It’s been quite a while since I posted here. Last time was just after my mum passed away. Since then, I’ve had to get used to a whole new world without my longest-standing ally and confidante. Mum even followed my blog, bless her.

It’s been tough, there’s no doubt about it. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t shed a tear. I miss her enormously. But life goes on, as my dear old mum would say. Now I can even laugh when I think of her, and how she would be whooping it up this weekend, dancing a jig and waving her Tigers scarf to celebrate the Richmond AFL Grand Final win after 37 years. And I can recognise how incredibly lucky I was to have such a remarkable person and amazing role model in my life and on my side.

Her story is inspirational to me. It’s all the more incredible knowing what mum went through, and the personal sacrifices she made, to achieve her number one goal: providing a safe and supportive home for her family. She succeeded against the odds. She never gave up, despite many, many disappointments. She picked herself up, dusted herself off, and tried and tried again every time life knocked her down. Seeing her tenacity, her persistence and determination to learn from failures was a lesson in itself. I couldn’t have carved my own path without understanding that aiming high will always lead to disappointment, and that for the most part no-one else sees those failures. Importantly, the lessons learned from trying and failing can provide a springboard to future success.

And so it is that I come to the topic of this post. My own shadow CV – the CV of failures and rejections (see a summary of others here). Scientific studies generating positive results are more likely to be published, and negative results are hardly ever published – giving rise to publication bias that skews science and its progress. It’s the same with CVs – reporting only positive outcomes skews the perception of what it takes to progress in academia.

So without further ado, I submit for your appraisal some of the many lowlights and sidelights of my shadow CV – an i-shadow* you might say:

• As an undergraduate I was accepted into a BPharm degree, but my CV doesn’t say that I was rejected from Vet Sci and Medicine (x2). Yep, BPharm was my fourth choice.

• As a postgraduate, I was awarded a Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 Science Research Scholarship, but my CV doesn’t record that I was rejected from dozens of other schemes before that one was awarded, including the Rhodes and Kobe Scholarships.

• As a postdoctoral scientist I was accepted into Rockefeller University as a Research Fellow, but only after I was retrenched from my first postdoctoral position barely six months after starting at Bond University. So ashamed of this episode was I, that I didn’t include it in my CV for many years.

• After returning to Australia from Rockefeller University, I set up my independent lab at the University of Queensland, with my salary funded by an ARC Queen Elizabeth II Fellowship. What my CV doesn’t indicate is that I was on the reserve list for that Fellowship, and only got through because someone else did not accept their award. I often wonder who that was, why they didn’t take it up, where they ended up….whoever you are, thank you!

• Yes, I was fortunate to be awarded that Fellowship, but not so fortunate with my first grant. Rejection, rejection, rejection. Not recorded in my CV.

• Without funding for anyone but myself, I was the only person working in my lab. It was a group of one! That detail is not recorded in my CV. Research outcomes were slow and papers even slower. It took two years for the first paper to be published from my independent lab.

• Speaking of papers, my highlight CV records that a  paper from my lab was recently published in Nature Communications. Yay. What is not documented is that the process from first submission to publication took over two years, including rejections from three other journals, and an initial editorial rejection from this journal. (Yes, I know, I need to start submitting preprints).

• Then there are the award nominations that never got anywhere. Too many to mention. But what I will mention is the three last year for which I was a finalist, but not the eventual winner when the envelope was opened. So close, but no chocolate cigar (I don’t smoke). What to do when this happens? Join in the fun and celebrate with the winner; life is too short to spend it being miserable.

And as my dear old mum would always say, if it weren’t for the bad times, the good times would not feel nearly as good.


*Turns out this title was somewhat prophetic. I came up with the title and began writing the post a few weeks ago whilst on holidays. The day after I started, I suffered a detached retina – a medical emergency – that was evident as a shadow descending across the vision of my left eye.

I had a genuine eye “shadow”

Life, eh…..


my first 100 days

Well, actually it’s not just my first 100 days. Now that we’re in Sept, it’s a little over 6 months since I started in my new role. I’m enjoying the challenges (yes, there are many) but sometimes it seems like I’m in a game where the difficulty level has been cranked up from 1 to 100. Juggling and prioritising have become key skills that I rely on.

So what did I get up to in my first 100 days? First of all, I prepared beforehand (the minus 60 days if you like) by talking to people who had previously worked where I now work, about their experience. And I set up an external support network – peer group, coach, mentor – to help me through what I envisaged might be a rough ride for an introvert who was stepping out of her comfort zone. I also arranged a regular day each week/fortnight to meet with my research team at UQ, and appointed two local team leaders to drive the how and what of the move at the end of the year. And, may I say, they have been doing a terrific job!

