Leadership and localisation: How Australia could support local women to exercise influence and drive change

By Dr Annemarie Reerink

Although there has been much talk about women’s representation in Australia’s 47th Parliament, we have yet to hear how this government would prioritise local women’s leadership in our region. Yet, the political transition in Canberra and the new government’s aspirations for a “reset” with the Indo-Pacific region present a significant opportunity to foster leadership of women in and from the region. I argue that clear government direction is required now so that aid investments benefit from evidence-based and locally led approaches to strengthening women’s leadership.

The past two years offered a stark reminder of the importance of local leadership. While borders were closed due to the pandemic, local organisations and experts continued to implement Australia’s development agenda overseas. Women were very much part of this, albeit not always with sufficient recognition. The challenge now is how to leverage this experience for the government’s development agenda. To ensure women’s leadership shapes the content of new development policies and strategies as well as the process of their development, there are three lessons to consider:

1. Localisation

The anticipated new development strategies offer a timely opportunity to join the dots between women’s leadership and localisation. The localisation agenda recognises that local voices must inform problem-solving and decision-making about development. This requires –pathways to leadership positions for more diverse groups and individuals. However, if not deliberately anchored in inclusion, localisation efforts risk either reproducing Western leadership models and ideals or reinforcing dominant local power and decision-making structures such as ‘big man’ and patronage systems in Papua New Guinea. Both scenarios will mostly exclude those we want to support better: local women of colour, especially those from non-elite backgrounds.

As the Australian Government updates its localisation approach, it must question to whom or to whose organisations power can gradually be transferred. This core element of localisation must be an avenue to affirm and support women’s leadership – on their own terms, not requiring them to behave like men and speak like ‘white development professionals’ or be well versed in Australian expressions of leadership. Can DFAT work with these women and build into each aid program the space for leadership models, priorities, and solutions that they identify?

The Sapotim Lida women’s leadership program under the Australia-PNG Partnerships for Health program, funded by DFAT and implemented by Abt Associates, illustrates this point. The program works with national and provincial health authorities to increase the number and diversity of women in health sector planning and decision-making, so that the needs of women are better reflected. Sapotim Lida does this by creating space and strengthening skills, while also promoting policies, workplace practices and social norms that help women overcome structural barriers. Accountability for results is not only to Australian taxpayers but also to women in the PNG health sector who are heavily invested as workers and users.

2. Normative change rather than individual skill strengthening

While the slow increase in women in leadership positions across politics, business and civil society generates important role models, numbers don’t necessarily equal transformation. Sticky norms and prevailing political systems and religious and organisational structures devalue women’s voice, restrict their agency, and perpetuate the dominance of men in leadership.

Yet, over the past decade, I’ve witnessed too little evolution of Australian-funded responses. Most still plug perceived or actual deficits in individual women’s skills and expertise. While this can be helpful, we should recognise it is not women who are the problem, but rather norms and attitudes restricting women’s leadership. We know the greatest advances for women’s rights are made when women leaders are supported to progress normative change in concert with social movements and engaging with men. Vision and funding are urgently needed to expand the handful of Australian investments taking this approach.

In Sapotim Lida, we focus on creating meaningful opportunities with and for women leaders in national and provincial health governance to effect change. It is vital women not only have clear individual pathways to thrive in leadership positions but also to build coalitions– in workplaces and communities, and with men – to counter adverse local norms and values. Can Australia step up its investment in similar approaches to ensure the path to leadership is permanently smoother for next generations of women?

3. Walking the talk: organisational change

This leads to a third lesson learned: to facilitate inclusive and locally led change, development partners must ‘walk the talk’ of equity and localisation. The credibility of interventions for women’s leadership – including the private sector which often leads the way – is significantly enhanced when funders and implementing contractors share lessons from their own corporate journey towards more diverse, inclusive and local leadership.

It is important that as an industry, funders and contractors work together to remove gender pay gaps, re-envision career pathways regardless of nationality, and create (and meet) country level targets for recruitment and procurement with a local and female face. And we know that this is achievable. Although staffing is only one element in the journey towards localisation, we’re proud that in our programs in Papua New Guinea, 88% of our staff are Papua New Guineans and 53% of these identify as women. Thanks to our leadership pipeline efforts, nearly a quarter of these women work in executive positions.

Progress on representation and voice of Indigenous women is no less important to us but has been harder to achieve. Recognising that localisation and diversity in leadership require supportive, safe, and equitable workplace culture and practices, funders and contractors alike must work closely with their staff to stimulate normative change internally.

What next?

If new DFAT policies prioritise locally driven and holistic approaches to women’s leadership, we might start to see the Australian Government design and resource more visionary activities. This must be done in all programs, as part of DFAT’s commitment to mainstreaming gender equality. Now is the time for a shift from individualistic deficit-oriented activities to making deliberate space for approaches shaped and led by local women that challenge harmful gender norms and structural barriers to their leadership.

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