34 obstacles women face to become CEO

In their 2014 Leadership Quarterly paper (Vol 25 Issue 2 pp 245-266 – sorry it’s behind a paywall), Terrance Fitzsimmons et al reported on the causes and timing of gender disparity in CEO roles (eg 55% of women are tertiary qualified, only 3% of CEOs are women). The authors interviewed 30 female CEOs and 30 male CEOs (matched by industry and company size) to find out how each had accumulated their leadership skills. They reported 34 causes (at 4 different timings) of gender disparity in CEO roles. That is, women face 34 barriers to their progression to CEO. Some were organisational or structural barriers. Some were discriminatory barriers. Put another way, male CEOs benefitted from 34 types of privilege or positive discrimination, that helped them succeed to the top job.

Reading through this paper, it seemed to me that these 34 obstacles might also be relevant in academia. I’m summarizing their findings here, and you can compare these to your own “lived experience” (family, education, career progression) and accumulation of “personal capital” (skills, experience, mentors, networks etc). The text in italics is taken directly from the Fitzsimmons et al paper (and I recommend you read it in full if you have access). My summaries/comments are added throughout in normal font.

Childhood

Male CEOs reported very similar childhoods to each other; there was a traditional division of labour where dad worked outside the home and mum worked in the home and cared for the kids. Female CEOs also reported very similar childhoods to each other, but their experience was quite different to the males. Almost all female CEOs reported having a mother who worked in paid employment or was involved in a family business. They almost all had to overcome adversity and take on adult roles as a child (eg through a forced international move; the death or serious illness of parents, siblings or close relatives; domestic violence or serious marital instability; or an estrangement from their parents before the age of sixteen”), through which they developed resilience and self-efficacy (I’ve written about my experience here – be warned, I’m told it’s confronting).

As children, male and female CEOs were treated differently: fathers generally encouraged boys but not girls into academia and careers; generally boys but not girls had the opportunity to take risks in their play and to develop leadership skills through team-based sports. Most female CEOs reported that a strong female role model – who did not fit the stereotypical domestic role – figured prominently in their lives as children.

Barriers for girls to develop the same “career capital” as boys were summarised as:

  1. lack of access to team based leadership activities
  2. lack of access to non-traditional female role models
  3. lack of career guidance
  4. directed into traditional tasks and roles
  5. not allowed to engage in risky childhood play

Junior management

In the early career stage, Fitzsimmons et al found that the self-confidence developed through adversity for women CEOs was not a substitute for the confidence to lead others that was accrued by men CEOs by this stage. The male CEOs had experience in leading and the women did not. This put women at a relative disadvantage.

Barriers for women at this early career stage, compared with men, were summarised as:

  1. not choosing major public company industries (in an academic setting, perhaps this would be equivalent to not training at an elite university – though I don’t know if fewer women than men train at these compared with other institutes – is there any evidence out there?)
  2. less willing to risk moving when faced with blockages (during their career, women CEOs moved far more often than men, in order to get promoted)
  3. lack of leadership capital creates heightened risk of failure
  4. lack of advice, planning and or mentoring (role models and mentors are essential in academia too, see my previous post on this issue)
  5. lack of confidence in communicating success (Impostor syndrome. Also, women CEOs attributed much of their success to the help of mentors; men CEOs were more likely to take credit for their success themselves)
  6. double bind in leadership roles (men are expected to be aggressive, women to be sensitive/compassionate. Yet women are evaluated negatively whether their leadership style is too feminine or too masculine.)
  7. not given line roles (opportunities are passed to men rather than to women)
  8. sexual harassment (yep, that’s a problem in academia too, see a previous post)

Middle management

By this point in their careers, most male CEOs had adopted their childhood model of a family unit: their wife worked in the home, was primary carer of their children and took responsibility for all domestic duties. Men CEOs interviewed often noted that having a family contributed positively to their career. Women CEOs reported the opposite: they had to “develop strategies to ensure their…career capital was not at risk”. Women CEOs that had children were the primary carers, had taken career breaks (usually quite short), had supportive partners, and engaged others to help with kids.

Barriers for women at this mid-career stage, compared with men, were mainly due to caring responsibilities, lack of support structures, and discrimination on the basis of gender:

  1. work structure: can’t part-time or job share line roles
  2. difficult to return to line roles/skills diminishment (after career breaks)
  3. selection methodologies: application versus sponsorship (differences were apparent in the way female and male CEOs were appointed to middle-management – women applied on their own initiative, men were sponsored)
  4. flexible work practices lack experiential credibility and resented (flexible work practices can be even more difficult for men to access for the same reason)
  5. lack of appropriate childcare/partner support (childcare access also a problem in academia)
  6. constrained in accepting international assignments (those women CEOs who reported international experience had gained that before they migrated to Australia)
  7. lack of opportunity to acquire social capital (lack of time due to family commitments meant that women CEOs focused on completing tasks rather than developing networks)
  8. children and relationships causing opting out (this is also a reason women leave academia at the mid-point in their career)
  9. assumption of having children: “will leave anyway” (women with children, but not men, are discriminated against in this way)
  10. won’t put in hours: “lack of commitment” (women with children, but not men, are discriminated against in this way)
  11. optionality of career: “lack of drive” (women with children, but not men, are discriminated against in this way)
  12. fear of reputational damage to mentors through sexual innuendo (another double bind; there aren’t many females up ahead who can act as mentors to mid-career women)

Executive management

When it comes to the source of the CEO appointment stage, once again there were some distinct differences in the narratives of men and women CEOs. Men were twice as likely to be appointed to the CEO position through an executive recruitment agency. Women were twice as likely to be appointed through an informal contact.

