VC with UOW student Sanjoli

Empathetic leadership is the way of the future

Empathetic leadership is the way of the future

On International Women’s Day, I’d like to remind all women the quote from Michelle Obama: “No-one told me I could do it.”

As the University of Wollongong’s (UOW) first female Vice-Chancellor, I feel a strong sense of duty towards highlighting gender inequalities and promoting equity for women in the workplace, society, home and academia. It is not just a privilege but a responsibility. My role’s biggest opportunity is to make real and lasting changes for women in the UOW community and more broadly. At the practical level, my priority is to boost the number of women in senior research and leadership positions. And one of the best ways to do it, apart from creating transparent pathways and flexible work opportunities, is to show examples of other women making waves.  

International Women’s Day, celebrated worldwide on 8 March, is one of these moments when we can shine a light on the many beautiful stories of female trailblazers and revolutionaries. We have many such fantastic women here at UOW, and I am proud to be their champion.  

Dr Tamantha Stutchbury is a researcher, a mother of four and a Director of iAccelerate, a unique UOW business accelerator and incubator empowering local entrepreneurs to develop their business ideas into successful companies. Growing up in regional Victoria as the first in her family to pursue higher education, Dr Stutchbury defied norms and expectations, blazing a trail that led her to become an advocate of people from diverse backgrounds – women, Indigenous entrepreneurs, people from regional and rural Australia or those living with disabilities.  

Despite starting as a scientist, Dr Stutchbury moved on to work in entrepreneurship and commercialisation. Reflecting on her journey, she acknowledges the challenges she faced as a woman navigating the often male-dominated landscape of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).“ I spent the first decade of my career often being one of the only women in the room,” she recounts. “During the next decade, I was often criticised for being ‘too maternal’ in my leadership style.” 

Dr Tamantha Stutchbury, Director of iAccelerate

At iAccelerate, Dr Stutchbury leads with compassion, creating an inclusive start-up environment where entrepreneurs learn to challenge their biases and thrive in diverse business structures.  Through initiatives like the LIFT program, designed to support women and girls in STEM and entrepreneurship, or the annual Women’s Entrepreneurial Breakfast, UOW’s incubator provides a platform for women from all walks of life to network, learn and thrive. 

This year, the theme of the UN’s International Women’s Day is: “Count Her In: Invest in Women. Accelerate Progress”.  In a world torn by conflict, economic hardship and climate threats, I am grateful to so many women around us who continuously provide solutions to our challenges. Women bring unique perspectives and approaches to leadership, often characterised by empathy, collaboration and relationship-building.  

One such young leader is Sanjoli Banerjee, a UOW student and a co-founder of Sarthi, an India-based NGO focusing on youth mental health, menstrual hygiene and holistic education. Introduced to activism at the age of five by her parents, Sanjoli embarked on a journey to raise awareness about pressing social issues such as climate change and female foeticide in India.  

After coming to Australia to study a Master of Social Work, Sanjoli’s dedication to social causes has accelerated, earning her international recognition and prestigious awards, such as The Diana Award and the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) Award from the UN Development Programme. As a student representative and mentor, Sanjoli has continuously advocated for diversity, inclusion and social justice within the university community.  

Wise beyond her years, she shared with me this observation: “To become a leader, first become yourself,” and “You don’t always need to be in positions of power to become a leader and bring change.” Sanjoli is living proof that we should lead from a place of empathy and cultural sensitivity, firm in our commitment to creating a more equitable and compassionate society. 

Even though in some parts of the world, women still have less access to education and professional pathways, I believe anyone can achieve great things, whether in research, leadership or other career avenues. But it’s also our collective responsibility to empower women to believe in themselves. I love this quote from Michelle Obama: “No one told me I could do it.” And I hope that, alongside other women from UOW, I can be someone who would tell these women – students, researchers, scientists – that they can do it. I was at a networking event one day and said to one of the academics, “Maybe you’ll be our next Vice-Chancellor”, and she looked at me in shock. I don’t think anyone ever tells women that they can do it. It's time for a change. 

This opinion piece by UOW Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Patricia M. Davidson was first published in the Illawarra Mercury's supplement.