geography trumps gender?

Recently I posted on the topic of conference speaker policy. I suggested that maybe we can change the unconscious-bias driven lack of invited women speakers at conferences. My suggestion was for conference and symposium organisers to state upfront what they’re trying to achieve in terms of speaker diversity and then report against that for everyone to see.

I’ve had a lot of feedback on that post, including emails and phone calls and face-to-face meetings with others on the actions they are taking to adopt policies for conferences they are organising or attending. This is fantastic!

Having said that, this past week two things happened to make me think we still have a long way to go.

First, I was sent an invitation to attend a research symposium in Brisbane, the city where my lab is based. The speaker list for this symposium was sent around with the invitation: only 2 of the 22 speakers/chairs (<10%) were women. When I questioned this, the organiser indicated that he was aware of the situation, and had aimed for 20% of women speakers but two of the women on the invited list had not been able to accept. He also indicated that he had to “balance” the invited speakers from different research units – presumably because those units contribute to the centre he runs. Geographic balance apparently rates higher than gender balance.

As so often happens when there is poor gender diversity in speakers, there was only one person selecting the speakers, and he wasn’t a woman. I wondered too late to ask, why the organiser did not replace the women speakers who did not accept, with other women speakers. There are certainly more than 4 women to choose from in the pool that was available. Of course, there is no speaker policy for this symposium. The organiser did express a desire to do better next time, if there is a next time, and suggested I might help in the organisation in the future. So, as it turns out, I may have to break my policy of not attending poor gender balance symposia for long enough to determine the audience gender balance at this one to set the baseline for any future symposium.

The second thing that happened was that I was asked to co-chair a session at an upcoming national conference. Normally at this particular conference, which has a large proportion of women delegates and generally has a good gender balance of speakers, the two co-chairs of a session decide on three invited speakers (who give longer talks) and then select two more speakers from abstracts (who give shorter talks). However, in this case the organising committee invited only one chair initially and he was not informed until it was too late that he needed to identify a co-chair before inviting speakers. What’s more there was a very short timeline (1 or 2 weeks) and no budget to support invited speakers. When he did find out that he needed to work with a co-chair, he contacted me by email to ask if I would act in this capacity. He explained the situation and noted that he had already invited three speakers, “most of the hard work is done”. All three of the invited speakers were men.

I rang him up and explained that I had made a public statement that I did not support conferences or symposia that did not have a policy or good faith attempts at gender balance. In this particular field, I would have expected 1 or 2 of the 3 invited speakers would be women. Since they were not, and since I had not been involved in the invitations, I could not accept the kind offer to co-chair the session. When I asked why no women speakers had been invited, he said that he did understand the need for gender balance and had in fact thought of one woman (!) to invite but that would have meant that all three speakers were from the same city. There it is again. Geographic diversity trumps gender diversity. And once again I thought too late to ask, why wasn’t one of the men from this single city dropped off the invitation list rather than the woman? That way there would be gender balance and geographic balance.

Now this conference, I know, does have a speaker policy although it is not yet online. The conference promotes gender, age and geographical equity in all aspects of the organisation, including organising committees, chairs and speakers. In this case though the policy does not seem to have filtered through strongly enough to those deciding on the invitations. Another reason to make policies visible, to measure performance against the policy and improve it next time.

Saddened and frustrated by these two incidents, I have mulled over why it is that in both these cases the organisers expressed their desire to get good gender balance but then explained the lack of gender balance because geographical balance got in the way. As if that is reason enough. It’s not. Women researchers don’t congregate in one city; they are dispersed across the land in this field. All the women scientists of merit in Brisbane are not holed up in one research unit. They are distributed across them all. So why is it that geography is higher on the priority list than gender diversity? And why can’t we have both? It’s not that difficult. See

If I didn’t know any better, I might be tempted to think that for these two people, inviting women speakers doesn’t rate highly. It seems to be an afterthought which can be dismissed easily in favour of some other spurious factor. Spurious, because when it comes down to it geographic balance and gender balance are not mutually exclusive. It is actually possible to get a good balance of both. You just need to think about it a bit to overcome any possible unconscious bias.

As I said above, much work still needs to be done.


synchronicity, support and sponsorship

Once upon a time, many years ago when I was a young thing in my final year at high school, I had to fill in the form to select my preferred courses for tertiary education. Pretty exciting. No-one in my family – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles – had ever gone on to tertiary education apart from one older brother (who is now, I might add, a highly regarded analyst for a major investment bank). Having said that, almost all of my siblings have since taken university degrees, and my mum graduated with a B Appl Sc (Nursing) in 1992 as a mature age student.

Anyway, when I was filling in that form, I knew there was quite simply no alternative, I had to take vet science. I loved animals, and wanted to look after them, patch them up and make them well. I could so see myself doing that. There was no question, vet science was my top choice. Mum insisted that I put medicine (at two alternate universities) as my second and third choices – although to be honest I wasn’t that keen on medicine myself. Then the career counsellor at high school threw in a curve ball. “Why not” she said, “include pharmacy as the next choice?”. Mmm. That wasn’t something I’d considered before. But yeah, that sounded good. Without much thought at all really, pharmacy became my 4th choice.

I did well at my HSC subjects – English, Chemistry, Physics, Pure Maths and Applied Maths – but not well enough to get into vet science. And I didn’t get into the medicine courses either. However, I was selected into the pharmacy degree, which at that time was taught at the Victorian College of Pharmacy, an independent institute not connected with a university.