Barriers for women at this stage, compared with men, appeared to be due to leadership stereotypes and perceptions:

  1. lack of visibility to board networks
  2. lack of breadth and depth of experience relative to peers (presumably due to barriers at earlier stages)
  3. cultural inertia: it’s just the way it is (don’t blame us – it’s society/system fault – Athene Donald wrote about this same issue recently)
  4. riskier appointments result in failure (the glass cliff)
  5. disconnect between diversity management and succession planning (making the right noises but not the right actions)
  6. not credible in front of stakeholders (discrimination by boards; implicit bias)
  7. doesn’t possess appropriate leadership traits (discrimination by boards; implicit bias)
  8. doesn’t possess the confidence or resilience to be CEO (discrimination by boards; implicit bias)
  9. informal interview processes/co-option (discrimination in appointment processes)

What next?

It seems there is quite a bit of overlap in the issues affecting gender disparity in CEOs and leadership positions in academia and science. However, many of the barriers outlined above are not only barriers to women, they also block progression of those who don’t fit the white male heterosexual stereotype of leadership, and perhaps those who do fit that stereotype but who want to participate more fully in raising their children.

The finding that so many structural barriers and implicit biases are in play makes for sobering reading. On the other hand, that these 34 obstacles are now identified from this cohort of achievers can help us develop processes to remove them in the future. For example, some of the barriers for girls to develop leadership skills and self-efficacy during childhood are being addressed by Gina Meibusch through her innovative Girl Guides QLD Women of Substance program with the tagline “if they see it, they can be it”.

Going back to those 34 obstacles, it seems that I’ve been pretty lucky in my “lived experience”. By my count, only half of the barriers apply to me. Mostly because I don’t have children and because my childhood experience as eldest girl in a large family helped me develop self-efficacy (defined as a “belief in one’s own ability to complete tasks and reach goals”). There were one or two obstacles not listed in the Fitzsimmons paper that probably held me back in mid-career. Maybe I’ll write about those some time.

But now over to you. How did you fare against the 34 obstacles in your own “lived experience” and “accumulation of career capital”?

_____________________________________________________________

*updated on 1 Sept 2014 with correct link to Women of Substance*

#crystalcakes

This year is the UNESCO International Year of Crystallography (IYCr). And today – August 12th – is the last day of the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr) Congress and General Assembly being held in Montreal where more than 2,500 crystallographers from around the world have gathered to discuss the latest results, methods and analyses. The Congress is a bit like the Olympics for crystal scientists. It’s held every 3 years, and bidding to host the event is fierce. The 2017 Congress will be held in Hyderabad, and – just announced today – the 2020 Congress will be held in Prague. I hope I can make it to both!

The UNESCO 2014 IYCr is an exciting time for crystallographers. There are so many things to celebrate: recent centenaries including those of the first evidence of diffraction of X-rays from a crystal in 1912 (by von Laue, Friedrich and Knipping), the derivation in 1912 of the equation relating planes of atoms in a crystal with the X-ray diffraction pattern (by Lawrence Bragg – hence Bragg’s Law) that led to the first crystal structure determination in 1913 (by Lawrence Bragg and his father William Bragg), the first Nobel prizes to crystallographers (von Laue in 1914, father and son Bragg team in 1915). It’s a source of special pride in Australia that Lawrence Bragg, born and raised in Adelaide, the first Australian Nobel Prize winner, also holds the record for being the youngest ever Nobel Prize winner (he was just 25).

To help mark IYCr there have been ceremonies, stamps, coins (well 1/5th of a coin), sculptures, crystal blogs, photo competitions, videos and public lectures. But you don’t have to go global, or even national, to enjoy crystallography or to learn more about this fascinating science. This year, the Martin lab has gone crystal with its birthday cakes. On the suggestion of Dr Gordon King in the team, we decided to make our birthday cakes crystal-themed. And we chose to celebrate not just our own birthdays but also those of crystallography pioneers. I’d like to share with you 4 of the 15 amazing #crystalcake creations we have enjoyed to date.

Sodium Chloride #crystalcake by Dr Róisín McMahon

First up was Dame Kathleen Lonsdale – her 101st birthday was celebrated on Jan 28th. Dame Lonsdale was a fascinating person: born in Ireland, the last-born of a family of 10 children, she became the first woman Fellow of the Royal Society (1945), and the first woman Professor at University College London (1949). She was also “a committed pacifist and served time in Holloway prison during the Second World War because she refused to register for civil defence duties or pay a fine for refusing to register“. Lonsdale worked with William Bragg, who actively promoted women in science. Indeed, in her own wordsIn 1929 my first baby came and I found it rather difficult to do everything in the home and also find time for ‘Arbeit’ (research); so I wrote to W.H.B. (Bragg senior) and he persuaded the Managers of the Royal Institution to give me a grant of £50 for one year with which to hire a daily domestic helper. Her name was Mrs. Snowball (it really was!) and, with her to wash and clean, I managed to care for the baby, cook and continue the structure analysis of C6Cl6.

