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Cultivating Confidence – Say ‘Yes’

This opinion piece is part of the Crawford Fund’s ‘NextGen’ program to encourage the next generation in their studies, careers and volunteering in agriculture for development. Jane Alver, ACIAR’s Associate Research Program Manager for Gender, has not had a conventional ‘ag researcher’ path to ag research, but she has some pearls of wisdom for those who want to create their own pathways, even from non-agricultural sectors.

Let me start with a story. In 2006 I was a volunteer lawyer in Kiribati. I was asked at short notice, ‘do you want to go to Samoa to participate in the fisheries negotiations’. If you ever get asked a question like that, the answer is always ‘yes’. Did I have fisheries expertise, no. Did I have transferable skills (such as advocacy, negotiation, stakeholder engagement, forging networks). Yes.

I read all the papers as fast as I could. 

I worked hard in partnership with the Fisheries Director to get our points across and participated actively in the negotiations. We covered overfishing, distant water fishing vessels, sustainable fisheries protection, unregulated and illegal fisheries, and regional fisheries positions for the Pacific. I then took that experience and continued to provide fisheries advice for the next year.

Fast forward 13 years, picture this  – I am applying for a role in a leading agricultural research development institution. I am able to discuss my involvement in fisheries as relevant to agriculture. I am able to describe my current research in the Pacific in diverse women’s alliance formation as relevant. I identify the transferrable skills I have from my work and life experience. I get the job.

The moral of the story – say yes. Even when you are not sure, say yes. You never know what will come of it and where it will lead. You can play a leading role by supporting others, making space for views to be heard, bringing transferable skills, linking people and ideas, researching for impact.

On 31 October this year I had the privilege of speaking at the Public Sector Women in leadership conference in Canberra. The Summit was focused on how to be change makers and to share leadership skills and strategies. My panel theme was ‘Cultivating Confidence’. We covered taking risks and accepting responsibility. We flagged communicating persuasively and acting decisively. We also covered how to get heard and make a difference. A career in international agricultural research will lead you to these end goals.

It made me reflect on what led me to this point in my career, which has spanned international development volunteering, gender, law, research and policy. In 2016 I stepped out of my comfort zone as a lawyer to follow a gender researcher path. I took a risk – and it has opened doors into research for development.

Confidence of speaking up comes from saying yes more often – accepting panels and becoming more comfortable with the ‘leadership’ label. This in turn will increase your power in getting heard – and also amplifying others. Making space for those around the table who do not speak up is an important part of leadership.

What do I do now? My focus is on gender as a cross cutting issue in agricultural research for development. Ensuring that it is understood as more than ‘are women involved?’ Asking ‘at what levels, with any decision-making seniority?’ Are the projects designed with gender norms and differentiated gender impacts at their heart? Does the project impact differently on women and men? Why? How could this be mitigated via resources, sensitivity, negotiation, redesign. What do the findings say about the status of gender equality in that area that could be captured for future research?

A career in international agricultural research for development will take you places you never thought you would end up, be fulfilling, meaningful and impactful.

A career in international agricultural research for development will take you places you never thought you would end up, be fulfilling, meaningful and impactful. Keep saying yes to opportunities as they will be varied and have meaning for you and for food security and ending poverty and contributing to sciences, including social science and political science,  and gender equality and nutrition and health and more.

There are lots of people and opportunities that will support and encourage you in your study, careers and volunteering in international agricultural research. All of us as researchers play a role in knowledge production and capture and want to ensure our work has an impact. Speaking up, leading with confidence and bringing others along with you will do that.

Find the transferable skills and be bold in advocating what you can bring. A new lens, new research ideas, social science approaches complementing scientific approaches, and career changes can all address problems and find solutions in agricultural research, for poverty alleviation, sustainable development, capacity building, gender quality, food security, improved nutrition, new markets, value chain efficacy, natural resource management, reducing risks to human health, adapting to climate change and more.

A career in international agricultural research for development can be transformative for both you and the people and places you will work with. Say yes. I look forward to the impact your work will make on the world for years to come.

Ms Jane Alver is the Associate Research Program Manager for Gender at the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). Jane has enjoyed a varied career as a public servant, researcher and lawyer, including across the Pacific region. She has a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) from the University of Sydney and a Master of Studies (Women’s Studies) from the University of Oxford. She is currently completing her PhD in Political Science at the University of Canberra focussed on Pacific feminist civil society alliances. She was named in the 100 Women of Influence for Public Policy in 2018.

This article was initially published here on crawfordfund.org and has been replicated here with permission.

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