Then, in the first 90 days of my new role, I focused on information gathering. I asked the people I report to about the key goals they saw for me in the first 12 months. I spoke to as many people as I could – students, research assistants, postdoctoral staff, general staff, and group leaders, as well as stakeholders across the University and externally. I ran an internal survey within the first few weeks, asking questions like, “what is great about the Institute?“, “what could be improved?“. I invited the already established Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) to review the Institute at days 40-42 after my arrival, to provide me with recommendations and commendations. I made sure that the Institute, and the senior people I report to, heard the messages coming out of this information-gathering exercise. And I arranged two planning sessions with group leaders within the first 50 days, to discuss the survey and SAB outcomes and to work on where to from here. We workshopped our purpose, our values and our 12 month priorities. These priorities – forming the basis of a strategic plan – were developed into 7 portfolios at about day 70. By day 90, I had established a leadership team of six, who were charged with heading the portfolios over the next 12 months. I arranged a 2-day professional development workshop for the leadership team at 130 days, and we now have regular bi-monthly meetings. We are also well into the first quarter of reporting against the key goals for each portfolio (the operational plan).

I didn’t come up with all these ideas, or do this all myself. I consulted with my peers, my mentors, my sponsors, my coach. I have a terrific executive assistant who knows everyone and everything – a Godsend – I rely on a fab team who contribute ideas and suggestions, and I have people above me who listen and advise. And I used this book as a guide.

As it happened, at about day 100, I traveled overseas for 3 weeks on a trip that had been planned 12 months ago. That trip included a journals management board meeting in Wales, catch-ups with colleagues in London and New York, and a mega-conference in Boston where I was invited to speak on the antibacterial research my team and I work on together with our collaborators. This well-timed but thoroughly unplanned break in the helter-skelter of on-boarding, was an opportune time for me to reflect on my first 100 days. How were things progressing? How did I feel about the new role?

The short answers: I’m learning a lot; there is much to do; there are many challenges ahead; I’m glad I made the move; why did it take so long? All in all, things are heading in the right direction.


Postscript. It’s been a long time since the last blog post in April. The rather steep learning curve and the exponentially accelerating list of urgent to-dos have limited my blog-posting. Nevertheless, there is a lot to talk about. I hope to get back to a more regular pattern soon.


new york, new york

At the London Business School (LBS) Senior Executive Program (SEP) last year, a senior executive from Adidas happened to remark at dinner one night that Frank Sinatra’s song “New York, New York” was used in German restaurants to signal to patrons it was time to leave. The things you learn in school!

She (yes, the Adidas senior exec was a she! why are you surprised?) wasn’t to know that Sinatra’s “New York, New York” was the piece of music I’d chosen for the LBS playlist. It was the song I’d selected that “had special meaning for me – that transported me back to a precise moment in my life, that captured an important, unforgettable time or turning point.

Whenever I hear it I am instantly transported back to an incredible party in March 1991 in Mudgeeraba on the Gold Coast hinterland in Queensland. The venue was a beautiful white Queenslander property on acreage, the home of two friends/colleagues from Bond University. After graduating with a DPhil from Oxford in 1990, I’d accepted a postdoctoral position at Bond University Science and Technology School (SciTech). In June 1990, some 9 months before the party, I’d arrived on the Gold Coast from the UK and had spent my first few nights at that very same house (along with my dad who had driven me the ~1000 miles from Melbourne) while I sorted out my own long-term accommodation.

The party was fancy dress and New-York-themed. I was Madonna (well, “Vogue” was in vogue at the time). The head of SciTech was there as Crocodile Dundee. King Kong also made an appearance.

Even my mum was there, visiting from Melbourne with 2 other family members.

The occasion was a very memorable farewell. Mine. A few days later I would be flying out of Australia to take up a 2-year postdoctoral position at Rockefeller University, York Ave, New York, New York. Before I had completed one year of a three-year contract at Bond University, I would be swapping my subtropical home on the Gold Coast for a studio apartment on the 17th floor of a high-rise on 63rd and York.

As I explained in a previous post, Bond University announced the closure of SciTech in Nov 1990, just 5 months after I arrived. Dozens of people were summarily sacked, including me. PhD students part-way through their research studies were without a supervisor, a lab or a stipend. It was a very traumatic experience.


Two young women, myself (top) and PhD student Anneliese Palmer, 24 hours and a sleepless night after they’d been told their careers were about to be severely disrupted. I hadn’t even washed my hair by the looks of it. From The Brisbane Courier Mail, Wed 7th November 1990

For me, and perhaps for others, the New York party was a very welcome pressure release, after months of uncertainty and drama. It was a chance to have some fun, and to take control of life again, to set a new course after the turmoil and angst of the previous few months.

Not surprisingly, the grand finale of the party was that song, Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York”. When it came on, the volume control was turned up to 11, the speakers blared, and the whole School – together with family and friends – sang in unison: “Start spreading the news…”

(in case you need a little reminder….)

So that was the song I had chosen for the LBS soundtrack.

I had selected it because it marked a key moment in time for me. A moment of stark clarity. A point in my life where threat turned into opportunity – an opportunity that changed the course of my career. I would leave Australia, move to New York, work in a fabulous lab, and generate new knowledge that would lead to a first author paper in a highly prestigious journal. That work would lay the foundation for research that I continue to this day.

Not that I knew any of that at the time. All I knew then, was that I was taking a big risk, and traveling half-way round the world again to re-start my post-doctoral career.

Perhaps unconsciously, I had also chosen that song last year for LBS because – as my Adidas colleague so neatly explained – it’s the song that signals it’s time to leave.

