Woman Somerset, Georgie (1967 - )

Born
1967
New South Wales, Australia
Occupation
Board Member, Farmer and Rural women's leader

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne, with the National Film and Sound Archive

Georgie Somerset is a Queensland beef producer and rural leader who believes that 'you serve the people you lead' (Interview). She is the current (2013) president of the Queensland Rural, Regional and Remote Women's Network (QRRRWN), an organisation she helped to establish in 1993. A mother of three, she is actively involved in the running of her family beef property in the South Burnett district and has extensive experience in rural tourism, regional development and media and communication strategies. She is passionate about developing the social capital in rural communities and in particular, the potential of rural women. Born on a property outside Glen Innes, New South Wales, in 1967, rural cultures and communities have been central to her sense of self, since day one.

Somerset grew up on a mixed farming property in New South Wales, with a relatively sophisticated power and generator system, but otherwise, services were basic. She remembers the property, built around hilly terrain as 'an idyllic childhood setting' (Interview). Primary schooling was done by correspondence with her mother teaching her children at home, because transport arrangements were difficult in the 1970s. When the family moved to a property near Winton in Western Queensland in 1978, services were even more primitive. Inadequate telecommunications were an issue well into the 1980s and the property was not served by mains electricity until 1979. Opportunities for meetings with other children were scarce and when they came they were 'precious'. Pony club, tennis club, even attendance at her mother's various community meetings were much anticipated events. Somerset thinks that she passively absorbed lessons on meeting procedure and good governance simply by being there!

When she was twelve, Somerset was sent to boarding school at Geelong College in Victoria; a long way from Winton. She describes it as 'a defining experience but not a particularly happy one' (Interview). She was introduced to a wealth of educational opportunities and some very fine teachers, but she recalls her time there as lacking a strong friendship group. There was a certain type of insularity about her classmates and a distinct lack of Australian regionalism beyond the western districts of Victoria. Somerset painted a non-comformist figure and felt socially isolated. 'The stress was not enjoyable, but experiencing it did make me stronger', she says (Interview). She spent the last two years of secondary school boarding in Toowoomba in Queensland, where she was much happier. At a smaller school, where nobody knew her, she was much more confident about joining into extra-curricular activities and taking on leadership roles. She performed well at school, got accepted into the University of Queensland to study clinical psychology, but deferred and never went back.

Instead, she helped her parents to establish a tourist farm-stay venture on their property. At the age of seventeen, she and two friends established and managed the venture, using the development of the Stockman's Hall of Fame in Longreach as a marketing hook to support inland travel to their property. She focused on promoting the property to the growing number of domestic and international tourists wanting to embark on a motoring holiday around Australia. She worked hard, saved money and spent her savings on a three month trip of her own to the U.S., Europe, England and Hong Kong. Upon her return, she got further involved in the travel industry. In 1989 she established her own company, Rural Tourism Australia. Working for herself, she understood how small operators could benefit if they joined forces. She helped to establish the state and national peak bodies for bed and breakfast and farmstay businesses. Somerset's career in voluntary support organisations was on its way. 'You see a perceived need and you work to solve the problem', she says. 'Leadership involves combining vision and a positive attitude to propel an idea and attract others to the cause' (Interview).

Somerset spent many years working in the travel industry and received sage advice and mentoring from 'a marvelous woman called Wendy Hall, who did not play cocktail party games', and Sir Frank Moore, the chairman of the Queensland Tourism Authority (Interview). She acknowledges that it was a blokey industry, in the era of the long lunch, and she was sexually harassed regularly. She had never connected with the feminist movement in any practical sense as she was growing up, always believing that she could do anything. But her experiences within her own industry alerted her to the existence of hard to define structures that reinforced gender discrimination and inequity. Nevertheless, she had also received firm encouragement from men in the industry who admired her ideas and work ethic.

Somerset met her husband Rob, while she was living in Brisbane and he was on the property they now both run near Burrandowan. Constant commuting had a negative impact upon her health so Somerset, who had always been an early adopter of technology, decided she would move from Brisbane to be with him and telecommute. She has been there ever since. In the early 1990s, Somerset began focusing less upon her travel industry business and more upon the family farm, her own family and, now that she was part of their number again, the needs of women in a remote rural and regional communities.

Rural communities in the early 1990s were under great stress due to changing global economic and environmental conditions. Government services were being removed, young people were leaving in search of work and an atmosphere of despair pervaded. Somerset believed that regeneration was possible and that rural and regional women were vital to the process. Unsure where to start, she took the opportunity to broaden her skill set. She attended a Rural Development Program run by the Office for Women, where she met women from Ireland and Austria who had done extensive work in the area of rural community revitalization in their home countries. The residential program represented something new in the area of workshop facilitated training in Queensland and Somerset came away feeling enthusiastic, empowered and ready to facilitate skills development in others. In the early 1990s Queensland state government recognised that economic development was impossible without investing in people. The Department of Regional Development implemented a program of Future Search Workshops, designed to build capacity in rural and regional communities who wanted to lead the process of revitalization. Somerset was quick to get involved in this series of workshops.

At the same time, rural and regional woman around the nation were beginning to organise, arguing that their contributions to the economic and social well-being of their communities should be acknowledged and encouraged. Somerset was a founding vice president of the Queensland Rural Women's Network, established in 1993. She thanks her early facilitation training through the Department of Regional Development for the success of the early meetings of the network, along with its non-hierarchical organizational structure. 'We ran meetings along the feminist collective model with women who would never have called themselves feminist', she says (Interview). But a collectivist approach helped to distribute workload, share information and inspired confidence in women who were not used to expressing a point of view and being listened to.

Since those early days, Somerset has served on numerous boards and government agencies and her preference for organisations that prefer non-hierarchical approaches and leaders who regard leadership as a privilege hasn't changed. As well as her role on the board of the Queensland Rural, Regional and Remote Women's Network she currently sits on the National Rural Advisory Council , the Queensland Rural Adjustment Authority and the Queensland State Planning Group for the State and Australian Government funded FarmBis program. Previous board experience includes the second Queensland Women's Consultative Council in 1995-96, the Queensland Rural Women's Network executive committee for over 10 years from 1994, in roles including vice president and state media coordinator, and advisory positions with the National Council of Women of Australia in Queensland and Australian Women in Agriculture. She has been involved in the Isolated Children's Parents Association and the National Foundation for Australian Women and is a fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and the Australian Rural Leadership Program. Through each engagement, she learns more about what makes a good leader, and a good organisation. 'I'm attracted to organisations that have a clear sense of their values and incorporate them into their policies and processes. That enables leadership at a local level' (Interview).

Somerset's energy seems boundless, but she says she has learned how to set limits. She suffered 'volunteer burn out' by the time she was thirty, and is much better now at managing her time and picking her causes. She gets an enormous kick out of facilitating change and growth in others; helping other women to put forward their own concerns, because it is very hard to pick up someone else's idea and run with it. It's about sharing, communicating, recognising the strengths in others and enjoying playing in the back room. 'Leadership in communities isn't about centres of influence, it's about the people who help others to find their way through' (Interview).

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Georgie Somerset interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project [sound recording], 25 May 2011, ORAL TRC 6290/4; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources

Online Resources

Digital Resources

Title
Georgie Somerset interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project [sound recording]
Type
Audio
Date
25 May 2011
Place
National Library of Australia
Control
5216532
Repository
National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

Details

Title
Georgie Somerset: The Queensland Rural, Regional and Remote Women's Network
Type
Audio
Date
16 August 2013
Place
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC): 612 ABC Brisbane
Publisher
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)

Details