Date released
25 March 2020

Sonnthida Sambath is Deputy Head of the Agricultural Engineering Division at the Cambodian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI) in Phnom Penh.

Already successful in her career, Ms Sambath aspires to advance further in senior decisionmaking roles traditionally filled by men, while at the same time encouraging other Cambodian women—especially younger generations.

Adi Loraini Baleilomaloma-Kasainaseva, a forestry technician in Fiji, is also eager to develop her decision-making and leadership skills to enable her to further advance in her male-dominated profession. Ms Baleilomaloma-Kasainaseva works for the Pacific Community (SPC) in Suva, a key international development organisation in the region owned and governed by 26 Pacific member countries and territories.

To help these women—and others like them in international agricultural research-fordevelopment— to realise their goals, ACIAR has initiated the Meryl Williams Fellowship leadership training program.

The program is named after Dr Meryl Williams, a prominent scientist in Australian agricultural research and former Director-General of the CGIAR research centre WorldFish.

Dr Williams has more than 40 years’ experience working in international fisheries, aquaculture, aquatic resource conservation and development. She is an advocate of gender equality in fisheries and aquaculture, and of science aimed at fair, inclusive and responsible fish production for food security and nutrition.

Training commences

The first 20 successful Meryl Williams Fellowship holders met in late January for initial training conducted at the Armidale campus of the University of New England (UNE).

Over the subsequent 15 months they will complete a program of intensive workshops, mentorships, networking, online learning and an internship. There will also be an institutional workshop—involving the participants’ employer organisations—that will explore potential gender bias in workplace cultures.

This year’s intake of participants come from Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia. They include research scientists, managers in government agriculture/forestry departments, senior academics, an aquaculture centre director, an agribusiness manager, a seed company researcher and a sustainable-palm-oil consortium manager.

Values key to behaviours

Eleanor Dean, ACIAR General Manager of Outreach and Capacity Building, says the idea for the fellowship came about in 2017, soon after she joined ACIAR.

At the time the organisation was formulating its 2017–22 gender equality policy and strategy which recognised that the need for more women in positions of authority and influence in regional agricultural research was not just social but economic as well.

‘Women already play a key role in agriculture and do a lot of the manual work,’ says Ms Dean. The inspiration for the fellowship program came from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s successful AWARD program, which Ms Dean saw as a model that could be broadly adapted to the Indo-Pacific region.

Dr Rebecca Spence, who is running the workshops for UNE, says a key strength of the training program is that it’s ‘values-led’. ‘We start off helping the women learn more about themselves and how they can use this knowledge to help them understand how their personality affects the way they work within their team and within the workplace,’ Dr Spence says.

‘It’s all about understanding yourself, working out which values—for example, empathy, security, steadfastness, collaboration, family relationships—are integral to you.

‘Once the participants get a clear understanding of where their strengths lie and how their values align with, or complement, or diverge, from their team’s values and workplace values, they can better understand why people around them act the way they do.

‘We also explore how gender dynamics manifest in each country and what that means for practising leadership as a woman.

‘The other thing is that they learn to network [and] to support each other and get a clear understanding of which strategies have worked for others in terms of navigating gendered workplaces and how they might apply them in their own workplace.’

Engaging employer institutions

Dr Spence says the fellowship team is taking a flexible approach to the institutional workshop to be held within the region later in the program. The plan is to ensure the workshop environment is a ‘safe space’ for all participants.

‘We aim to bring a values focus to these workshops as well, demonstrating how culture and workplace values align,’ she explains. Women participating in the fellowship will also take part in research being led by UNE’s Professor Alison Sheridan, who is exploring factors affecting women’s leadership in agricultural research institutions in the Indo-Pacific. This research will be integral to assessing program outcomes.

Plans are already underway for a second intake of 20 women to begin the program in 2021. Ms Dean says that for the 2021 intake ACIAR will target participants from the Philippines, Myanmar, Nepal, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu.

Off to a good start

Ms Dean says she felt extremely satisfied seeing the enthusiasm and energy of the women attending the first workshop in January.

‘They’re switched on, engaged and embracing the opportunity to learn. They come from different backgrounds and cultures but have a lot in common because they’re all researchers working in the same general field.’

For Ms Sambath, the takeaway from the first workshop was the result of a panel discussion on how other women in leadership dealt with uncertainty in their jobs.

‘The lesson I learned is to keep pursuing the main goal,’ she says. ‘You have to be bold, rely on the information and experience you have, and own the decision you have made so the thing can at least be started.’

Ms Baleilomaloma-Kasainaseva says she also feels more optimistic about her future thanks to the fellowship.

‘Leadership is a skill for any role, either in the workplace or at home,’ she says. ‘In this case, the program will greatly contribute to my career as a woman working in a male-dominated field in the Pacific.’

Applications for the 2021 intake of Meryl Williams Fellows will open on 1st May 2020 and close on 31st July 2020.

Applications will be open to women from the Philippines, Nepal, Myanmar, Mongolia, Timor Leste, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga, Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands.

Feature image: At the launch of the fellowship (l-r): Dr Huyen Thanh Le Thi, mentor, Vietnam; Trinh Thanh Thao, fellow, Vietnam; Dr Hai Ly Hoang, fellow, Vietnam; Dr Meryl Williams; Dr Tran Thi Thuy Ha, fellow, Vietnam; Dr Rebecca Spence, lead trainer, UNE