99% perfect

This post is the text of the eulogy I gave at my mum’s funeral, and a poem chosen and read by my sister Cathy at mum’s burial. Mum was an incredible person and a wonderful, inspirational role model.

We love you mum and will miss you very much. Thank you for everything.


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Judith Mary Martin


“Some people make things happen, some people watch things happen and some people wonder what happened” to paraphrase Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 astronaut.

Judith Mary Martin – whose life we celebrate today – unquestionably falls into the category of people who made things happen. Mum may not have flown to the moon, but she most certainly reached for the stars.

Born in 1934 in country Victoria, Judy had an older sister Faye, and a twin sister Joy. When still a little girl, her parents separated, and she moved with her mum and two sisters to Melbourne. It was the middle of the depression era: they lived in abject poverty, surviving on bread & dripping at times, doing midnight runners to avoid paying rent, and going to the pawnbrokers to get items out of hock when her mum – a factory worker – got paid. As a young girl, mum had already decided she would never work in a factory; she would get educated, work hard, and make sure that her family would have a stable and loving home life. She achieved all that and much more, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Having to leave school at grade 8 – aged 14 – wasn’t a great start. Mum’s first job was at the Imperial War Graves Commission, but she really wasn’t cut out for office work. She toyed with the idea of becoming a nun, but in the end chose nursing as her vocation. Once the decision was made, she then made it happen. Trouble was, nursing training couldn’t begin till she was 18, and mum was just 16. So she hounded the nursing director till she got a job as a probationer and then after significantly more hounding, she entered nursing training at the tender age of 17 years and 5 months. She was in her element, she loved the work, and she loved the girls she worked with. She said that those years were the best of her life, the most carefree, and loads of fun.

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Mum completes her nursing training

She worked hard, was determined to succeed, and eventually became Nurse Unit Manager (Charge Nurse) of the entire operating theatre department at a major Victorian Hospital. Although she left school at 14, she returned to study part-time aged 52, first to complete her VCE and then to graduate with a Bachelor of Nursing in 1992 aged 58; all the while working, and caring for her youngest children. She was still working two nights a week at the age of 72.

Life was anything but plain sailing. Two weeks after she started as a nursing probationer, her adored father died – he was 42 and she just 16; still a child.

Mum married twice, had 10 children and 8 grandchildren. For much of the early years, there was very little money, and life was a constant struggle. By mum’s account, her first marriage was very unhappy and didn’t last long. In her second marriage, it was mum that mostly set the family goals, she who made things happen to achieve her aspirations. She orchestrated family moves upward, including from a “hovel” to a housing commission home (the “lap of luxury”) in country Victoria, by literally begging the local MP who she collared at a school function. She also triggered a later move by reporting the house we lived in to the local council, who swiftly condemned it as unfit to live in.

Meanwhile, there were personal misfortunes to contend with. As an infant, Geoff nearly died from an infection in the mid-60s. Later that same year, Dad was also in hospital for months after a terrible logging accident, leaving mum with a family of 6 kids and one on the way, with no income and no insurance. On Christmas Day 1979, a car ploughed through a red light into ours and mum and dad ended up in hospital for many weeks. Much, much worse though was the loss of two children: in 1973, mum’s 10th child Gerard died in childbirth. And in 1991, her 7th child Peter died aged 25, in a car accident. These tragic events nearly broke her heart. But as she said in her own words many years later:

“There are always things in life you wish you didn’t have to go through, because they hurt so much. But you know what? That’s part of the journey too.”

“Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move forward.”

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The whole family in 1984 – including the first grandchild

Mum did what she could, with the few resources she had, to improve the family’s lot: buying Lan Choo tea because it came with coupons to claim gifts in the store in town; getting her driver’s licence, and then helping teach many of her kids to drive – even if that did include falling asleep in the passenger seat with Steven at the wheel. In the 1970s, mum’s name was picked out of the barrel to spin the wheel on the Ernie Sigley Show. She won a TV, we think – and a trip to Sydney after Ernie found out she had so many children. Asked what message she wanted to send her family on national telly, mum famously said:

“I just hope someone remembers to make the school lunches”.