In March 1991, I hadn’t particularly wanted to leave Bond Uni, the Gold Coast, or my colleagues, friends, and family in Australia. And in October 2015, when I selected that song at the start of the SEP course, I didn’t particularly want to leave UQ either. But by the end of SEP, it had become clear that, well, it was time to think about leaving.

Through informal discussions with SEP colleagues, through the SEP personal development coaching group, through the SEP business development coaching group, and through understanding myself and my motivations and values better, it was obvious. It was time to take another risk and find a new challenge. So it was in March 2016, almost 25 years to the day after that famous party, I started a new phase in my career.


Deeply saddened by the untimely passing of David Bowie this week, I was reminded of a thought bubble from a colleague some years ago. (You know who you are). It went something like this: “There’s no situation in life, love or death that cannot be captioned (or perhaps it was captured) by a Bowie lyric or song title“. In honour of David Bowie, and in a hat-tip to my colleague, this post – pointing to a transformational experience for me last year – duly follows that rule.

For me, 2015 was actually a bit of a blur. I guess that is mostly due to a very intense travel schedule, with five international work-related trips and more than a dozen national trips for various committees and presentations. The in/out of office balance was well and truly tipped in favour of being out more often than I was in. Despite all that, there was at least one trip to the UK that remains etched into my memory. That’s because it was quite literally life-changing.

On that trip, I traveled to London to undertake a 4-week intensive Senior Executive Program at the London Business School (LBS) in October. Four weeks. That’s a serious chunk of a year. “Why would you do that?“, I hear you ask. Actually, many people had a similar question after they heard I was taking this course. “What are you doing that for?” was a common response, usually said in a high-pitched tone of astonishment and incredulity. I even began questioning myself “What the hell are you thinking?“.

The truth is, I don’t know what I was planning when I first decided to take the course about a year ago. What I do know is that as a successful research scientist and academic at a research intensive university (the same one for more than 20 years), I nevertheless had had a growing and unsettling sensation that I was treading water. I spoke about this with my circle of peers and colleagues (probably ad nauseum, if you were to ask them).

Anyway, the most helpful feedback I received was to investigate senior leadership training, as that might help me to set a new direction that would also accord with my research career goals. After some online searching, and consulting with peers, I chose to apply for the course offered at the London Business School. Why that one? Well, it’s true, I could have taken a course at my own university which also has a very highly regarded business school. It would have been a whole lot cheaper too. But I wanted to be taken out of my comfort zone. I wanted to reflect on where I was at in my life, and where I was going in my career. For me to do that required removing the urgent pressures of my everyday role and my everyday life. Moreover, if I was going to take several weeks of my precious leave entitlement to undertake a course like this, I wanted an experience that would give me an entirely new perspective. And – as I was taking leave, after all – I wanted to be situated in a place I enjoyed visiting.

Believe me. I know I was in a very privileged position. I had sufficient leave accrued to take time off for the course. I lead a highly capable research team that runs like a well-oiled machine whether I am there or not. I had the support of a husband who would hold the fort at home while I was away for a large part of the year. And he also supported the decision that we make a significant financial investment in me, for a ch-ch-ch-change that I had not yet clearly defined.

Importantly, the cost of the fees was also defrayed by a considerable contribution from my employer (thank you UQ!) – providing genuine evidence that they supported this investment too. Do you want to know how that happened? Well, I’ll tell you anyway. I had fully intended to pay the entire cost of the course fees myself. As I entered the course dates in my calendar, I realised that it overlapped with a commitment I had made to sit on an important multi-day panel for the university. Rather embarrassed about having to withdraw from the panel, I spoke to a senior exec about what I should do.

After explaining the situation, his first response was a sombre “The Vice-Chancellor will be very upset“.

Oh dear,” I said “should I cancel my enrolment?”, fully expecting that I wouldn’t be permitted to attend the course. Sometimes I really am rather thick.

Till the end of my days, I will never forget what he said next.

No, of course you shouldn’t cancel your enrolment. We’ll work something out. And what’s more, we should support you to attend this course. It’s important that we provide leadership training to senior women. This is an expensive course (too expensive he actually said!), but let’s see if we can find some of the cost to help you to attend.

My initial response, a classic I guess, was to remonstrate strongly. “Oh, no, no, no. No. I will pay for this myself.“. There’s a life lesson right there, I think.

So that was that. I was going to London to take a Business School course. Me. A scientist. It ended up being a 6 week trip in the end. The first week I had arranged meetings related to my scientific and committee responsibilities, the middle four weeks for the course were taken as leave (so I wouldn’t be too tempted to feel guilty and try to work at the same time as undertaking the course) and the last week was a week of actual, real leave. On that last week, I caught up with friends from my Oxford days and visited the Lake District with the hope of processing all I’d learned and been exposed to on the course, before returning to Australia.

To give you a first little taster of the experience, here is an excerpt of an email letter I sent to my research team, as well as to family and friends after week one of the course (additional comments in italics):

“Dear all,

It’s Sunday afternoon 11 Oct 2015, 12 days since I arrived in London and 1 week after starting the programme. It’s been fabulous. 

