Distance, blackspots and love: Overcoming adversity to work in a rural area


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October 15, 2018 17:50:07

A 200-kilometre daily commute is not enough to keep Olivia Nunn out of the workforce.

She moved to Padthaway, a wine and farming region 300km south-east of Adelaide, 18 months ago after falling in love with a farmer.

Her background is in project management, but when she moved to the Limestone Coast she knew she was going to need to change careers.

She is now working as the executive officer of the Coonawarra wine region’s grower body.

The job is based at Penola, a two-hour round trip from her home.

She said the move had been great, but not without its challenges.

“We still continue to have lots of blackspots en route to work, so those phone calls that you probably used to take advantage of and be able to do using car kits in a city environment, they don’t exist necessarily when you’re in a rural environment,” Ms Nunn said.

Today is the International Day of Rural Women, celebrating the thousands of women around Australia and the world battling the tyranny of distance to stay in work and keep their regions alive.

Traditional careers not always an option

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics data, one third of Australian women live in rural and regional areas.

They are statistically less likely to remain in the workforce than their metropolitan counterparts — 56.5 per cent compared to the overall measurement of 59.2 per cent.

“There’s lots of instant constraints that come to mind even in regard to distance and travel,” Ms Nunn said.

But she said working in a regional area had given her a new set of skills.

“I think it’s having that diversity of experience and working with multiple stakeholders that really is a great skillset.

“Being in a regional centre you do need to have those relationships and build those relationships.”

Liz Rymill, a freelance journalist, farmer, passionate clay shooter and mother-of-two, is also based in south-east South Australia.

She said at first she had been unsure about what living rurally meant for the next stage of her career.

“I must admit for the first year I was a bit sitting on the fence. I didn’t really jump straight in and I didn’t quite know if there would be career opportunities,” she said.

Ms Rymill said in her experience, there had been opportunities for rural women to exercise technical skills, but they had not always been as clear-cut as capital city-based jobs.

“I have found that there are a lot of opportunities for women to collaborate with other people, using skills that they had in a past life, maybe they had before kids, and come together and work on projects in really any range of fields,” she said.

“There may not be as many traditional jobs going in rural areas that we see in the cities, but there’s no limit to the types of skills that you can still use to good effect in either your own local community, or working remotely.”

Leadership roles need to be more accessible

Ms Rymill said if Australia was serious about increasing female representation on boards and in leadership, there needed to be more flexibility to allow rural women to get involved.

She felt it was harder to break into higher levels of community leadership while raising a family in regional Australia.

“I hear a lot about getting more women on boards and more women into politics,” she said.

“I can rattle off lists of dozens of females who would make great contributions in those areas, but sometimes I think there’s a small opportunity of your life where you’re prepared to sacrifice what needs to be sacrificed to make a meaningful contribution in those areas.”

Unpaid work building strong communities

Pip Grant, from Rural Industries Research body Agrifutures Australia — which runs the annual National Rural Women’s Awards, announced tonight in Canberra — said more women than ever were participating in rural workforces.

“They are all contributing in a really diverse way,” she said.

“We’ve got everything from inventors who are coming up with ways of processing foods and challenging the war on waste, to start-ups, to rural stakeholder pods and incubators that are giving other members of the community the chance to drive innovation in their rural communities.

“Even in more traditional domestic roles … running a lot of the community groups and programs.

“There’ll always be a lot of resilience and a lot of ingenious ways to work around the distance.”

Ms Grant said community groups were just as important as industry in maintaining strong rural communities.

“It takes a really strong industry and community balance to have a thriving and prosperous rural area,” she said.

Katie Dawkins, a stay-at-home mum in Naracoorte, SA, met her husband Tom while working for the Department of Immigration in China.

When they moved back to her home town, Ms Dawkins decided to start volunteering with her Country Women’s Association branch.

The group, called the Limestone Ladies, made the news when it began as one of the first branches of the organisation targeted specifically at young women.

Ms Dawkins said she had put the skills from her career to use helping her local community.

“My work previously had involved some grant writing and managing grants,” she said.

“So this was something I thought I might be able to give back to our group.

“It’s a long way round, but to come back working with people in the regions and mixing that agricultural element with the international as well … it came back to exactly where I wanted it to be.”

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