Perhaps it was the Ernie Sigley trip that started the travel bug: she began taking road trips with youngest children Jan and Cally – to the Great Ocean Road, Adelaide, Sydney. She took her first overseas trip when she was 47, with Cathy to visit Tony and Olga and grandson Eann in Israel and then on to Italy and the UK. Because she was going to be away such a long time, she left us a long list of things to do. Including a fire drill every evening. Which we promptly ignored. Mum took to the jetset life with gusto, soaking up history and cultures, and traveling around the world into her 70s. On one notable occasion, and despite family misgivings, mum set off to Bangkok, by herself, just after 9/11 – aged 67. She was on her way to visit Ian and Cally in London, and nothing was going to stop her from doing that.

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“Swanning around Europe” with two family members

One of her greatest delights was creating things for others. After knitting her first jumper at age 11, the knitting needles hardly ever stopped. Look at any family photo from the 60s through to the 80s, and you’ll inevitably see kids sporting mum’s handmade knits. She was a prolific letter-writer too. Seeing her beautiful handwriting on a newly arrived envelope when you were far from home, was certain to lift the spirits – with family news, photos and mum’s life advice. In the 1990s, mum discovered patchwork quilting after a visit to an Amish Village in the USA. She created over 100 exquisite quilts, that are now our treasured heirlooms.

A birthday quilt, one of over 100 quilts mum made, five of them for me

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Close-up of text on the birthday quilt “Made during a time of old age and ill-health” Oct 2007-Nov 2010 “From Mum”

Mum didn’t just create tangible things like jumpers, letters and quilts, she also created intangibles – memories, moments, merriment – especially around celebrations of birthdays, Easter, and Christmas. She truly cared about people, and she enjoyed having a bit of fun too! She loved movies and music, and would sing or dance at the drop of a hat.

“Life is to be lived” she said, “to be enjoyed right to the end. Make the most of every moment.”

Coming from good Irish stock, Mum had a fine sense of the absurd. When Tony Abbott announced that he was bringing back Knights and Dames, mum’s planned morning tea morphed into a Royal Tea Party and she crowned herself Lady Muck of …… Some years before, she came to my New York–themed fancy dress party in QLD when I was about to leave for America. There was King Kong, Crocodile Dundee, several movie stars, and as guest of honour I was Madonna. Much to my embarrassment, the guest-of-honour’s mother turned up as a New York bag lady. Oh how she laughed remembering that story recently! Going back even further, when we as kids would ask how old she would be on an upcoming birthday, it would always be 29. Or 28. Or 25.

When mum first let me know a few years ago that she wanted me to give the eulogy at her funeral, I wondered if there was anything particular she wanted me to say.

Mum simply said: “Don’t sugarcoat it; just tell it like it is”.

Me: “OK….. so you don’t want me to say you were perfect?”

Mum, after a moment’s pause: “Hmmm, well, let’s say 99% perfect”

I asked what she was most proud of achieving in her very full life. This time without hesitation, she said

“My family. I feel very, very fortunate with my children. I have a very blessed life. And I love my grandchildren to bits. There’s not a one of them – kids or grandkids – that you wouldn’t be really glad to know. So I am twice blessed.”

Always fiercely independent, after succumbing to side-effects of treatment for multiple myeloma, mum had to let go, to allow her children to arrange her affairs, chauffeur her, take her to appointments, feed and look after her, as she had done singlehandedly for all of us so many years ago. What she didn’t seem to understand was that far from being a burden, doing these things for her was a privilege and an honour. Looking after each other – well you taught us that mum, that is what families are for.

Despite being in constant pain, mum accepted her lot, remaining positive and curious about the world, right to the end. She was anxious about one thing though. Late last year, when Christmas was coming up, followed soon after by several family birthdays, she said:

“I’m looking forward to Christmas so much, seeing everyone together again. It’s extra special this year as I wasn’t meant to be here for this one.  I just don’t want to die on anyone’s birthday.”