Supremely disappointed, I accepted the offer into pharmacy. My new plan was to do so well in 1stst year pharmacy that I would be able to transfer into vet science the following year. Then two things happened to change my mind. Firstly, the 1st year physiol pracs included experiments on animals. It didn’t take long to realise that I really did not have the stomach for animal work; even now as a scientist I choose to work with proteins and bacteria, and not with animals. The second thing was that, happily, I loved the pharmacy course. The concept that a chemical interacts with a protein to generate a pharmacological effect was quite simply a revelation to me. The course content, prac labs and College staff were all fantastic. So I never did transfer to vet science. In the end, I did very well in the undergrad course earning the Gold Medal for my year along with 10 other undergrad prizes.

After a 1-year traineeship in a hospital pharmacy department, I returned to the Pharmacy College to undertake an MPharm research degree with Peter Andrews. I’ve mentioned him in my previous posts, he is truly an inspirational character, an übermentor as others have described him. So I really enjoyed the Masters degree too, learning a lot about research, and publishing 4 papers. Then came a dilemma. Should I continue as a pharmacist or drop that and do research?

I decided to put the decision in the hands of fate. At that point in my life (I was in my mid 20s) what I really I wanted to do was travel. So I organised to go to Europe via some trekking in Nepal and sight-seeing in India. As I’ve mentioned before, it was Peter Andrews who suggested that I apply to the DPhil program at Oxford. My plan was that if I was awarded a scholarship I would do the DPhil and be a scientist and if I didn’t get a scholarship I would work as a pharmacist on a working holiday visa for 6 months. Pretty clever plan, eh? Either way though, I was doing that trekking in Nepal and sightseeing in India. Over a period of about 6 months before I left Australia, I applied for every scholarship going. And over that same period, I received rejection letters from almost every scholarship going. Looked like fate was decreeing a pharmacy career.

Anyway, before I knew it I was at Melbourne airport waving goodbye to family and friends and on my way to Nepal and a 6-month trip to Europe. Little did I know that once I stepped through the door and made my way through passport control everything would change. When I got to the boarding gate I found there was an urgent message for me from another übermentor, Professor Geoff Vaughan, then Dean of the Pharmacy College. I used my last 20c piece to make a call to him from the pay-phone (no mobile phones in those days). Geoff told me that he had received a telegram (this was a long time ago folks) to say that I had been awarded a prestigious Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 Science Research Scholarship. That news meant I wouldn’t be returning to Australia in 6 months, instead I would be undertaking a DPhil at Oxford and not returning for 4 years. What a life-changing moment. And there was no-one to share it with. I’d already said goodbye to my family, and they were all on their way home – which was a 1 hour trip from the airport. Geoff Vaughan offered to call them that evening, to let them know the good news. And I was able to follow up with a call at great expense (actually I suspect it might have been reverse charges) from my stopover in Bangkok. After that, I traveled on to Kathmandu for a few weeks trekking, white-water rafting and jungle safari-ing in Nepal. Sometimes when I look back I wonder if all this really happened to me or to someone else. It seems so far-fetched. Especially the bit about a woman traveling alone in Nepal and India at 24 years of age. What was I thinking?

But the far-fetchedness doesn’t end there.

The funny thing about life is that sometimes it never rains but it pours. Once the 1851 scholarship was awarded, other bursaries and scholarships that I’d applied for came in too. My college at Oxford provided a bursary for purchasing textbooks, the UK Government awarded me an Overseas Student Scholarship to pay for the University fees, and there was also an Australian Federation of University Women award. The last of a total of five awards, was a Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Award for Young Australians. My dad had found that one advertised in the newspaper a week or so before I was due to leave Australia. Yes my whole family were on the lookout to help me get the funding I needed to study overseas. So I applied. In fact the letter was posted at Melbourne airport on the same fateful day that I received the telegram news relayed by Geoff Vaughan about the 1851 scholarship.

Some weeks later, I was requested to attend an interview in Melbourne for the QEII award. But by that time I was already in the UK. Once again, it was Geoff Vaughan who let me know the news. He received the letter from the committee, contacted my family to get my phone number and negotiated with several u/g students to track me down (I was dossing at a friend’s place in a residential college at another university while touring the UK before starting the DPhil at Oxford). Anyway, he eventually found me and after discussing this new turn of events, I indicated to Geoff that it didn’t seem right. I really didn’t need the award what with all the others I had and it would be better if it could be given to someone who needed it more than me. Geoff asked me to write this in a letter that he could provide to the committee. So I did. There was no email then – so I wrote a letter to say that I had already been awarded sufficient funds to support my studies and that it would be best for the committee to use the funds to support someone who really needed the money. Unbeknownst to me, Geoff arranged to attend the interview in my place. He tells the story that he had to wait in a room with several other awardees for this “Young  Australians” interview. As required by eligibility criteria for the award, they were all under 25. Geoff was in his mid-40s. Then the call came out for Miss Jenny Martin to be interviewed. One can only imagine the look of shock on the faces of the others when Geoff stood up to take his turn. He took my letter into the interview committee and somehow persuaded them, despite the indications in my letter, to give me an award. In the end I used this to purchase a PC on which I wrote my doctoral thesis.

When I think back to those events, I wonder how many other Deans of Colleges would take it upon themselves to attend an off-campus interview on behalf of a postgraduate student to argue their case for an award. Not many, I suspect.

The saying goes that there is no such thing as luck, that you make your own luck. Certainly I have worked hard to achieve my career goals. On the other hand, I know I was fortunate to fall into pharmacy as a career; it wasn’t what I intended to do but I ended up enjoying it immensely and it became the springboard from which my current research themes emerged. I was lucky that circumstance led me to work with Peter Andrews and Geoff Vaughan. Two amazing mentors, that have been my role models for mentorship. More than that, they both actively sponsored me – and many others – to succeed. And importantly for me, I never felt that I was treated any different to others in this environment. It didn’t matter that I was a woman. Never mind my own insecurities and lack of confidence, to these two leaders I was simply part of team Pharmacy. That was all that mattered.

And that’s as it should be.