The course started on Sunday last week at London Business School which is situated in a lovely old building of 26 terrace houses designed by John Nash and facing Regent’s Park.

The London Business School in Regent’s Park (this view is from my room on the 3rd floor – yes, this was a residential course)

The building has been renovated so that only the facade is from the early 19th century. Regent’s Park is fabulous to walk about at lunchtime or Sundays when we get a day off, and I’ve managed to walk to the top of Primrose Hill a couple of times to get a beautiful view across London.

View of London from Primrose Hill

View of London from Primrose Hill

The course participants (there were just shy of 50 of us) are all signed up to wellness sessions including yoga, pilates and circuit training. (we were each assigned to a health and wellness coach, and trained to the mantra that improving your health and wellness gives you a competitive advantage – I definitely won’t argue with that). We’ve been issued a pedometer and our coaching groups of 4 people each have to log our combined steps walked at the end of every week. As you might guess it gets very competitive with senior executives from around the world (the cohort included senior people from over 25 countries representing commercial companies, not-for-profits, government departments as well as academia e.g. Adidas, Electrolux, Woolworths, the Royal Navy, St John Ambulance, UK National Grid etc).

Last Sunday we started with a 1-day refresher on finance and accounting so that (hopefully) we’re all on the same page with the metrics used in business.  I now have a fair idea of what net present value and accrued rate of return means. (not sure that’s still true) Since then the course has thrown us some challenging ideas about the predicted 100 year life and how that will impact us in the future. Not to mention the digital revolution of networks, information and big data and how these are changing the world.

On Thursday we went to the Royal Society of Arts where we were coached in performance skills in a program called “Leader as performer“. That was fun! Afterwards, I walked back from Trafalgar Square to Regent’s Park (to get those steps up) via the National Portrait Gallery where I had dinner at their rooftop restaurant overlooking Nelson’s column.


View from the restaurant in the National Portrait Galley, London

There’s been a bit more walking in Regent’s Park today….and walking to a few other places nearby – one of which might look vaguely familiar. Can you guess where it is?

I'm sure you don't need to be told where this is

I’m sure you don’t need to be told where this is

You can see that by the end of week 1, at least, I was pretty happy with the course and the venue. But what did I learn at school? And how did that lead to the changes alluded to in the title?

Well those details, dear reader, will have to wait for another day.

Vale David Bowie: Ch-ch-ch-changes. Time may change me. But I can’t trace time.











on risk and luck in a scientific career

It’s funny thinking about one’s career in retrospect, and contemplating how it ended up where it has. For mine, there have been risks, as well as some dumb luck along the way. Not to mention a fair share of mistakes. One of the silliest mistakes was to assume – when I was a young student at Pharmacy College in Melbourne – that the academics instructing me always knew they wanted to be academics and that they’d all had a smooth career path in reaching that point. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, as I learned from my own academic journey. Bumps and hurdles, both personal and professional, abounded on the way to where I am now. I certainly didn’t start out knowing that I wanted to be an academic. Far from it.

I was lucky in many ways early on. For one thing, although I was born into a poor family I was reasonably clever, did well at school and I had the opportunity to move out of poverty. Unlike my parents who both left school at 13 or 14, I had the chance of a tertiary education. Without incurring a hideously large debt. Yes, tertiary education in Australia was free when I was an undergraduate. That was a great bit of dumb luck. It required being born at the right time.

Second, there were strong female role models in my life who, either through necessity or chance, had taken paths that diverged from the norm for women of low socioeconomic status. My mother – with 9 children – became charge nurse in a hospital operating theatre when I was still at home. My aunt, a nun, had a successful nursing career in a major city hospital. My high school physics and chemistry teacher was a woman. These women weren’t simply passive objects in a male-dominated world, and they showed by example that getting married and having children was not the only option for a young girl from the sticks. A good thing really. For an excruciatingly shy young girl, if marriage and children were the only measure of success I would have been a complete failure.

Don’t get me wrong. Tertiary education was not all beer and skittles. In fact there was no beer. And no skittles. To attend college I had a 90 minute commute each way on public transport (it’s probably no coincidence that ever since then my commute has been 15 min or less). Domestic duties awaited when I returned home every night: cooking, doing the dishes, the laundry, etc for a large family. With travel, undergrad lectures, long pracs, nightly revision of lecture notes as well as home duties, there was no time for the usual student social life at college. On the flip side, I did gain important time-management skills. 🙂 And I loved the pharmacy course. Indeed, it was a revelation to see the chemistry underpinning a drug:receptor interaction and to find that drug design was not merely the stuff of science fiction. So it was no trouble to absorb the course information and, perhaps in part because I had none of the beer and skittles distractions, I aced the degree. That early success set me up for a competitive government scholarship towards a Masters research degree. A postgraduate degree. I had certainly not planned that when I started out. And it was a bit of a risk moving into research when my peers were moving into well-paying positions as pharmacists. But that is what I chose to do. The thrill of discovery beckoned.