Well, mum, you successfully navigated that minefield. Your death was the way you wanted it, peaceful, quick and not coinciding with a family birthday. You were ready to go, even if we weren’t ready for you to leave. We will be reminded of you every day by the simple things you always loved: a Richmond scarf, a cake stall, a flower garden, an old movie, a cup of tea with sympathy.

Personally, I will treasure the times we spent together recently, especially our last day – when you laughed over taking selfies. How many other 82 year olds have an iPhone, I ask you?

Mum, I will never forget that it was you who inspired me to reach for the stars, you who put that first precious sprinkle of stardust into each of your children’s hands, so that we too could aspire to be people who make things happen.

Judith Mary Martin, Judy, Mum, Granny

What an extraordinary life you lived, a life that touched so many

Now, you are, without doubt, forever 29 years old

and 99% perfect

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Mum and me together a few years ago

 

The text below is the poem read out at mum’s burial, by Cathy Martin

“Remember me” David Harkins 1981

Do not shed tears when I have gone but smile instead because I have lived. Do not shut your eyes and pray to God that I’ll come back but open your eyes and see all that I have left behind. I know your heart will be empty because you cannot see me but still I want you to be full of the love we shared.

You can turn your back on tomorrow and live only for yesterday or you can be happy for tomorrow because of what happened between us yesterday. You can remember me and grieve that I have gone or you can cherish my memory and let it live on. You can cry and lose yourself, become distraught and turn your back on the world or you can do what I want – smile, wipe away the tears, learn to love again and go on.

 

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.

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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.

 

life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans

A week or so ago, my family stood in the cemetery in roughly the same place we’d stood more than two decades earlier. Though we were laying to rest a second family member, the scene could not have been more different. This time, the sun was shining. There was sadness, but no tears. The container of dad’s ashes – labelled with the metal panel from his coffin – was placed gently into the space dug near the 23-year-old plaque. Petals collected that morning from flowers in mum’s garden were sprinkled over the container, some falling on the weathered old plaque nearby. Mum commented that dad would have liked the simplicity of the ceremony.

The attendant – John – carefully filled the hole, saying he would put fresh turf over it the next day. In a broad Aussie drawl, he apologised for not wearing something more formal. Normally he would be in a suit, but he’d been called in at the last minute. Cemeteries have emergencies too. He needn’t be worried, someone said. If anything, the weekend work clothes he had on were more appropriate for dad, a working-class man. John had worked at the cemetery for many years and remarked that he sometimes stopped by the plaque and wondered about the man pictured there. The photo was of a handsome young man, taken at his best mates’ wedding where he’d officiated as best man, a month before he died.

Peter

At that time, I was a post-doc at Rockefeller University in Manhattan, New York. I’d started on April 1, 1991. I could have taken up the post a few weeks earlier, but had delayed a little so I could attend a sister’s 21st birthday party. I’m glad I did. As it turned out, the celebration was the last time all the family would be together.

By Oct 1991, six months after arriving in New York, I’d furnished my studio apartment on 63rd and York, successfully navigated the subway to find all the places I needed to get to, and had hosted several visitors from Australia. One visitor asked whether I would consider returning to Australia as a group leader. “No way,” I replied “not as a group leader. That’s far too stressful, too much work.” Strange thing to say really, I was already working days, nights, weekends in New York. I did, though, take time out to enjoy the incredible diversity of museums, cultural centres and restaurants that the city had to offer.

Friday, October 25, 1991 started off like any other. I got into the lab around 8 am, and spent a few hours purifying proteins from bacterial cultures, preparing to set up crystallisation trays later in the day. By late morning, I needed a break. I returned to the office I shared with three other postdocs. Unusually, there was no one else around, but a note had been left on my desk. It said that I should call the number written below. It was a Melbourne number, but not one I recognised.