NaCl-cake

Sodium chloride crystal structure #crystalcake, designed and made by Dr Roisin McMahon

Gordon King, our #crystalcakes MC, noted “Her work included studies on the crystal structures of hexamethyl benzene (1929) and diamond (1944). Her paper on the structure of diamond (Nature 1944 Vol 153 No3892 p669) finishes with this interesting paragraph: “In some ways the problem of diamond is like a crossword puzzle.  We have clues, but in some cases we do not know the solution; in other cases there seem to be more than one possible solution.  But as Sir William Bragg said many years ago: “There is no cross-word puzzle that can compare in interest with the practical working out of a problem in Physics or Chemistry.  You may say that to work at an amusing thing is not a very noble task.  I can only answer that it makes a very happy life and I think that, if we can increase the number of human beings who find happiness in their work, we shall have gone some way towards creating a better state of things”.

Seems a pity that scientific journals don’t allow musings like this in the discussion any more.

Electron density #crystalcake by Dr Premkumar Lakshmanane

Prem-Magawcake

Electron density chocolate #crystalcake, designed and made by Dr Premkumar Lakshmanane

On June 1, we celebrated the birthday of Helen Megaw. Helen, like Kathleen Lonsdale, was born in Ireland, and her career spanned several decades and several countries and laboratories. She is credited with contributing crystallographic images used in art. “Her electron-density contour map of afwillite inspired both textiles and wallpapers.” Not to mention her Martin lab birthday #crystalcake. Helen received many honours in recognition of her research on the structure of ice and minerals. For example, she was the first woman to be awarded the Roebling Medal of the Mineralogical Society of America (in 1989, when she was 82). And according to Wikipedia, she has an island and a mineral named after her.

Ribosome #crystalcake by Dr Maria Halili

ribosome

Ribosome #crystalcake, featuring the 50S and 30S subunits, and made from chocolate cake, fondant, chocolate sweets, licorice and marshmallow. Designed and made by Dr Maria Halili

Ada Yonath, born in Israel on June 29 1939, shared the Nobel prize for Chemistry in 2009 with Venki Ramakrishnan and Tom Steitz for work on the structure of ribosome, the molecular machine that reads RNA and translates that information into the biosynthesis of proteins. Her research began in Dec 1979 and took many years to come to fruition. Ada persisted, and achieved her goal, despite advice from others including this is a dead end road’, and ‘you will be dead before you get there’. 

Photo 51 #crystalcake by Dr Wilko Duprez

Rosalind Franklin was born in London on July 25, 1920.

Photo 51 #crystalcake created from lime tart, Raffaelo, chocolate sweets, cocoa and icing sugar. Designed and made by Dr Wilko Duprez just a few weeks after his PhD was awarded.

Photo 51 #crystalcake created from lime tart, Raffaelo, chocolate sweets, cocoa and icing sugar. Designed and made by Dr Wilko Duprez just a few weeks after his PhD was awarded.

She died tragically young, at the age of 38. Martin lab celebrated what would have been her 94th birthday a few weeks ago, with a #crystalcake representing her famous photo 51. This diffraction image of DNA, described by JD Bernal as the most beautiful X-ray photograph of any substance ever taken, and more recently as the most important photograph ever, led to the molecular description of DNA – the blueprint of life. Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel prize for the structure of DNA. Rosalind Franklin’s untimely death meant she missed out.

There’s a bit of a theme

Yes, it’s true. I have focused on women crystallographer #crystalcakes in this post. They have such wonderful stories to tell. And that’s even without the Dorothy Hodgkin #crystalcake. Crystallography has a rich tradition of women pioneers, though perhaps less so in recent times. One might wonder what has changed recently. Perhaps there are clues to be found in the stories of Lonsdale, Megaw, Yonath and Franklin.

In any case, there are plenty more #crystalcakes to come this year, and plenty more stories to discover.

**updated on 15th Aug with corrected dates**

light at the end of the tunnel?

This week was pretty amazing. First I returned from more than 3 weeks away – **ON HOLIDAYS** – without email or internet (well not much anyway). As always, it was a mad scramble to catch up with things the first day back. And if I’m honest, I’ve still not quite caught up on everything.

Then, on Tuesday afternoon I traveled to Canberra to prepare for a very important meeting run by the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Forum. The SAGE Forum is an initiative of the Australian Academy of Science, and is chaired by two incredible scientists, Nobel Prize Winner/ARC Laureate Fellow/FAA/astronomer Prof Brian Schmidt (ANU) and ARC Georgina Sweet Laureate Fellow/FAA/mathematician Prof Nalini Joshi (Sydney Uni). The SAGE steering committee also comprises Dr Roslyn Prinsley from the Chief Scientist’s Office, Prof Sharon Bell DVC Charles Darwin University/author of previous reports highlighting gender inequity in academia, and Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and former Chair of the Academy’s Early- and Mid-Career Researcher Forum. And me. Regrettably Prof Caroline McMillen, VC and President at the University of Newcastle was unable to attend. What a team though. It’s humbling, inspiring and exciting in equal parts to be part of this incredible group.

