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Building capability in women through education

Building capability in women through education

As the Executive Director of UN Women, Janelle Weissman is championing women's access to higher education and gender equality at the most senior levels in the Australian workforce and around the world.

Janelle Weissman is a transformational leader who has a deep passion for women’s empowerment and gender equality. Raised within a family who introduced her to community meetings and protests, Janelle has been questioning equality and justice from an early age. In 2016, she was appointed Executive Director of UN Women National Committee (NC) Australia, in a partnership with The University of Sydney Business School to provide opportunity for women to access higher education and promote gender equality at the most senior levels in the Australian workforce. Hear from Janelle as she shares on the importance of partnership, education and social change.

The power of partnership

"In March 2014, The University of Sydney Business School and UN Women NC Australia established a partnership in a joint effort to promote gender equality at the most senior levels of the nation’s public, corporate and not-for-profit sectors. We have a shared commitment to providing women with opportunities to develop the skills that current and future generations of leaders will need if they are to meet the challenges facing Australian industry and the wider community. Integral to this commitment is the joint UN Women NC Australia MBA Scholarship, [because] education unlocks opportunity. It’s as simple as that. Prior to the scholarship, disproportionately more men than women participated in the University of Sydney MBA, a story all too common in MBA programs across Australia, and around the world. To see that tide turn, so much so that since 2015, the University of Sydney MBA intake has hovered around 50/50, means that more women will have that competitive edge of an MBA on their CV – and more importantly, the opportunity to hone their management and leadership skills in a dynamic learning environment."

Why is it important for UN Women NC Australia to be sponsoring the scholarship?

"An MBA can be an important accelerator to advance women’s opportunities in the workforce. Financial barriers are some of the biggest roadblocks preventing women from pursuing an MBA, so working with The University of Sydney Business School to provide two full scholarships to women each year is an exciting way for us to facilitate access to higher education. Through the process of promoting the scholarships, we’ve also found there are more businesses recognising the importance of investing in women’s talent and in some cases, sponsoring their staff to participate in the program – resulting in an overall increase in women pursuing an MBA at The University of Sydney Business School. Ultimately, we hope to grow the pool of women who have access to higher education who then apply their learning in the workforce to advance their careers as leaders, and as agents for social change, with a particular focus on gender equality and women’s empowerment."

In what ways do you hope the successful recipient will leverage their new skills/education?

"For us, successful scholarship recipients will take advantage of every opportunity throughout their course of study and beyond to understand themselves as individuals and harness their unique leadership qualities to contribute to their area of work. We also hope they will interrogate discrimination and stimulate dialogue, policy, and practice to create more equitable workplaces. They will consider what role businesses have to accelerate social change and explore what role they can play to make a difference in advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment on every stage."

What success have you seen through the initiative in previous years?

"From the beginning, we hoped that the scholarship would unlock doors of opportunity for women to access an MBA and propel their careers forward. This is about encouraging women to consider MBA programs and encouraging employers to ask what they can do to make training, professional development and higher education overall more accessible to women in their workforce. We’ve witnessed scholarship recipients who have made substantial commitments to the work of UN Women, from participating in speaking engagements, to taking on personal and professional challenges by joining UN Women NC Australia’s Ride for Rights, a cycling challenge which brings our riders closer to the work of UN Women in Vietnam. (We’re recruiting for the September 2018 Trek for Rights Fiji right now, there are only a few spots left!) Overall, we’ve observed scholarship recipients taking on new challenges in their respective workplaces, questioning systems and spearheading initiatives to advance equality and women’s empowerment."

In what ways do you hope future recipients will leverage their new skills/education?

"For us, successful scholarship recipients will take advantage of every opportunity throughout their course of study and beyond to understand themselves as individuals and harness their unique leadership qualities to contribute to their area of work. We also hope they will interrogate discrimination and stimulate dialogue, policy, and practice to create more equitable workplaces. They will consider what role businesses have to accelerate social change and explore what role they can play to make a difference in advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment on every stage." 

What other measures do you think could be taken to increase women’s access to higher education in Australia?

“While there are some scholarships offered by the Australian government as well as scholarships offered by individual universities, it is heartening to see workplaces that are investing in the development of their people. Employers have a vested interest in retaining top talent, and emerging talent, and funding their people to pursue a degree is a great way to do just that. In addition, flexible access to higher education is essential. For anyone who has multiple responsibilities, whether that be paid work, being in a band or pursuing sport, caring for elders or littlies – to be able to pursue higher education ‘on your own time’ can make a world of difference to increase accessibility.  

Lastly, we need to consider curriculum, course convenors and faculty. Have we applied a gender lens to the way we teach finance? Have we considered ensuring that history textbooks are balanced and fair, inclusive in the history we teach? I know from personal experience (and this is now going back some time!) that when I read a text that felt biased, and there was no forum in the classroom to offer a critique, or a lecturer wasn’t amenable to hearing different points of view, well, pretty quickly many of us checked out. We need to ensure that institutions of higher education mirror the society in which we live, and consider the important role they have in shaping and challenging thinking, and preparing students to think critically.

In short, my hope and my true belief is that through equal opportunity in education, women will have access to more leadership opportunities, have their perspectives valued and listened to, and with that, foster innovation and impact. Education is essential for women to attain gender equality and become leaders of change.”

What has your appointment as Executive Director for UN Women National Committee Australia meant for you?

"I feel privileged to be the Executive Director of UN Women NC Australia. I also feel an enormous sense of responsibility. Prior to my appointment to the role in 2016, I spent the better part of two decades advocating for social change in many arenas including HIV/AIDS, environmental justice, sexual and reproductive health and women and girl empowerment. I worked at the grassroots and in private philanthropy. For me, UN Women combines my deep passion for women’s empowerment and gender equality with transformative change on a global stage. There is nothing more gratifying than inspiring people to donate and, knowing how far those dollars go to help UN Women to change laws, deliver essential services, and make the world a safer place where women are respected and can access economic and leadership opportunities."