“That’s odd” I thought “why would anyone want me to call now, it’s the middle of the night in Melbourne”. No alarm bells rang. Completely unprepared for the devastating news that was to come, I called the number and heard that I’d reached the emergency department of a major public hospital close to my family’s home. My mum and sister both worked there, so perhaps it wasn’t that unusual to get a call, but it was strange to come from the emergency department in the early morning Melbourne time. Maybe the number had been written down incorrectly, maybe mum/my sister were working night duty.

I explained to the voice on the other end of the line that I was in the USA and had been left a message to call that number. I half-expected the voice to say “Oh, sorry, there’s been a mistake; we’ll put you through to theatre (where mum worked) or CCU (where my sister worked)”. But that didn’t happen. There was a few second’s silence, then “Just a minute, we’ll put you through”. It was about then that the alarm bells started clanging.

My sister came on the line. “Jenny……something awful has happened.”

WHAT. NO. NO. PLEASE NO. WHO? MUM? DAD? The questions tumbled out.

“There’s been a car accident. Peter suffered severe head injuries. He’s just been declared dead. We are all here.“

Within a few hours, I was on a flight from JFK to MEL via LAX. It was surreal. That morning I’d been purifying protein, now I was on my way home to help organise my youngest brother’s funeral. My brother Peter. So full of life and mischief.

The service would be held on 31 October, Halloween. That day now forever linked to sorrow. Etched in my memory of that week is the physical pain of the raw grief, the utter anguish and despair that – together with the overwhelming perfume of condolence flowers – filled my parent’s home; the hundreds of “in sympathy” cards; the pathos of a phone call dad made to explain why Peter wouldn’t be coming into work any more. Choosing the clothes Peter would wear for the last time. Viewing his lifeless body. Saying goodbye.

The funeral was witnessed through a blur of tears, though some memories stick: the hundreds of young people in attendance; the sight of brothers and cousins waiting patiently with the coffin resting on their squared shoulders at the end of the service while the music master scrambled to find the recessional music; the solemn procession under racing grey clouds, of dozens of cars en route to the cemetery; the vivid green grass and muddy soil surrounding the final resting place; the gentle descent of the coffin into the earth; the bright red roses cast into the deep pit. I remember too the counsel of a friend at the wake “This is a time for grieving. When you think of Peter now there will be tears. In time, though, you’ll be able to think about him and smile.”

In loving memory of Peter William Martin. 20.4.1966 - 26.10.1991 Beloved son of Jack and Judy.  Loved brother of Anthony, Ian, Steven, Jenny, Cathy, Geoff, Jan-Maree, Carolyn and Gerard (dec) A cheeky grin, twinkling blue eyes, strategist, car enthusiast, active, helpful, loyal, gentle Peter.  These things we will remember of you with love.  The measure of your life is the love you left behind.  In God's care.

In loving memory of Peter William Martin.
20.4.1966 – 26.10.1991
Beloved son of Jack and Judy.
Loved brother of Anthony, Ian, Steven, Jennifer, Catherine, Geoffrey, Jan-Maree, Carolyn and Gerard (dec)
A cheeky grin, twinkling blue eyes, strategist, car enthusiast, active, helpful, loyal, gentle Peter.
These things we will remember of you with love.
The measure of your life is the love you left behind.
In God’s care.

Peter was 25 when he died. The same age as Phil Hughes, the Australian Test cricketer who passed away recently. Like Hughes, Peter’s death was a tragic accident. Like Hughes, Peter’s character was defined by his cheeky grin, and twinkling eyes. He had a wicked sense of humour. As a boy, he was a walking encyclopedia of facts about World War II, often interrupting movies we were watching to explain anachronisms – “that tank is wrong, it hadn’t been built at that time”. As he grew older he developed the gift of drawing you in to his world, charming you with the delight, the joy he took in whatever had captured his imagination, a book he’d just read, a historical fact he’d just discovered, a painting he was working on, his dungeons and dragons obsession. Whatever it was, in his presence it became the most important thing in the world.

Peter was 5 years younger than me, and the youngest of the 5 boys in the family. Like many brothers he could be most annoying at times, and then at other times he would be extraordinarily generous and considerate. When my black and white cat (named Sylvester, what else) disappeared I was devastated. Peter, all of 9 or 10 at the time, brought home a tiny black kitten for me, a stray he’d found on a light industry site where he delivered newspapers after school.

