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COUNT HER IN: Exclusive Interview with Maryanne Dever

06-Mar-2024 10:48 | Cassidy Lau (Administrator)

UN Women Australia has announced its theme of International Women’s Day 2024 as: Count Her In: Accelerating Gender Equality Through Economic Empowerment. At the Western Sydney Business Connection we wholeheartedly embrace this theme! We present, in collaboration with Westgate Executive Search, a leadership interview series featuring six influential women in our region. With an exclusive article each day leading up to the 8th of March, we celebrate prominent female leaders shaping Western Sydney's business, social and economic landscape. Explore their perspectives, experiences, and commitment to diversity and inclusion.

In our fourth COUNT HER IN feature, we explore Maryanne Dever's remarkable journey from accidental leadership at Monash University's Centre of Women’s Studies & Gender Research to her current role as Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Education at Western Sydney University. Join us as we uncover her inspiring narrative of empowerment and advocacy, shaping the future of academia for women.

Maryanne Dever

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Education, Western Sydney University

Maryanne Dever is the new Deputy Vice Chancellor, Education, at Western Sydney University. She is tasked with leading the University’s education innovation and quality enhancement strategy. Maryanne is an experienced higher education leader, with a track record in improving digital learning opportunities and a passion for the student experience. She is an experienced mentor of early career female academics and well known for her research in feminist literary studies.

Jacqueline Clements: One of the objectives of International Women’s Day is to empower women to fulfil their potential in all areas of life, including education, career, and personal development. Can you share how you decided to pursue leadership as your career path?

Maryanne Dever: My leadership journey started quite accidentally at Monash University, a long time ago. A range of circumstances led to me taking on the Director role at the University’s Centre of Women’s Studies & Gender Research. It wasn’t a role I had sought; I was simply the only person available at the time. I assumed the position and held it for eight years in the end, navigating through some difficult challenges to a point of stability and growth. It proved to be a valuable experience, allowing me to acquire new skills around people, planning, and finance.

This role gave me an initial taste of leadership and paved the way for my subsequent role as Associate Dean Learning and Teaching at UTS. Although not 100% sure at first that it was the right career step for me, I soon realised that I enjoy fixing problems, driving quality, and managing change. For the first time I was able to make decisions and address issues myself rather than passing them up the chain. I was encouraged at UTS to work on larger and larger transformation projects in learning and teaching, thus shaping my leadership trajectory. Critically, these experiences taught me the power of good relationships and collaboration within an organisation. And they gave me an appreciation for joined up solutions and insight into how we deliver on an organisation’s overarching vision.

I could take these insights with me when I moved to a new role three years ago as Pro Vice-Chancellor at the Australian National University. There I was responsible for strategies aligning education and digital innovation. Then when Western Sydney University announced last year that they were recruiting for the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Education, I put myself forward.

JC: How has your experience as a senior higher education leader and your academic background in feminist literature and gender studies shaped your views on leadership?

MD: In my view, it is very important for everyone to identify their own model of leadership. Our ideas of ‘good leadership’ can be very gendered. When we ask people to describe a good leader, we often end up with a series of qualities or attributes that align very closely with traditional masculine behaviours. We all need to learn how to lead in our own way. For me personally, that means leading in a collaborative way, being at all times highly respectful of people, being professional, and demanding the best of myself and the people around me.

Leading is not about being the most important or the loudest voice in the room. For me it is really about relationality — not a story about one person, but a story of how we bring people along with us. My leadership priority is to establish networks within and beyond the organisation to achieve our goals in partnership.

JC: Mentoring is often seen as a way to empower women in their professional career. What is your view on mentoring early career women and how does it impact inclusion?

MD: Mentoring is important. I have been very fortunate to have had good mentors in my career and for a long time have mentored women in universities myself. I think that one of the most important aspects of mentoring is information sharing, whether that’s about culture, career moves, remuneration. Why make every early career woman reinvent the wheel? That seems just time consuming and unnecessary. However, there are valid criticisms of mentoring, because it can be about showing people the ropes in a way that reinforces the status quo when maybe we ought to be challenging it.

To achieve better inclusion of women in senior roles, the mentoring conversation needs to take place alongside a conversation about sponsorship. As a mentor, I'm talking to you about your career; as a sponsor, I’m talking to someone else about you and your career. Mentoring without sponsorship won’t necessarily lead to career advancement.

Sometimes we can make a difference in women’s career opportunities with small gestures. At the Australian National University a senior colleague and I organised brown bag lunches to introduce early career academic women to senior women leaders in the Chancellery. There was no advertising or promotion of these gatherings, it was just a low-key initiative that turned out to be a really helpful way for us to learn more about what those women were experiencing at their career stage and for them to learn a little bit about the pathways that had taken us into senior leadership. I firmly believe that there is always something you can do beyond the precise job you’re hired for, no matter how small, that makes a difference.

JC: What can universities do to be more inclusive and promote diversity?

MD: In the time that I have been associated with universities, we have come a very long way. Universities are doing a much better job than they used to in recognising the diversity of students and of employees. In my role I feel a responsibility to ensure that we have an inclusive lens over everything we do.

It is relevant in this context to understand how we can improve flexibility in the learning opportunities we offer. Many of our students join us after working, parenthood and other life experiences. Where university fits in their lives is rather different than for students who enrol straight after high school. We have a significant number of students who are parents, trying to fit study around caring commitments.

During Covid we saw how flexible delivery can create greater accessibility and new developments in digital technologies will create more and better opportunities for flexible learning.

Higher education is an industry where things are happening, and we might not welcome everything that comes our way, but we are definitely not going to be standing still.

Presented in collaboration with:

By Jacqueline Clements
CEO, Westgate Executive Search

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