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‘A great support’: Women’s Leadership Network enables mentoring and knowledge sharing

The award-winning Women’s Leadership Network, encompassing a mentoring program and webinar series, is supporting women at Public Works to connect, share experiences, and solve shared challenges.

Women make up for 34 percent of Public Works staff, holding key roles in senior leadership through to project delivery and support.

“Women face unique challenges and successes working among a largely male workforce,” said Public Works Executive Officer Kim Sweetnam.

Azaz Un-Abi (L) and Project Manager Emerie Anonical

Azuz Un-Abi (L) with Project Manager Emerie Anonical (R) at Chifley Dam

In 2021, Public Works set up an all-woman mentoring program and Women in Leadership webinar series, together referred to as the Women’s Leadership Network.

“The goal was to initiate networks that support and encourage women in Public Works to share knowledge, challenge behaviour and mindsets, and increase exposure opportunities across the business,” said Ms Sweetnam.

Mentoring program provides a ‘safe space’

From Bathurst to Bourke, Public Works project managers work in far-flung places across NSW, which creates some challenges for their personal and professional development.

For instance, project managers in remote areas sometimes find it hard to connect with and learn from project managers in other regions.

“Another challenge is that female staff may not always have a female role model or women leaders they can speak with,” said program sponsor Sarah Wylie, who is also the Regional Director for the Hunter New England (HNE) region.

Sarah Wylie, Regional Director Hunter New England

To combat this, the mentoring program pilot brought together 17 female staff from the Riverina-Western and HNE regions.

“There was a mix of facilitated small group sessions and one-on-one mentoring sessions between younger staff and a senior leader,” said Ms Wylie of the three -month pilot.

One of the pilot participants was Michelle Viola, Senior Program Manager, Grant Program Assurance, HNE Region.

“I got to know women from other regions, and we were able to speak openly about successes and challenges within the business, the regions and our personal lives in a collaborative and supportive setting,” said Michelle, one of three program leaders.

“No matter the age or stage, it was beneficial to be open and honest with the group and within yourself. It created more confidence and self-awareness for me.”

Other participants found it equally beneficial.

“The program established networks beyond region boundaries, allowing women to support each other and share experiences,” said one participant from the Riverina-Western region.

“I formed a positive, ongoing relationship with my mentor, and we did problem solving together to address issues we were each facing.

“Young women need that exposure [to senior women leaders and role models],” she said.

Participant feedback showed the pilot program was a success and will be used to shape the program before it is rolled out to other areas of the business.

“Future programs will have a strong focus on connection and shared experiences. Time and open conversations were a significant benefit [of the mentoring program],” said HNE Operations Manager Susanne Cafe, who was a coordinator of the mentoring program.

“The program encourages collaboration across the business in areas that might not usually work together. That collaboration brings new ideas that have the potential to lead to new experiences and opportunities.”

Webinars encourage women to ‘dare to dream’

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

This quote by John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, was the inspiration for the four-part ‘Passion + Position’ webinar series held in 2021.

Quotes from Passion and Position Webinar

“The sessions shone a light on women in leadership roles in Public Works and Regional NSW —who they are, where they come from, and what they do,” said Ms Sweetnam, who coordinated and facilitated the webinars.

“Public Works is very male dominated, particularly in leadership. We wanted to highlight women who hold key leadership positions in the organisation and explain how our female leaders got to where they are today.”

Over 150 people from Public Works and the Department of Regional NSW attended each webinar, featuring three female staff from Public Works and a guest panellist from Regional NSW.

Speaking at a webinar, Public Works Executive Director Drew Varnum said it is important for women be in positions of leadership to be able to influence.

“Women bring diversity of thought, and they own their vulnerability. They are intelligent and savvy and have a level of energy and enthusiasm.

“At Public Works one of our values is ‘thinking differently’ and women bring that in spades.”

The success of the webinar and mentoring program led the Women’s Leadership Network to win the runner up Diversity Award in the 2022 Department of Regional NSW Annual Staff Awards.

“These initiatives have highlighted the importance of diversity and creating positive platforms for women to share lived experiences,” said Ms Sweetnam.