Despite scorning my music preferences, he offered to tape the entire 3 hour soundtrack for my 21st birthday party, and followed my instructions to the letter. As a birthday gift that year, he gave me the ugliest figurine you can possibly imagine, of a cockatoo. It was his idea of a joke, to remind me of his pet budgie Billy. A badass budgie that nipped anyone that came near him. Except Peter. He loved Peter. And yes, I still have that figurine.

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When I moved to the UK to undertake a DPhil at Oxford in the late 1980s, I was desperately homesick and asked family to send Christmas gifts that would remind me of home. Peter and I both supported the same football team; he sent me his cherished bombers flag, the one he’d waved at the Essendon premiership a few years before. Sadly that flag no longer exists.

His untimely death impacted family members in different ways. For me, it meant insomnia for several weeks requiring medication, and relentless guilt for not being there when he died. It also cemented in my mind that I would not choose to live overseas for my work, even if the opportunities might be better. I vowed to knuckle down, complete the work I was doing in the US, and then return to Australia. So it was that in mid-1993, two years after declaring I didn’t want to be a group leader, I took up an ARC QEII Fellowship at the University of Queensland where I established my own protein crystallography group. Of course, there were many other reasons to select UQ. But the choice of country was not negotiable.

So when I’m asked at career forums about my career decisions, why I returned to Australia after a very successful PhD in the UK and a very successful postdoc in the US, I say I made the decision for family reasons.

It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

thank you Gough

I didn’t expect the death of former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to affect me so deeply. Perhaps I was already feeling fragile after the passing of my father, and then my father-in-law, in the past few weeks. But they were both family. Whitlam was not. And he was, after all, 98 years old. It’s not like his life was cut short; this was no tragic, untimely end.

Maybe it’s because he led Australia during a time when I first became aware of politics. But I think probably the reason I am so saddened by his passing is because his reform agenda impacted on me directly; it literally changed the course of my life. Elected in the early 1970s after decades “in the wilderness”, Whitlam’s Labor Government had a whirlwind three years in power, pushing through reforms that shaped our nation: universal health care, abolition of conscription – including releasing draft dodgers from prison – lowering the voting age to 18, implementing the racial discrimination act, no-fault divorce, the Family Law court, free tertiary education, paid maternity leave for women in the public service, and connecting outer urban areas to the sewerage system. He also established a Department of Aboriginal Affairs, and appointed the first Prime Ministerial adviser on women.

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As David Berthold noted on twitter “Gough Whitlam, appropriately, was Australia’s 21st Prime Minister: he was our coming of age.”

 

“Only those born bereft truly know the power of opportunity” Aboriginal lawyer Noel Pearson said at Whitlam’s memorial service in Sydney this week. Maybe not bereft, I was certainly born poor, and I truly know the power that Whitlam’s vision gave me. It gave me access to an education. The family I was born into had never had anyone attend university. Indeed, neither of my parents finished high school. Tertiary education was beyond reach until Whitlam’s reforms. Born at just the right time to benefit, I took the opportunity and ran with it. I aced the Pharmacy degree in Melbourne, winning many undergraduate prizes, and that set me up for a Masters research degree in Melbourne, and then a DPhil at Oxford and a postdoctoral position at Rockefeller University in New York. My scientific research career has taken me around the world. As I write this post I am in a hotel in Tokyo, on a 2-week visit to build connections with Japanese researchers. Whitlam’s education legacy gave me the springboard to build a career and then to have a voice in my field of molecular research and in science gender equity policy in Australia.

What would my life have been without the opportunity the Whitlam Government gave me? I cannot imagine. I dare not imagine.

Whitlam’s “It’s Time” policy platform had three overarching objectives that still ring true today:

  1. to promote equality
  2. to involve the peoples of Australia in decision-making processes
  3. to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people

Thank you Gough for your vision of a fairer Australia. Thank you for giving me and millions of others equality and opportunity. Thank you for liberating my talents and uplifting my horizons.

