but allowed her to persuade and reason with others.

2.      Play to your strengths

Don’t focus on your level of experience and the sensation of inadequacy that is all too common for women. Don’t list all the reasons you can’t do something – just do it. Focus on your strengths, follow your passions, play the role and look the part but be sure to balance this with who you are – never venture too far from your true self.

3.      Find likeminded people and build a network

When it comes to challenging the status quo, especially once you’ve stepped into a leadership position, you will undoubtedly receive pushback. To manage this, it’s important to be surrounded by likeminded people, who you respect and admire. This doesn’t necessarily mean someone who looks like you though – choose a range of men, women, people from minority and marginalised groups. This network will help you achieve the goals you have set out for yourself and your team, as well as help you continue to learn. As an individual, you can’t know everything but by surrounding yourself with a good network of people, you can empower each other to learn and grow. They will diversify and strengthen your skills and help you understand what, and when, to challenge.

4.      Be mindful of the double bind for women

For women, this means you’re doomed if you do or don’t. For example, while a man might be considered assertive, a woman is deemed aggressive. Or if a woman doesn’t project authority, they’re perceived as not credible. In a leadership setting, the gender bind results as people often try to align stereotypes about women and men with the stereotypes we hold about those in leadership. COVID-19 is a great example of how countries with women leaders have been said to navigate the pandemic better than those with men in leadership positions, rather than considering the highly developed public health systems available to the countries identified as doing well. As Professor Stewart said, this isn’t to cast doubt on the leadership of the likes of the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. She and others are excellent leaders, not excellent women leaders.

5.      Always remember those who will follow you

Think beyond yourself and your own community in terms of what will benefit ALL. In relation to Professor Stewart’s position as National Rural Health Commissioner, this means challenging metro-centricity and thinking outside the belief that ‘urban is best’. Solutions and policies for different locations and people need to be tailored, from Far North Queensland to Western NSW. There is not ‘one solution’ that fits all, but rather the solution needs to build upon the strengths of the community. Those creating policy in urban settings need to understand this.

The same advice can apply to gender issues. We need to create environments for all people to lead and succeed with the majority offering support and allyship along the way, such as tapping women on the shoulder and encouraging them to step into a leadership position.

As Professor Stewart said in her final piece of advice, there is no one way to live a life as a woman - but every woman deserves the chance to realise her potential.

Professor Ruth Stewart

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