In summary

  • Swinburne’s Professor Virginia Kilborn and Professor Helana Scheepers are co-founders of the WATTLE Women in Leadership Program
  • The program strengthens the pipeline of women for leadership in senior academic and managerial positions
  • The WATTLE program contributes directly to the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program, which is dedicated to improving gender representation in STEMM disciplines

The inaugural WATTLE (Women ATTaining LEadership) Alumnae Symposium was held online in November 2020, showcasing the two topical themes of Leading in a Changing Landscape and Compassionate Leadership.

The Symposium brought leadership experts and WATTLE alumnae from across the country to share their experience, expertise and encouragement for increasing and strengthening the numbers of women in senior leadership positions in the tertiary sector.

The WATTLE program was founded in 2018 by four Swinburne women: Professor Virginia Kilborn, Professor Helana Scheepers, Professor Birgit Loch and Professor Rosemary Stockdale - two founders have since moved on to other universities and brought the WATTLE mission with them. Professor Kilborn, Dean of School of Science, Faculty of Science, Engineering and Technology and Professor Scheepers, Academic Director, Research Training, Faculty of Business and Law continue to strengthen and support Swinburne’s mission of increasing gender diversity in senior positions.

The two-day Symposium included presentations and panel discussions by some inspirational leaders and academics.  All of the women that presented had worked hard to get where they were in their respective areas of expertise. 

The program also works in collaboration with the alumnae of the NZUWiL (New Zealand Universities Women in leadership Programme), who joined the WATTLE participants in a virtual discussion on the second day of the Symposium.

Since its foundation, WATTLE has contributed directly to the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program and supported Swinburne’s SAGE action plan (2019-2022), as well as its Anthea SWAN Charter. In line with the aims of these programs, WATTLE addresses the underrepresentation of women in senior levels of leadership by bringing together potential female leaders across the university sector.

“The program aims to provide women thinking of going into leadership positions with a network of women for support, as well as to give them practical skills as they head into their leadership positions,” says Professor Kilborn. 

The program takes on participants from both the academic and professional sectors, facilitating important conversations about the varied and shared experiences of women across the two sectors.

“What we are trying to do is show that the path to leadership is varied and different for everyone. But in the end, the overarching message is that even if you take some crooked steps, you will get there in the end if you keep going at it,” Professor Kilborn says. 

The first day of the Symposium was dedicated to the topic of leading in a changing landscape, which has become an increasingly important point of discussion in recent times. 

“The topic of leading in a changing landscape is relevant right now, not just because of COVID-19 but because of the changing landscape in the university sector in Australia,” Professor Kilborn explains.

Dr Emma Lee is Swinburne’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact.

On the second day of the Symposium, Swinburne’s Dr Emma Lee gave a heartfelt and inspiring talk on compassionate leadership. Dr Lee is a trawlwulwuy woman of tebrakunna country, north-east Tasmania, and an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Research Fellow at Swinburne’s Centre for Social Impact. Dr Lee drew on her personal experiences as an Aboriginal woman to share invaluable insights on the power of resilience, reconciliation and recognition.

“I talked about resilience out of trauma and my journey to learn how to give others a place of belonging and connection to Indigenous people and each other, particularly to other Tasmanians,” says Dr Lee.

“The questions that were put to me afterwards about resilience, self-care and how I’m able to love in the face of non-acceptance meant that I had really made a connection with the women both here in Australia and New Zealand, our sisters across the seas, and I’m forever grateful for that opportunity.”

“It was also amazing to see all women organising and doing all the IT work and behind the scenes. It gave rise to a place of cultural safety for me which allowed me to be vulnerable in what I was speaking about.”

WATTLE has received excellent feedback from the program participants and looks forward to continuing to work with aspiring Swinburne leaders in the future.

Past WATTLE participants from Swinburne have been Deborah Dempsey, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Vicky Peters, Manager, Indigenous Student Services, Moondani Toombadool Centre, Professor Anita Kocsis, Director of the Design Factory, Professor Dong Ruan, Chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Product Design, Associate Professor Aimin Yu, Department of Chemistry and Biotechnology, Nicola Howard, Business Readiness Manager and Lys Bradshaw, Group Services Director, Facilities.

To learn more about the WATTLE program and all they have to offer, you can visit their website at

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