I cherish your values. I celebrate your life. I mourn your passing.

for dad

If you’d known dad only in the past few years, you’d think of him as a frail and sometimes grumpy old man. But let’s wind the clock back more than 50 years to when I first knew him. In looks, dad was tall [1], dark and handsome. In manner, he was the strong and silent type.

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1960s; kids, cats and home. Photo credit, Judy Martin

Mum says that when they first met in the 1950s, he would visit her at the nurse’s lounge and stay for over two hours. If he said more than two words in that time it counted as lively conversation. It’s a good thing that mum easily does the talking for two, otherwise none of the next generation of Martins would be around today. But things did progress; the family eventually included Tony (stepson), Ian, Steven, Jenny, Cathy, Geoff, Peter, Jan, Cally and Gerard.

Dad was born to a very poor family, and left school aged 14. It was 1944, towards the end of WWII. He took a job in a paper bag factory in Melbourne and later worked as a courier for an engineer, an odd-job man at a guest house – milking cows, catching rabbits, and doing the gardening – and finally landed his dream job driving trucks and buses. By the time he was 18 he was driving trucks interstate – delivering beer from Adelaide in SA into NSW and QLD. Some 10 years later he drove the bus connection from Sale to Bairnsdale in Victoria, delivered logs from Bullumwaal near Bairnsdale and then returned to interstate trucking.

To me, dad’s occupation as a long-distance truckie – or cartage contractor as he liked to refer to it – really suited his character. It gave him time on his own to think and contemplate. What’s more, he could spend the long days driving his White “Road Boss” semi-trailer through the beautiful Australian countryside he loved so much. At the same time though, traveling around Australia meant he was away from home. He was often torn between work and home, because he would be gone for more than a week at a time. On some occasions, leaving home for a long trip was a huge effort. Mum remembers he would find excuse after excuse to get out of the truck and come back into the house for something he’d forgotten, finally admitting “I really just want to stay here”. I think that’s why his favourite song, the song he expressly asked to be played at his funeral, was John Denver’s “Back Home Again”.

The White "Road Boss" Photo credit: Jack Martin

The White “Road Boss”
Photo credit: Jack Martin

I worried about dad being on his own so much. For one birthday in the early 1980s I gave him a soft toy wombat to keep him company on the road, and to remind him that his family was thinking of him. That wombat travelled everywhere with dad, and stayed with him long after he stopped driving trucks in the mid 1990s. It went with him into aged care two years ago, and literally followed him to the grave.

For someone whose formal schooling was so brief, dad had a remarkable intellect. He read widely, could do complex maths in his head or on paper and he had the most beautiful copperplate handwriting. He loved puzzles, cryptic crosswords, and jigsaws and when we were young there were loads of board games too. Dad also had a photographic memory for the country roads of eastern Australia – he knew them like the back of his hand. In the early 1990s when I first moved to Queensland, I planned to drive on my own from Brisbane to Melbourne one Christmas, a journey of 1600 km (1000 miles). However, I got stuck halfway down with floodwaters in New South Wales. I called dad from a payphone. Yes, this was a long time ago. There were no mobiles. No GPS. No Google Maps. But I didn’t need them – I had dad – and when I explained my situation, dad knew exactly where I was. He gave me detailed instructions on which roads to take to avoid the floodwaters so that I arrived home safe, dry and on-time.

Dad also visited me in Brisbane on several occasions over the years, usually when I was in some sort of a pickle. Once or twice that meant helping me pick up the pieces of a broken heart. The last time though was the very happy occasion when Michael and I were married, in 2005. Dad stayed on for a week after the wedding to take on cat-sitting duties while we went away on honeymoon. At the time, dad was 75. Thinking about it now, I can’t imagine many other 75 year olds taking on that task – traveling interstate, and looking after two spoiled cats for a week – yet it seemed so natural to ask dad because he knew Brisbane so well and he loved animals. He did it with pleasure, and took the opportunity to call on some old mates from his trucking days who lived in south-east Queensland. He didn’t meet up with all of them though, because like many country folk of his era, he didn’t let them know he was in town, he just turned up unannounced.