As I described in a previous post, I wasn’t really sure what to do after the Masters degree…research or pharmacy? pharmacy or research? At the time, what I really wanted to do was travel. There was a whole wide world waiting to be discovered. And there was that little issue of a young man I’d met during my Masters degree who had returned to the UK after a year in industry in Australia. I took another risk. I planned a trip through Nepal and India on my own (what was I thinking?) and applied for PhD scholarships in the UK. If I was awarded a scholarship I would move into research. If I didn’t, I would spend a few months on a working holiday in Europe and return to Australia to a job in pharmacy.

Leaving Melbourne, not knowing I would be gone for 4 years, on my way to discover the big wide world.

A young Aussie girl – complete with Akubra – farewells her family at Melbourne airport at the beginning of her journey to discover the big wide world. Photo taken by her dad

If you’ve read that earlier post, you’ll know the scholarships came along just in the nick of time, and I earned a D Phil degree at Oxford University. By then the young man was history (well let’s face it, he was never that into me anyway). So there’s another bit of dumb luck that turned out to be a huge cornerstone of my career. Likely, I wouldn’t have a degree from Oxford if I’d not fallen for a Brit boy and not had the support of mentors directing me to a research degree there.

So there I was with a DPhil degree from Oxford. You can imagine, I was on top of the world. Where would I go? What would I do next? After several years in the UK, I was desperately homesick and longing for a bit of sun. As luck would have it, a new private university had opened in Queensland, and I accepted a 3-year postdoctoral position there. Big mistake. Within 6 months of my arriving, the university closed the entire science and technology school; it was too expensive to run. Along with scores of others, I was unemployed. The world that had been my oyster had slammed shut. But then, another bit of dumb luck. I was mobile. I didn’t have a mortgage or a family to support. I could go overseas. Two positions came up, one at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, the other at Rockefeller University in New York. I ummed and ahhed. Both were great labs, great opportunities. Which one should I choose? In the end, I opted for New York. I thought it might be marginally safer than Tel Aviv (the first Gulf war was raging at the time). Funny thing is, a year earlier I had stated categorically that I would never work in the USA. Now I was having to eat those words. Big time. New York was probably the last place I would have chosen to go in the US had it not been for the circumstances. Yet it turned out to be a great career move. I worked hard at Rockefeller University for two years and generated two high profile first author papers. That decision was a good one. Even if it was precipitated by bad luck.


A much younger yours truly hard at work in front of a precious Apple Mac at Rockefeller Uni (hmm I must have cleaned up my desk for the photo)

For personal reasons, after the Big Apple I decided it was time to return to Australia for good. This time to the University of Queensland in Brisbane with my own fellowship, and my own set-up money. I had been given a golden opportunity to establish a protein crystallography lab, in the Drug Design and Development Centre. I ran with that opportunity, and I’ve now been at UQ for 22 years. There have been ups and downs of course. Personally, it wasn’t all a bed of roses. For a couple of years I was in a….well, let’s say a troubled relationship at home. Fortunately, I was not financially dependent on my partner. And we didn’t have children. So although it was very distressing, I was able to extricate myself after a couple of turbulent years – with the help of friends and colleagues. My self-confidence and self-esteem suffered, and I lived alone for a long time after that. The experience did teach me a very valuable lesson about defining what I wanted in a relationship. That was definitely a good bit of planning.

A few years later, I met my now husband. We met late in life and neither of us had married before. The whole marriage thing was a bit of a gamble for both of us. But that risk was well worth it; in hindsight, the decision to share my life with him was easily the most brilliant decision ever.

So things are going well. My research is at an all-time high, I work with a great team of young and enthusiastic scientists, and my other great passion – gender equity in Australian science – is firmly on the national agenda.

If I’ve learned nothing else in my career, it’s to capitalise on success. Now is the time to put myself out there, take a step out of my comfort zone. And so I recently accepted the role of Director of the Eskitis Drug Discovery Institute at Griffith University in Brisbane. I begin in March, and am thrilled by the opportunity to continue my research and step up to a more senior role. I’m also just a little terrified by leaving the known (UQ) for the unknown (GU).

Lucky I completed that Senior Executive Program at the London Business School last year. Must write about that next time.


merit and demerit

When I graduated many years ago, the hall was filled with people from around the world: different colours, different races, different religions, as many women as men. Now some 30 years later, I’m often the only woman in a room full of white men. When I ask my peers where all the diversity has gone, they shrug their shoulders and say “We appoint on merit”.

Actually, they’re wrong. We don’t appoint on merit. We appoint on metrics.

rethinking merit and metrics

The accepted norms of the higher education workplace are an obsessive focus on a very narrow set of metrics as a proxy for merit, a high attrition of women, a lack of diversity in leadership, and sometimes the development of toxic unwelcoming workplaces.

We need to rethink how we measure merit and we need to consider demerit too so that we can be confident that the people we invest with power, leadership and decision-making are not sexist, racist, homophobic or bullies.

To start, we need to look at what we mean by merit. The dictionary defines merit as the “quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward”. I don’t think anyone would argue that we shouldn’t appoint leaders on merit using that meaning. In a society that is diverse, like ours – 50% women, multicultural – you would expect that merit and the power and leadership earned as a result, would be evenly distributed across diverse demographics. But it’s not.

For some reason, promotion on merit does not give everyone a fair go. Leadership, power and decision making are concentrated almost uniformly in a narrow demographic: old white men.