The SAGE Forum Development meeting on Wednesday 31 July 2014 also included invited representatives from the following organisations:

  • Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes
  • Australian Academy of Science
  • Australian Research Council
  • Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
  • CSIRO
  • Defence Science Technology Organisation
  • Group of Eight Universities
  • Innovative Research Universities
  • National Health and Medical Research Council
  • Office of the Chief Scientist
  • Regional Universities Network
  • Research Australia Rural Research and Development Corporations
  • Universities Australia

We were all there to talk about gender equity in science, research and academia. To my knowledge this is the first time these organisations have been brought together to discuss this issue. We began with the data – presented first by Roslyn Prinsley showing that in Australia, in all fields of science and engineering, women progress through the pipeline at considerably slower rates than men. Then Sharon Bell presented new data supporting these figures and revealing that women are leaving in much greater numbers than men in large part because of the casualisation of the workforce, including the prevalence of short-term contracts in research and academia.

My contribution was to present on the Athena SWAN charter run by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) in the UK, which represents one possible model for addressing the systemic problems. Athena SWAN was established in 2005 in response to the chronic under-representation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine (STEMM), and the negligible change in progression of women in STEMM since the 1990s (i.e. the same issues we face in Australia). During my recent holidays in the UK I had the opportunity to visit the ECU in London and to talk with the CEO David Ruebain and the Athena SWAN manager Sarah Dickinson. They also very kindly provided me with information to present at the SAGE Development meeting.

The Athena SWAN Charter’s 6 guiding principles are simple:

1. To address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation

2. To tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation

3. The absence of diversity at management and policy-making levels has broad implications which the organisation will examine

4. The high loss rate of women in science is an urgent concern which the organisation will address

5. The system of short-term contracts has particularly negative consequences for the retention and progression of women in science, which the organisation recognises

6. There are both personal and structural obstacles to women making the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career in science, which require the active consideration of the organisation

Athena SWAN members apply for awards that recognise attainment and leadership in gender equality. A University department can only apply for awards once the University has achieved a bronze award. Currently, there are 319 award holders (61 Bronze universities, 4 Silver universities, 162 Bronze departments, 85 Silver departments and 7 Gold departments).

Why is Athena SWAN different? Because of what it is NOT. It is not simply a box-ticking exercise to show that appropriate policies are in place (eg family friendly support packages, support for women returning from extended leave) although these are clearly important. Instead, Athena SWAN requires member organisations to:

1. Collect data on women’s progression within their organisation
2. Critically analyse that data
3. Identify reasons for exclusion and under-representation of women
4. Develop an action plan to address these reasons (so that action plans will necessarily be unique to each department)
5. Show progress over time

There were 10 founding members of Athena SWAN in 2005, including the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. Now the charter boasts 115 members. A turbo boost came in 2011, when Dame Sally Davies (Chief Medical Officer in the UK) announced that as of 2015 large MRC funding to departments would be conditional on an Athena SWAN Silver award. According to David Ruebain and Sarah Dickinson, this changed the landscape in the UK – universities now see an Athena SWAN award as a necessary measure of excellence, and departments want to be involved to show how well they are doing on this issue. Recently the NHMRC in Australia suggested they might also tie funding to gender equity.

To date, there have been two reviews of the impact of Athena SWAN in the UK: one in 2011 performed by the ECU itself and then another this year run independently by the University of Loughborough. Both found similar outcomes. Better visibility of women; better representation of women on decision-making committees; increased proportion of women in STEMM departments; improved working practices to support career progression. Interestingly, the report noted that “the good practices implemented generally benefits all staff and contributes to improving the working environment and culture within their institutions”. Making things better for women, makes things better for everyone. More flexible work options, better work-life balance, different models of success.

Athena SWAN has been so successful, and so visibly successful in a relatively short space of time, that this year the Republic of Ireland signed up to work with the ECU on a 3-year pilot study for its own universities. Athena SWAN is also being rolled out to independent research organisations within the UK. These organisations want to be involved because Athena SWAN is an informed, tested, validated system, with procedures established that lead to real and substantial change.

After these presentations at the SAGE Development meeting, a general discussion followed of where we are at and where we need to go next. As reported in the Australian media, there was a consensus around the table that gender inequity is a systemic problem and that action needs to be taken urgently. One way to address this might be to adopt something like Athena SWAN in Australia. The next step in the process is a SAGE Forum workshop (25th and 26th November 2014) involving representatives from all universities and medical research institutes, as well as the organisations listed above, and the SAGE steering committee. The Office of the Chief Scientist has provided financial support to organise the workshop. David Ruebain and Sarah Dickinson from the ECU in the UK will attend and present on the Athena SWAN model.

