Special Look: Rurality, Gender and Workforce Participation

This chapter provides a special look at research on the intersection of gender and workforce participation in rural areas.

In 2022-23, the Commission engaged Dr Cathy Tischler, Dr Kelsey McDonald, Ms Emma Dallamora and Professor Keir Reeves to undertake research into the gendered challenges faced by women working rurally in the Grampians region of Victoria. Their findings demonstrate the unique challenges and barriers faced by women working in the Victorian public sector in a rural location.

The researchers reviewed both CGEPS audit data for organisations primarily located in the Grampians region and literature to inform questions for individual and group interviews. These interviews were conducted with employees, managers, and executives from nine local public sector organisations based in the Grampians area. A total of 75 interviews were conducted, with 36 of these being individual interviews. A gendered breakdown of participants shows that 36% of interviewees were men and 64% were women. The research team asked open ended questions regarding career progression, workplace flexibility and management practices to understand the different needs of rural workforces and how women in these areas can be best supported. For further details of the research methodology, please visit our research page.

Key findings  


The location of rural organisations often causes issues when recruiting required experts. Participants reported risks when bringing technical staff to rural areas, as new hires may not like the location and leave after just a few months. Limited applicant pools can also cause issues in achieving a diverse workforce – participants recounted at least one instance where all applicants for a particular role were men. 

Workplace flexibility

Researchers found that low staffing rates and high workloads compromised workplace flexibility. They reported that this creates additional barriers for women to work while supporting their families, as they tend to have more caring responsibilities. In many instances, women’s partners were unable to share caring duties due to the nature of their own work. A lack of childcare options, as well as challenges related to distance between school or childcare and workplaces further constrained women’s ability to participate in the workforce.

Additionally, participants reported inconsistencies in flexible working policies and procedures between organisations, as some women received more support than others. 

The researchers also found that women who moved to part-time work – particularly when returning from maternity leave – at times faced workload challenges. Women in this position sometimes found they were expected to, or had the perception that they needed to, do the same amount of work as a full-time worker, but without appropriate compensation.

Leadership aspirations

The researchers identified several barriers to women’s leadership aspirations in rural settings. They found that women perceive senior management roles as having limited flexibility and low supports for family caring responsibilities. Participants expressed their careers are often tied to a limited location, based on where their partners work. 

The researchers also found that reductions in senior and middle-management roles further reduced leadership opportunities for women. This was compounded by executives (who are mostly men) staying in these limited leadership roles for lengthy periods. 

Attitudes towards gender equity 

The researchers found a variety of attitudes towards considering gender in employment and the workforce. When leadership promoted merit-based recruitment approaches, they seemed to believe their practices were ‘naturally fair’. The researchers discuss how this ignores gendered barriers to work success and perpetuates gender inequality. The research found that barriers to workforce participation for women in rural areas were often hidden. It recommended embedding gender equality considerations structurally in organisational values and culture, so that people of all genders can participate more fully in caring responsibilities.

Furthermore, the researchers found that in smaller, rural public sector organisations, gender equality-focused work was often assigned as an additional responsibility to one worker’s already busy workload. This additional task also often fell onto women employees.