Yet the data show that leadership teams with greater diversity and differing life experience generate better outcomes. More diversity provides a competitive edge. If we focus on gender, for example, companies with more women on their boards make larger profits. Really, investors should only support companies with women CEOs. They’d make a lot more money. What about research? Well, teams of mixed gender produce higher quality research and a higher proportion of women increases team collective intelligence. What’s more, when organisations improve things for women they make things better for everyone by increasing access to parental leave, flexible work practise, better work life balance.

The attrition of diversity impacts negatively on productivity and innovation in academia. Yet when the dominant group are challenged about the lack of diversity in senior academic positions, their defense often focuses on the word “merit”. When we probe further, we find that merit here actually means metrics. Most importantly, we don’t measure demerit at all. Let me explain.

easy to measure metrics

To assess merit in academia, we measure a few specific things. The number of publications, the number of grants, the number of PhD students. These numbers focus on a very narrow selection of things that people and universities do. And it is no coincidence that these metrics are also easy to measure. The problem comes when we use these “easy to measure” metrics as a proxy for merit. We have now evolved ever more cryptic numbers (H index, IF, etc) that mean nothing to those outside the sector but which are avidly pursued within the sector, almost to the exclusion of everything else. The higher the numbers, the better and more valued you are. We chase after these metrics – but do they really measure what we should be measuring?

personal qualities we value

creativity     critical thinking   resilience   motivation   persistence   curiosity   endurance   reliability    enthusiasm   empathy   self-awareness   self-discipline leadership   courage     civic-mindedness    compassion    integrity   resourcefulness    honesty   sense of beauty   sense of wonder    generosity  humour   humility  kindness   consideration authenticity care

(Collated by US education policy researcher, Gerald Bracey with a few extra that I threw in)

In my opinion, it is the above list of personal qualities that should be considered when rewarding merit and choosing leaders. Yet none of these are measured directly and most are not measured at all when we assess the merit of people and higher ed institutions using current metrics. That means there is a disconnect between the metrics we use and the actual merit of a person or an institution based on these qualities.

We need new metrics. Metrics that value personal qualities. We should not measure how many PhD students an institution produces, we should measure how well an institution supports their PhD students. Universities should be assessed on how inclusive they are, how diverse their senior executive is, and how well they support the work-life balance of their staff. After all, university rankings are meant to help students and staff identify the best places in the world to study, work and do research. That should mean measuring which universities provide the safest and most supportive workplaces where everyone – not just those who fit into a very narrow demographic – can succeed. Professors should be assessed, for example, on how well they sponsor and mentor others to achieve research, teaching and service goals (with more weighting given to supporting diversity), not how many people are in their group or how much money they have received in grants.

And then we also need to look at the other side of the coin.


The dictionary defines demerit as a “fault or disadvantage”, or “a mark awarded against someone for a fault or offence”. When we measure the worth and value of someone or some institution we ought to consider demerit alongside merit. When a professor tells a sexist, racist or homophobic joke, that should count as demerit. When a university supports or organizes a conference with an all white male list of speakers, that must count as demerit.

Our current focus on a very narrow set of metrics as a proxy for merit sometimes leads to or supports selfish, unprofessional or even unethical behaviours that can generate toxic workplaces. Harassment is one such toxic behaviour that pushes women out. In a recent study, 64% of scientists surveyed about their experience on field trips reported sexual harassment; 22% reported sexual assault. The majority of those reporting harassment and assault were young (undergrads, postgrads, postdocs) and female. The perpetrators were predominantly male and senior. The power differential makes it very difficult for the victim to report the bad behaviour; the perpetrator may be a highly respected person with huge metrics. They are “too valuable” to lose, too powerful to challenge. The power differential silences and shames the victim. Even when unethical behaviour is reported it may not be dealt with appropriately.

Sometimes I wish there were a Demerit App – one that silences and shames the bully, harasser, or predator. So that when a married male professor won’t stop looking down the shirt of a female postdoc, she can press the thumbs down button against the professor’s name. The professor would be denied access to his laptop and portable electronic devices for an hour. If two or more people activate the app, the professor would be locked out for an even longer time and a message sent to the supervisor who would need to take action or they too would earn demerit points. Demerit points would accumulate for each individual and for each institution and would be deducted from the metrics used to calculate a person’s merit and a university’s international ranking.

it’s time for change

We are now well into a new millennium. But we are stuck in the stereotypes of the past. This roadblock is limiting our decision-making, our progress, our innovation. To move forward, we need to challenge the current norms; define merit much more broadly; measure qualities we value in people but which are hard to measure; and we must value ethical behaviour. Most importantly, we need to assess demerit alongside merit to gauge the true worth of a person or an institute. This way we can bequeath new models of success and leadership to the next generation to help fix the problems we have inherited from the past.

In this revolutionised workplace, academics with integrity, empathy, respect and compassion – as well as critical thinking and creativity – will be rated highest and valued most of all.


This post is based on a TedX talk I gave at the University of Queensland on 23 May 2015. The video is here. (updated with new link on 10 Jan 2016)

but what can I do?