These are exciting times. There appears to be a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel, but much more remains to be done. I urge you to please encourage, lobby, hector your university, medical research institute, or other research organisation to send a representative with some clout to the SAGE Forum workshop in November. For more information on the workshop please contact the SAGE Forum.

We need to ensure everyone is consulted, everyone has buy-in, everyone is on board. Let’s work together to fix the system. Let’s make the system work better for everyone.

 

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visible signs of support

This past week or two has seen very encouraging signs for women in Australian science and research.

First, the CEO of the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Prof Warwick Anderson, announced that Australian universities and medical research institutes were on notice (Act on equality or risk funding, unis told Monday 16th June). (Sorry that some of the links in this post are behind paywalls – there is a supporting video featuring Prof Warwick Anderson and Dr Saraid Billiards from the NHMRC).

In 2013, the NHMRC had requested information on policies that were in place to support women at NHMRC-funded universities and research institutes. Over half didn’t respond at all. The NHMRC committee for women in health sciences (of which I am a member) were charged with reading through the submissions, and identifying the best gender equity measures. These are outlined here. We also added a few measures of our own that didn’t feature in any submissions, including – dare I say it – seminar series gender balance.

The NHMRC evaluated the submissions itself and concluded separately that very few universities or research institutes scored highly in support measures for women. Unis and institutes were then asked by the NHMRC CEO last week to provide further evidence of their effective gender equity policies. Prof Warwick Anderson indicated that responses could impact on the allocation of future NHMRC funding of over $800M pa.

The early and mid-career researchers Forum (EMCR Forum) of the Australian Academy of Science had been proposing such measures more than a year ago. This week, the EMCR Forum welcomed the move by NHMRC and called for the Australian Research Council – which funds fundamental and applied research with the exception of clinical medicine and dentistry – to follow NHMRC’s lead to promote “positive action to close the gender gap in Australian science”.

The next major announcement was on Tuesday 17th June, when Adam Bandt MP (Greens) – the Federal member for Melbourne – gave a speech in the House of Representatives highlighting the issue of women in science and research.

He noted that women scientists are chronically under-represented in our universities and research organisations, and that this is unacceptable in 21st-century Australia.  He reported that the NHMRC’s ratings of the country’s universities and institutes found that 70% of those that responded were unsatisfactory or poor. He also noted Prof Warwick Anderson’s statement that “we are throwing away talent”. Adam Bandt suggested that work-life balance and job insecurity were major issues for women, and that “(the time when young) researchers are establishing their careers is also the time when women have to decide whether to continue with their career or to start a family. This is not a conflict they should have to face and it is not one male researchers typically face”.

Actually, some men suggest that one way of overcoming gender inequity is for men to actively take on this conflict. Andrew Brooks and Andrew Siebel made the point on the Women in Science Australia blogsite earlier this month that unis and institutes should provide support to men to allow them to participate fully in childcare and parenting. Moreover, they argued, we as a society should remove the cultural stigma applied to those men who do take time off from their careers to care for their children. I couldn’t agree more.

But let’s get back to Adam Bandt’s speech. He said that missing out on women in science means missing out on new ideas and innovations. He noted the UK model of supporting women in science through the Athena Swan Charter and stated “This is exactly the sort of framework this country’s research institutes should look at”.

This was music to my ears. Music, sweet music, that also brought tears to my eyes. Many others felt the same. One memorable tweet from @deborahbrian that day, “Just a little bit in love with @adambandt today”.

But that wasn’t the end of it.  On Wednesday 18 June it was reported that the Australian Academy of Science is “pushing for the research sector to follow the UK and adopt a charter to promote better gender equity policies within institutions” (Calls for gender equity get louder). Just today, Nobel Laureate and ARC Laureate Fellow Prof Brian Schmidt at the ANU stated “I don’t believe alpha males are any better at research than anyone else. But they do very well on average. As they say, he who shouts loudest gets the most attention.” (Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt leads academy’s equity push – sorry, it’s behind a paywall). He supports “a proposal for Australia to adopt the British system which encourages research institutions to sign on to a charter and have their equity policies independently assessed.”

In Feb this year, the Academy established the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Steering Committee to drive this process. The committee is chaired jointly by Brian Schmidt FAA (ANU Canberra) and Nalini Joshi FAA (ARC Laureate, U Syd) and also includes Sharon Bell (DVC Charles Darwin U Darwin, author of the 2010 FASTS Women in Science in Australia report and the soon to be released update previewed here), Caroline McMillen (VC U Newcastle NSW), Roslyn Prinsley (Office of the Chief Scientist, Canberra), Marguerite Evans-Galea (Founding Chair of the Australian EMCR Forum within the Academy, Melbourne), and myself (ARC Laureate, U Qld, Brisbane).

The SAGE Steering Committee is convening a development meeting in Canberra on July 30. Representatives from research stakeholders across the country have been invited to contribute to a dialogue to discuss the UK’s Athena Swan Charter, and to find a solution that is fit-for-purpose for Australia.

