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.