The theme of International Women’s Day 2015 was “Make it Happen“. Over the past few months I’ve been asked to speak on that topic at my home institution, and at other venues in Australia and in the UK. In those talks I report the stats and reasons for the poor progression of women in academia and also suggest how individuals and institutions might make change happen. After those talks I am invariably asked to provide copies of the “what can I do” slides. I’ve been asked so many times now, that it seems easiest to post these ideas on my blog, so that I can point all future requests here.

This is a living document. My slides are updated regularly, whenever I come across new ideas that may help address the status quo and overturn gendered stereotypes in academia. I will do the same with this post and welcome suggestions from others.

This list is a collection of ideas brought together through my reading, correspondence and thinking about where we are now, where we need to be and how to get there.


If we don’t actively and intentionally set out to include women, we will unintentionally exclude themElizabeth Broderick, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

1. Make gender equity a priority. Don’t put it last on the strategic plan. Don’t consider it last on appointment shortlist processes or when deciding departmental/panel speakers. Put it first. Select women first. It matters.

2. Publish rates of pay online for men and women at each level of appointment in your institution. Is there a gendered difference? If yes, develop an action plan to address the gender pay gap. If there isn’t, shout that news out to the world. Celebrate that you have solved this very tricky problem. Explain how you achieved that momentous outcome, so that others can learn and solve the problem too. Be a beacon.

3. Publish workforce gender statistics online. For each level of appointment in the institution, publish the percentage of women and men. Separate these into academic and professional staff appointments. Comment on any vertical segregation of women (do women predominate at undergraduate, postgraduate and lower levels of appointments but not higher levels of appointments?). Comment on any horizontal segregation of women (do women at higher levels of appointments tend to have more teaching focused or service-oriented rather than research positions?). Highlight online the gender equity issues that need to be addressed and outline the agreed diversity goals. Update these statistics annually, and measure progress. Make a competition of being the best at supporting diversity. If you are part of an Athena SWAN program you will no doubt be doing this already.

4. Include Gender Equity as an agenda item on all decision-making committees. Consider how decisions made in these committees will impact on women. Make sure there are sufficient women on those committees so that the question can be answered with credibility.

5. Train all decision makers in unconscious bias management. Then continually monitor the process to ensure it is working.

6. Ensure sufficient, affordable, high quality childcare places to support your students and workforce who have family responsibilities.

7. Develop a central webpage for women. Highlight the support the institution provides for women and families – specifically those on parental leave, those returning to work from parental leave, and those who have primary carer responsibility. Explain how career disruptions are managed in promotions and appointments. Provide parental leave statistics (what is available, how many men and women take this leave each year of those eligible). Outline the number of family/lactation rooms available per FTE, and where those rooms are located. Describe the flexible work options that are available. Highlight the domestic violence leave. Yes it’s a thing. In the future, women and men will be looking for the best family friendly workplaces. Be ahead of the curve and your institution will have a competitive advantage.

8. Panel pledge. Make a commitment to sponsor or support only those conferences and panels that have appropriate speaker gender balance and anti-harassment policies and processes.

9. Run a Wikibomb to create Wikipedia pages for women. There are very few women scientists/academics visible on the internet. Search google images for “professor of (your science/research)”. It’s depressing. Let’s change that, one wiki page at a time.

10. Establish new metrics that reward service, support, good mentoring. Add these to traditional metrics to value all the work staff do and use them actively in promotion and recruitment processes.

11. Evaluate staff recruitment statistics and processes. How many women applied for an advertised position relative to men. If the ratio doesn’t reflect the percentage of women and men at the appointment level below that advertised, you are doing something wrong. Look at the language and the process used in recruitment (check out this great infographic). Modify the language and processes to address gender imbalance. Consider making every post part-time and/or flexible.

12. Institute a “women only” promotion round to address historic imbalances. Yes. For real. Do this.

13. Participate in Athena SWAN/SAGE Forum. Aim for gold – be a beacon for gender equity.

14. Lobby higher education ranking agencies – state, national and international – to include professorial gender balance and professorial gender pay gap as part of the ranking equation. Yes, they will listen; I’ve done it myself. And the more institutions and individuals that ask, the more likely these will be included. Let’s make academic gender inequity history.


1. Recognise your biases. No, saying “I’m not biased” will not cut it. Everyone has biases. Good people. Men and women. Learn about your own (take the Harvard implicit association test) and then do something about them.

2. Do something about discrimination. Speak up – call out inappropriate behaviour, unconscious bias, gender stereotyping. Remember the words of David Morrison, Australian Chief of Army, and Male Champion of Change: The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept”. In Europe, 75% of women in management and higher professional positions experienced some sort of sexual harassment in the workplace in their lifetime. 75%. Find out and implement your institutional sexual harassment policy. When you experience or witness sexual harassment or microagression in the workplace, or at a conference, don’t let it slide. Explain that it is inappropriate. Ask for an apology. Report to an organiser/someone in authority. Ask for the harassment policy to be made more visible. If you are the organiser/someone in authority, don’t tolerate discrimination or harassment.

3. Be fair: Assess applications for academic positions, grants, fellowships “Relative to Opportunity”. Don’t write gendered references.