So let’s check all that again. 1. The Chief Executive Officer of the NHMRC. 2. A Federal MP. 3. The Australian Academy of Science. 4. A Nobel Laureate. Each highlighted that there is a problem regarding the progression of women in science in this country. Each stated that this issue needs to be addressed. Although brewing for some time, these announcements all happened in a little over one week. In Australia. Seriously, I had to pinch myself. Several times.

This flurry of activity has certainly garnered the attention of those passionate about addressing gender inequities in science in Australia. Hopefully it’s also enough to get the attention and action of those who are not (yet).

So what can you do as an Australian researcher/scientist? Let your university or institute know that you want change. Better support for women. Better gender equity policies. More diversity in leadership. These measures benefit everyone. Let’s make a competition out of being the best at supporting diversity.

**Updated some hours after posting with a weblink to AAS SAGE Forum

a funny thing happened today

It’s been a while since I’ve had a few moments to myself to think, let alone put words on screen for a blog post. In the nearly three weeks that “reason and resilience” came out I’ve had a seemingly endless run of hard deadlines: ranking 30 Fellowships for a national research committee, presenting on my career path at an Institute career forum, being interviewed live on SCOMBOMB (terrifying), hosting a collaborator from Perth for a couple of days, traveling to Melbourne for a family get-together one weekend, catching up with my expecto patronum circle of peers another weekend (all three wonderful women flew in to Brisbane from other Australian cities), running annual performance reviews for four team members, participating in my own performance review with the head of Division, providing comments on a submitted paper for an international journal, revising a draft of one of our papers, submitting another paper to a journal for review, and editing proofs of two recently accepted papers. That’s not to mention the usual round of weekly meetings and committee work. No wonder my head is spinning.

Anyway, today I did have time to think. I had taken a day of annual leave to attend a breast cancer screening clinic (my dad’s side of the family has a history of the disease). In between having my breasts squashed to the point where the tissue must surely spurt out through the nipples, I was able to take a few deep breaths and mull over my surroundings. I should add, just in case you are wondering, that I was given the all-clear. No sign of disease.

The clinic is superbly run. Appointments fill a year in advance for general screening. Upon arrival, I was taken to a change room, provided with a front-closing gown in a bright fabric, and given a locker key. I was instructed to remove all my upper clothing and place these in the locker, don the gown and move to the waiting room where I would be called for appointments. The waiting room held 20-30 people, all wearing the same happy gown, and variously reading, talking, laughing, or watching TV. To help make the wait more bearable, a coffee machine was available in the corner, with biscuits, and someone had kindly brought in slices of home-made cake. This was all free. Yum. Did I mention I like cake? Especially home-made cake.

I had brought some reading material with me (in case you want to know, it was a paper titled “Gender disparity in the C-suite: do male and female CEOS differ in how they reached the top?” in the April 2014 issued of Leadership Quarterly – I’d provide a link but it’s behind a pay wall), and got started on that with a cup of tea in one hand. Before many pages of the paper had been turned, and certainly before I’d finished the cuppa, my name was called to go to one of several mammogram rooms. After divesting myself of the gown, I stood naked from the waist up in front of the mediaeval torture machine, while the radiologist twisted and turned my body this way and that to get the images of the innards of my breasts. Re-gowned, I then returned to the waiting room.

Another 10 minutes or so, and I heard my name called again. This time I was to see the consulting doctor who advised me that the mammograms were fine (just a few small cysts that were there last time), and who then asked me to put my arms above my head and proceeded to examine my breasts. Again, nothing too much out of the ordinary but ultrasound was advised as a follow-up. So, back to the lounge, and a few more pages of reading before my name was called once more. Not long after, I was lying supine beside the sonographer in a darkened room with the screen glowing ultrasound images of my upper body lady parts.

Through the wonders of technology, the images magically appeared in the doctor’s computer where I went for my final consultation. As indicated above, all was clear. No evidence of anything nasty lurking in the breast tissue. I was free to leave a little over 2 hours after arriving.

The funny thing about my morning, apart from the obvious thing of getting my breasts flattened in an instrument resembling an old-fashioned washing-machine mangler, was that every single person I met was female. The receptionists, the breast clinic nurses, the patients, the radiologists, the consulting doctors, the sonographers, and other highly skilled professionals at the clinic. All were women. And most were of a similar age to me or older.

That is entirely different to my usual day.

reason and resilience

How is it that I have been successful in the highly competitive male-dominated field of science and academia? I don’t feel extraordinary; I’m just a person who works hard, is driven by a passion for science, and loves the joy of discovery, training and mentoring. These are not unusual traits in scientists. Although not extraordinary, these days I often feel as if I don’t belong; a square peg in a round hole, different. When it comes down to it, I am different. Most of my peers are men. Why have I “made it” when so many other women haven’t?

In 2012, Dr Terence Fitzsimmons from the UQ Business School published research on the childhood experiences of male and female CEOs in Australia. He found that “Almost all the males had professionally employed fathers and ‘stay at home’ mothers and all but two had captained football teams. They had learned leadership and other skills broadly applicable to work life prior to entering the workforce. Meanwhile the females tended to have self-employed fathers and mothers who helped in the business and often came from disrupted backgrounds, with family traumas such as death or family breakdown forcing them to take on an adult role at an early age.

