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Helping young rural women achieve their leadership dreams

Gender equality campaigner Hannah Wandel AIMe believes women are naturals when it comes to multitasking. Her own career may just prove her point. Wandel balances her full-time job as Social Policy Adviser at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in Canberra with her role as chief executive of the not-for-profit organisation she founded two years ago, Country to Canberra. It aims to empower young rural women across Australia and to support them in reaching their leadership potential.

Growing up on a farm in the small town of Blyth in South Australia, Wandel was the only girl in her class at school, so she knows only too well the obstacles faced by many girls in country towns. When she left Blyth for boarding school at 15, Wandel noticed that gender inequality was compounded by geography.

“I discovered some of the career and education opportunity imbalances between the country and the city, whether that was access to mentorships, to school subjects or access to work experience,” explains Wandel. “Then, if you went on to university, there were additional barriers, such as the financial and emotional stresses of leaving home.”

Wandel’s goal was to break down these geographical and gender barriers to success. She launched Country to Canberra in 2014 with a $2000 grant from the YWCA in Canberra.

 

The not-for-profit’s flagship program is a national leadership competition that encourages high school girls in rural and remote areas to submit videos and essays about gender equality. The winners are awarded a “Power Trip” to Canberra, where they meet with politicians and influential female role models, such as Australia’s foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop and Tanya Plibersek, the deputy leader of the Labor Party. They also connect with mentors through the Raising Hope Education Foundation and undertake leadership and public speaking training through Australian National University and TEDx Canberra.

“The aim is to boost their self-confidence, to connect them to mentors and to inspire them to be leaders in their community,” says Wandel. “When they get home they also get six months of free online mentorship.”

Wandel and her small team of volunteers raise money for Country to Canberra through sponsorships and fundraisers. The next step is to launch a range of leadership workshops in rural and remote schools.

Much of Wandel’s free time is devoted to developing programs for Country to Canberra. This is where those multitasking skills are most valuable. “I spend at least one day of my weekends and about half of my annual leave on it,” she says. “It’s a sacrifice but it’s a sacrifice that I’m happy to make because I believe that we need gender equality in Australia, and we need proactive programs that target young women.”

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