5. When there aren’t enough women (invited speakers/on a panel/in a shortlist), ask why. If the invited speaker list does not reflect the audience diversity, raise the issue with the organisers. Ask for the policy on speaker invitations. I’ve written about this before. At least twice. Ask for data on speaker gender balance to be made public on the society/institute website. You pay a registration fee to attend a conference; you should expect value for money and you should expect a speaker diversity that roughly reflects that of the audience. If all or most of the speakers are old white men and the audience isn’t, ask for your money back. Vote with your credit card. There are way too many conferences vying for your business; support the ones that best support speaker diversity.


“›A powerful decent man is one who cares about sharing power and sharing leadership” Liz Broderick

›“Let’s not pretend that there aren’t already established norms that advantage men. Men invented the system. Men largely run the system. Men need to change the system.” Gordon Cairns, Male champion of change

Keep these quotes as your two guiding principles. Recognise that you have privilege, power and advantage simply because you are male. Consequently, you have more opportunity to make change happen and implement processes that lead to equality. Take those opportunities.

››1. Become informed about women’s issues and gender equality. Whether you are a leader, a decision maker, a mid-career researcher or a PhD student, find out why women have been marginalised and silenced throughout history and how gendered stereotypes continue to limit innovation and progress.

2. ›Treat everyone with courtesy, dignity, respect, trust. I shouldn’t even need to say that. But I do.

3. ›Call out sexism, harassment, discrimination, condescension, bias. When you witness it, don’t let it slide. Don’t say “Just ignore that” or “It was just a joke”. Call. It. Out. It is not acceptable.

4. ›Listen to women’s stories. Believe them. Give women a voice.

5. Take the panel/conference pledge. If you are in the fortunate position to receive regular invitations to speak and present at conferences and panels, make your first response to every new invitation “May I see the speaker policy?”. Don’t accept an invitation unless there is a reasonable gender balance. If there isn’t a reasonable gender balance, suggest an alternate female speaker or three. That’s what Liz Broderick’s male champions of change do.

›6. Access flexible work arrangements. Ask for these and use them. Shorter working days, parental leave, holidays and time off with your family. Normalise the sight of a man caring for his children and family. Make it a priority.

7. ›Lean in at home – share the unpaid work equally. Globally, women spend 2.5 times more hours on unpaid care and domestic work than men. In Australia, it’s 1.8 times. In the US the total value of unpaid care for children in 2012 was estimated at $3.2 trillion. That’s 20% of GDP. The UN reported that the average global gender pay gap is 24%. In Australia it’s 18.8%; with a superannuation gap of 47%. It’s been estimated that, in Australia on average, a woman needs to work an extra 15 years to retire with the same average superannuation as a man. 15 years. The UN also reported that the penalty of unpaid work is borne by and unfairly punishes women, regardless of their work status. The 2014 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics Australia survey found that “women do more paid employment, housework, childcare combined than men, regardless of whether the man is the main earner, the men and women earn equal amounts or the woman earns more“. What can you do? Share the load. Clean the toilet, do the shopping and laundry. Not as a one off for Mother’s Day. Forever. Plan family events. Share childcare. Don’t say you’re babysitting when you care for your own children. Pack the lunches, cook the meals, organise the plumber, pay the bills, do the tax forms……

8. Take notes. In committee meetings, take notes yourself. Richard Branson does. Pour the coffee. Serve the drinks and food. Don’t stand by and let the woman do it.

(Added on 30 May 2015 a fabulous list of 35 more things)



1. The first and most important rule. Should you choose to share your life with a partner, choose a supportive partner. As the great Kathleen Lonsdale – first woman Fellow of the Royal Society and crystallographer extraordinaire – said “(Your partner) must recognise your problems and be willing to share them”. From personal experience I can tell you choice of partner makes one hell of a difference to career trajectory. Maybe one day I’ll share that story with you.

2.  Allow your partner to help. Let them do the chores their way. Yes, I know it’s difficult when you have a particular way of doing things, and it’s not the way they do it and you’re a perfectionist. Believe me, I’ve been there. But the alternative is to do it yourself. Quite simply, you don’t have enough time.

3. Minimise domestic duties. Ironing is banned in our household. That is, unless my husband is being interviewed on telly. Then he has to iron his shirt himself. We have a very high tolerance for dust, a robotic vacuum cleaner, a very quiet dishwasher, and a sort-of regular but not very frequent routine for cleaning.

4. Be your authentic self. Be true to yourself. Even if it’s not what everyone else is doing. Don’t let others tell you that you can’t do (whatever) because you are a woman. They have no vision. Don’t limit yourself by following outdated stereotypes. Carve your own path in life. After all “Well-behaved women seldom make history“.



1. ›Put gender equity first not last

›2. Old stereotypes die hard, stamp them out

3. ›Be aware of your own biases

›4. Challenge the status quo

›5. Don’t tolerate sexism and harassment

›6. When there are few women, ask why

›7. Identify obstacles to progress

›8. Change the way we do things now

To change the way we do things, perhaps we need to “man up” less and “woman up” more. But that, dear reader, will have to be the topic of a future post.