Do we think of regional and rural employees as less competent?
There’s no doubt that those in Australia’s rural regions are thought of as hard-working and resilient – even more so as the nation empathises with the plight of farmers during a devastating drought.
But do we view them as overall competent as people with more urban experience? If you were choosing between two lawyers, and one had rural experience and the other had recently worked at a firm in inner-city Melbourne, who are you more likely to choose?
Not feeling up to scratch
In a recent article for the ABC, journalist Kirsten Diprose used the term ‘geographical narcissism’ – the idea that people working in Australia’s main cities are better at their jobs than those in rural or regional areas.
Diprose traded in her city life for the quiet Victorian countryside when she “foolishly fell in love with a farmer”. She speaks of the things she loves most about country life, such as the community feel, the stunning landscape and being close to her family, but says that’s not how she’d frame her decision to relocate to a prospective employer.
“If I am talking about my career I am quick to highlight the 10 years of experience I have working as a journalist in Melbourne and Sydney,” she says. “Some people think if you’re not working in the metropolitan centres, then you must not be good enough at what you do. You never cracked the ‘big time’ or you were too afraid to try. It’s an attitude that can hold many regional professionals back.”
Malin Fors, a clinical psychologist at Finnmark Hospital Trust in Norway, tackles this topic in her paper on geographical narcissism. She makes a lot of interesting points, from the urban sense of entitlement to anonymity, to valuing expertise over wisdom (think corporate training gained in a metropolis HQ versus knowledge acquired from lived experience in a rural workplace).
While Fors focuses on the field of psychotherapy in her paper, many of her comments could be applied across a variety of industries. For instance, she refers to the idea that certain rural employees get treated as ‘leftovers’ who don’t have what it takes to cut it in the big smoke.
Of course, this isn’t true. There are plenty of reasons someone would opt for a rural/regional career, including more job opportunities in their field, a move to support a partner’s career choice (as was the case for Diprose) or simply seeking a change of scenery.
So is there a bias against people with experience in rural Australia?
We know that attracting talent to rural Australia has often been a challenge for employers. For example, to get teachers out of the big cities, they have been offered attractive benefits like extra allowances, additional leave, annual retention benefits and annual financial incentives (from $20,000-30,000). Similar incentive packages are offered to those in the medical profession. If employers are offering up impressive benefits like this, it could be seen as a desperate act to attract jobseekers and the shine of the role might fade a little.
But that’s a bias against going rural. What about the opposite? Even though there doesn’t seem to be any specific data on an anti-rural bias (but please feel free to link to something in the comments), one unconscious bias makes it highly likely that urban employers would put rural candidates at a disadvantage – similarity or affinity bias.
Those who live in rural areas are likely to have attended their local universities, in the same way urbanites are likely to have done the same thing. As fresh graduates go out into the workforce, assumptions are made about the university they attended, which could be linked to assumptions about their families and socioeconomic status which, unfortunately, can lead to assumptions made about their capabilities for a certain role.
The upshot of these assumptions is that employers, consciously or otherwise, end up hiring people that look, act and sound just like them – often those who went to similar schools/universities as they did.
But such discrimination isn’t just one way. Those from rural areas can reinforce it.
I’m an alumni of Charles Sturt University in Bathurst. When people ask about where I attended university, I find myself justifying my education, even to this day.
“I went to CSU. It’s one of the best universities for journalism in Australia. We have our own radio station that broadcasts to the entire Central West of Australia. My entire cohort were employed within the first two months of graduating. Did you know Andrew Denton also went there? So did a bunch of other famous journalists, I can’t remember their names right now. I could have gone to a different university, but I really wanted to challenge myself to live in a different environment…”
Ask someone who did a journalism degree at RMIT or UTS the same question and they’ll probably say little more than the institution’s name, because that’s where all the gravitas lies.
The truth is, I never really used the campus radio station. And I did apply for a prestigious urban university, I just didn’t get in. Also, even though no one cares that I’ve chugged beers at the same uni bar as Andrew Denton, I can guarantee that I’ll tell some version of this story to the next person who asks about my educational background. Why? Because there’s a small part of me that needs to prove that I belong in a Sydney workplace.
Fors has a similar story. During her time spent in the major city of Tromsø in Norway, during her postgraduate studies, she says it was clear that those she encountered looked down on her rural background.
“They never asked how our clinic operated or what they could learn from us. One woman even ‘taught’ me to use a crosswalk,” she says.
“I seemed to exist in her mind as a rural savage. The most unsettling part of this experience is that I found myself defensively joining her bias, saying I was originally from Gothenburg (population: 550,000) – as if I agreed that rural people are ignorant about crosswalks. Oppression makes people introject a version of both the oppressor and the oppressed, a complicated mix of feelings of inferiority and resistance.”
This kind of regional imposter syndrome is felt across all industries, and the notion that the “less competent” employees are sent out to work rurally is a damaging stereotype that we need to eliminate, according to Dr Kristy Hess, a communications associate professor at Deakin University.
“By default, regional areas are perceived as ‘lesser’. It is acceptable to us all that regional people move to the city for ‘opportunity’,” Hess told the ABC.
Hess says not only do we need to work on shifting the mindset of urbanites who may look down on rural workers, but we should also promote and celebrate the opportunities that regional and rural areas have to offer.
“Imagine if we turned this idea on its head and more and more city people thought of regional areas as the land of opportunity. Not simply because they cannot find employment in the city or because they can’t afford to contend with rising city house prices,” she says.
Advances in technology and increased digital connectivity means regional and rural opportunities are easier to make work than ever before. If we’re going to talk about cultivating diverse and inclusive workplaces, we don’t just have to shift our mindset around the role women, culturally diverse, disabled or neurodiverse staff play in our workplaces. We also have to think about how we’re incorporating, harnessing and valuing the skills that are present beyond the coast.
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