Image: A/Prof Sarah Wayland, A/Prof Clara Murray, Prof Birgit Loch, A/Prof Susie Hester, A/Prof Erica Smith and A/Prof Jennifer McDonnell

Five UNE academics are fresh from a Melbourne leadership retreat specifically tailored to women working in the university sector.

The WATTLE (Women ATTaining LEadership) event brings together potential leaders from across the university sector annually to address the underrepresentation of women in senior leadership roles. Representatives from 17 Australian universities attended the four-day intensive as part of a program founded in 2018 by four women, including Professor Birgit Loch, Dean of SABL at UNE.

“UNE has now had eight WATTLE participants over the last two years,” Professor Loch said. “It is rewarding to see how this year’s participants have connected and I am very much looking forward to seeing how they all individually develop on their leadership journey and take the lead in improving our culture.”

Associate Professor Susie Hester described gathering with a group of like-minded individuals and speakers as “transformative”.

“I was most interested in discussing a ‘kinder’ style of leadership – one that empowers others to grow and shine; one that is useful and does no harm,” Susie said. “I was very relieved to find out that this exists and is valid – it is called ‘benevolent leadership’ – and these types of leaders prevent colleagues from experiencing invisibility, isolation and voicelessness. They demonstrate empathy and kindness and create supportive and collaborative workplaces.”

Leadership, for Associate Professor Clara Murray, means creating a culture of trust, cooperation and appreciation of diverse strengths, so people can make their best contribution to the team’s effort.

“To give something ‘our best’, we need to feel safe, seen and valued,” Clara said. “Honest, values-driven leaders who can clearly communicate their vision, and who see and validate the individual strengths of team members, can create the conditions that support everyone to shine and achieve amazing outcomes. That’s what I took away from the retreat.

“For any strategic initiative to succeed, a cooperative culture, connections and action are needed. We all contribute to culture, and as leaders we have greater opportunities to shape and influence it. At UNE we have experienced some difficult years, which have taken a significant toll on culture, wellbeing, and hope. The WATTLE program supported us to deepen contact with our values, to lean into our strengths, and to be real.”

For Associate Professor Jennifer McDonell, the intensive program equipped her with “powerful skills, strategies, confidence and connections to help realise her professional goals” and deepen her impact in the higher education sector.

“It provided me with insights into my personal strengths and how I might make a genuine difference to my team, the university and, most importantly, the students and communities we serve,” Jennifer said. “It helped me to further define my core values and how I might change my own behaviours to embody them in my day-to-day work, especially in my current leadership position as Chair of Academic Board.” 

The panels offered a chance for critical and deeply intersectional opportunities, meaning that Associate Professor Sarah Wayland left with a pledge to action the next stage of her career.

“WATTLE gifted me a collective of women keen to authentically explore what it meant to take our commitment to the university sector further and co-construct ways of working,” Sarah said. “We were encouraged to share the results of our leadership profiles with our senior colleagues at UNE and have them recommend the one thing we might engage with during the week – an overt act of both vulnerability and trust to ask them to reflect on our competencies. I valued their curious and kind responses and ways of thinking to enhance my work.”

Associate Professor Erica Smith said she saw first-hand that amazing things can happen when people feel safe and supported. “We looked closely at our inherent strengths and weaknesses and developed strategies on how to successfully work with people who have different strengths,” Erica said. “It sounds clichéd, but with all the conflict and misery in the world, this course gave me hope that a model of leadership that focusses on the common good rather than self-intertest will become the modus operandi, and I feel hopeful for the future.”

All five participants applauded the openness and honesty with which participants shared their thoughts and experiences.  It reminded Sarah to always have her “hand outstretched for others, to help other women on their journey through mentoring and coaching and compassionate leadership”.

Susie noted the importance of allyship from male colleagues in improving diversity in workplaces, and Jennifer expressed gratitude for the collegiality provided by her fellow UNE participants. “Their support reminded me of the amazing talent we have at UNE, and that success is always collective – a result of the networks upon which we all lean, and which we must proactively build and strengthen. We grow by empowering others.”