Now that struck a chord.

If you’ve been reading my posts you’ll know that I’m one of 9 kids, with 3 older brothers. I also have 3 younger sisters and 2 younger brothers. As the eldest girl in this family, I had significant carer responsibilities from a young age.

When I was 11, my mum needed to go back to work to bring in more money. With so many mouths to feed and bodies to clothe (all 9 of us had been born by then), our family was doing it tough on just dad’s income. My mum had been brought to tears when my younger brother kicked holes in his school shoes playing footy. She didn’t have the money to replace them. So he had to go to school with holes in his shoes. Our clothes, including school uniforms, were often patched up and re-used by younger brothers and sisters. Mum was very handy with a pair of knitting needles and made all the woollens for the entire family for decades. I and others were taught how to replace elastic in underwear and how to sew buttons on, to keep clothes wearable for a few years longer. Never could master the art of darning socks though.

Dad was a self-employed long-distance truck driver (or ‘cartage contractor’!). Mum was a theatre nurse who scrubbed, scouted, did anaesthetics and recovery room nursing and eventually became a charge nurse/nurse unit manager. But when the youngest in the family turned 1, mum hadn’t worked for some years. Things were getting desperate by that time and the family really needed more cash. She found some part-time work at a new private hospital that had opened nearby. Not much work, just 4 h per day in the afternoon on a Saturday and Sunday along with several periods of being on call over the weekend to come in for emergencies. It brought in some well-needed cash.

When mum was at work on those weekends, I had to help out with caring for the two youngest in the family who were then 1 and 2 years old. I was 11. I learned how to feed them, change nappies, keep them entertained, rock them to sleep. All the usual things.

After about a year, mum fell pregnant again. At the time, I suffered from tonsillitis and one of the flare-ups coincided with a pre-natal visit by mum to her GP. So we went in together. I was given some painkillers and throat lozenges, and then I watched as the doctor checked mum over and listened for the baby’s heartbeat. He even let me listen, and pronounced that all was going very well.

Mum continued working through her pregnancy till about 6-7 months. At about 8 months, the family moved from a run-down rental property that had been condemned by the local council as unfit to live in, to another rental property that was in somewhat better condition. It was a 3-bedroom house with 1 bathroom and 1 toilet. For 11 people. There were no movers to help with the heavy lifting of the move. We couldn’t afford it. So we did the whole thing ourselves. In our family history, it is remembered as the first time that we had take-away, rather than a home-cooked meal.

The move took a toll on mum though. Even dad noticed that she was not her usual self, and he is not known for his empathetic ability. A week or so later, she went into labour. She was at home with the two youngest girls, now aged 2 and 3. Mum recalls that she was feeling out of sorts and had gone to lie down in the bedroom. Then she began haemorrhaging. She frantically called dad to come home to take her to the hospital. Then she called the school to get me home to look after the two little ones.

I was in the first year of high school. The teacher called me out of class and told me to go home quick smart, that mum was having the baby. I jumped on my bike, and cycled home as fast as I could, excited by the news.

When I got back I was greeted by a scene I never want to relive. Mum and dad were heading to the hospital. Clearly something was wrong, but nobody told me what. I was too young to know I suppose. After they left, I looked into their bedroom. There was blood everywhere, or so it seemed. I shut the door. Then I focused on what I had to do. I looked after the young ones. I made dinner for the family. And I kept repeating over and over to myself “Please don’t let anything happen to mum”. I can’t remember how I was told, but the news came back at some point that mum was OK, though the baby didn’t make it.

My aunt, my mum’s older sister who was a nun at a hospital in the city, came to help out for a few days. She was a very strong woman and didn’t stand for any nonsense. But she had a soft heart too. She asked me how I was doing. I told her I was upset. And I told her I was very worried about mum. She asked me how I felt about losing a brother. Looking back from this vantage point, I can’t believe now what I said. I told her that perhaps it was a good thing. That we were struggling to look after those that were here already and maybe this was God’s way of saying that’s enough. I was 12 years old.

As you might imagine, mum took the death of her son in childbirth very hard. She couldn’t look at another baby for the next 12 months without bursting into tears. It was very distressing for everyone. Nevertheless, needs must, and she returned to work about 6 weeks after the stillbirth. She recalls it as being one of the darkest times of her life.

I returned to high school. Unlike most of my peers, I wasn’t interested in finding a boyfriend. I just wanted to make my mum feel better. So I helped out a lot at home, and it’s fair to say that – like Terence Fitzsimmons’ female CEOs – I took on a great deal of family responsibility at an early age. Dr Fitzsimmons concluded his study with “far greater attention needs to be placed upon how we socialise and educate our children, as well as the support and experiences we give to people entering their careers.

Perhaps these girlhood experiences shaped an inner strength and resolve that have helped me to succeed. I can’t say for sure. There is no control experiment. On the other hand, from my own perspective we don’t do enough as a society to nurture leadership qualities and provide leadership training to girls to generate resilient, resourceful, strong women leaders of the future. This is needed not just in science and academia, but in all walks of life. After all there are a lot of problems to fix in this world. We can’t afford to lose 50% of the possible solutions.

 

result of the week

Quite honestly, I need a bit of positive feedback every now and then to keep me going. “Good job”. “Well done”. “Terrific work”. “Keep it up”. It really doesn’t take much. Just a little encouragement and support. Does wonders.

Trouble is, it seems sometimes that academic life is all about negative feedback. Experiments fail. Grant applications get rejected. Fellowship applications get rejected. Manuscripts get rejected. These applications and papers take weeks to write, not to mention the blood, sweat and tears – and often the years and years of work – to generate the data and the big story. Then in an instant, hopes and dreams are dashed when the email arrives that says, effectively, not good enough.

Some years ago, to counteract the incessant negativity, Group Martin decided to celebrate our everyday science successes together. Here is what we do. At our weekly lab meetings we have a permanent agenda item “result of the week“. Nominations are called for by the chair of the meeting (everyone gets a turn at chairing the meeting during the year – it’s good career development experience). Anyone in the lab can nominate a ROTW contender. BUT rule number 1 is that you can’t nominate yourself. And rule number 2 is that if you won ROTW last time you are ineligible to win this time.

The chair of the meeting collates the nominations and arranges for the nominees to each provide a single slide that illustrates the result. At the end of the lab meeting (after the research presentation and other lab business items of the agenda), there is a hush as the chair announces each ROTW nominee and presents each slide in turn. How many nominees are there? Who has been nominated? What did they do to move science forward? When their slide comes up, the nominee explains over a minute or two why the result is significant and what makes it new and exciting. At the end of the nominations, the chair of the meeting writes the nominee names on pieces of paper which are then folded up tightly. A drum roll (fingers on table) often accompanies the announcement of the winner who is selected randomly from these folded-up pieces of paper by the previous week’s winner. And the prize? Well that is a coffee or tea with me at the local cafe. OK so the prize isn’t great, but at least it’s some recognition and reward for a job well done. Actually, in addition to the caffeine hit there used to be a rather unique statue that would sit on the winner’s desk for the week. But that went missing some time ago. Admittedly it was rather ugly. May have to find a replacement for that….

Anyway, just by way of example, the three ROTW nominees this week were (1) a senior RA who produced beautiful protein crystals for structural studies, (2) a team of 2 postdocs and a visiting Danish PhD student who together generated and analysed some lovely synchrotron X-ray scattering data on a protein sample, revealing the shape of the protein in solution, and (3) a postdoc who – with others from external labs – successfully applied for quite a large amount of funding from the University to run a career forum later this year. The last nominee was ruled ineligible (last week’s winner, postponed to next week). Of the remaining two, the winner – chosen randomly – was the senior RA.

Even with the relatively insignificant prize on offer, result of the week has become a bit of a lab highlight. And this has had some rather unanticipated effects on lab culture. First, because self-nomination is not allowed, researchers need to talk about their research and discuss their results with others in the lab in order to be nominated. This means that sharing of data with others and a collegial environment in the lab is expected and accepted by everyone. Second, choosing a winner at random rather than voting on the outcome discourages voting alliances and manipulations (of the sort, “I’ll vote for you this week if you vote for me next week”). Moreover, when the winner of a competition is randomly selected, everyone has the chance to win. Indeed over a year, everyone is a winner. Finally, because last week’s winner can’t win this week, it’s unlikely that the same person will win often enough for it to become annoying. Having said that, lab folklore insists that on those occasions when one former PhD student was nominated it was best not to be in the competition as his name would always be the one drawn out of the hat. I don’t hold any truck with that nonsense. Though it was uncanny sometimes….

Of course, there are many other things that we do to celebrate working together – lab lunches (next one with a “traditional” theme), birthday cakes (this year with crystal-themed cakes in honour of the International Year of Crystallography – I’m up next to bake for Dorothy Hodgkin’s birthday), outings (cycles around Brisbane, walks in the Gold Coast hinterland rainforest), and specific celebrations for grants and papers when they do get awarded. Not to mention the famous secret Martin family “yo-yo” biscuit (cookie) recipe that is solemnly handed over to Martin lab students after their PhD is awarded. That very special event requires a one-on-one workshop with me to bake and assemble the biccies, and then a taste test with lab members. Actually, on one very memorable occasion we couldn’t do the traditional lab taste test. I bought the secret ingredients in Oxford UK when I was visiting colleagues there, and travelled by train with the loot to London where I met with not one but two graduated PhDs who were by then postdocs at King’s College London and University of Zürich. Yes, that’s correct. A former student traveled all the way from Switzerland to the UK for this knowledge handover, and to celebrate and reaffirm our research connection.

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Reading through this post, I can’t help but think there is a strong theme around food – cakes and biscuits in particular. In all honesty, I can’t deny this. I am a Martin after all. And we Martins do love our food.

But getting back to the topic at hand, I wonder how other scientific researchers overcome the niggling negativity of constant critical assessment and low success rates. What do you do to highlight the joy of science discovery and celebrate everyday science success?

I’d love to hear about other ideas that we might adopt in the Martin lab.

And no, these don’t have to involve food.

**Updated with photos on 11 and 12 May 2014 after posting***