A country boy at heart, when we lived in suburban Dandenong dad would take us on Sunday drives in the old Rambler Matador station wagon up to the nearby hills, or to south Gippsland or the Mornington Peninsula. On summer holidays, he’d drive us to Lake Tyers in East Gippsland where his mum had a holiday house. The kids would run along the shady wooded path down the hill to the white hot sandy beach, with the noise of the pounding waves providing the soundtrack, and dad would get the fishing rod out for a spot of surf-fishing.

The kitchen was always the centre of the home in our house. Dad was an excellent cook, specialising in comfort foods. Although he had trouble expressing his feelings in words, he had no trouble showing his love for us through food.

  • On a cold winter’s morning we’d often wake up to dad cooking porridge on the stove;
  • He made a mean lasagne, and the best pea and ham soup ever;
  • There was egg and bacon pie, sausage rolls and meat&veg pasties – all favourites of the family to this day;
  • Many, many sweets: orange cake, raspberry coconut slice, hedgehog;
  • And batches and batches of scones that would go as quickly as they came out of the oven.

Since the late 1990s, dad lived alone on acreage in countryside about 50 km south east of Melbourne. He surrounded himself with animals – dogs and cats, as well as horses on agistment – and his garden; vegies and herbs, Australian natives, rhododendrons, proteas. He loved the animals, the garden, the space, the peace and quiet, the solitude. Despite urgings for over a decade from family members that he move closer to family, he refused to leave his paradise.

His own paradise Photo credit: Cally Martin

His own paradise
Photo credit: Cally Martin

Like his mum before him, dad was keen on astrology. His star sign was Gemini, the twins, characterised by a dual nature. Whether you believe in astrology or not, dad certainly had two sides to his character. On the one side he could be stubborn, uncommunicative, quick-tempered, unkind. On the other, he could be gentle, helpful, caring, supportive. No doubt some of this duality was a consequence of depression, which he struggled with for decades. More recently, he battled dementia. This meant short-term memory loss. Dad couldn’t remember things that had just happened. His older memories though were vividly intact. On a trip to the Dandenongs two years ago, just after he moved into permanent care, we drove through The Basin where he had spent time as a boy and young man. Dad pointed out the street and the house where he used to live, he remembered where he was standing when he saw bushfires coming down the mountain towards the town and he described the dance hall at the top of the hill.

Dementia didn’t touch his trademark understated dry humour either. Soon after the diagnosis, his GP asked dad a series of questions to assess his memory. To questions like “What day is it?”, “Who is the prime minister?”, “How old are you?”, dad gave a straight answer – but when the GP asked “What state do you live in?” he simply replied “A state of confusion”.

One of the saddest things about dad moving into care was the institutionalised food. But he found a simple way around this problem. He left. Late on Christmas Eve 2013 he disappeared from the nursing home. When the police brought him back 4 hours later he had travelled several kms, had no money with him, but was carrying two grocery bags filled with cold cans of coca cola. I happened to be there when the police returned with him. Worried sick for his safety, I said that he really shouldn’t go for walks without telling anyone because he didn’t know how to get home again. “Yes”, he said pulling his sleeve up with a wry smile on his face “Perhaps we could get tattooed here “Inmate of ……”.”

Early this year, he was moved to high care, and even there he would attempt to follow visitors out as they were exiting. When the staff caught up with him he would say “I’m just going out for fish and chips” or “I just wanted a meat pie”. Realising that discretion is the better part of valour, the good staff ordered food in especially for dad, and we brought him the food and drinks he liked too, which made a big difference to his comfort. In this respect, we completed the circle, showing him our love by providing food he most enjoyed.

On Friday last week, dad was admitted to hospital with acute pulmonary oedema resulting from chronic kidney failure. Most people on their deathbed being fitted with an oxygen mask and told “You might die without it” would accept the advice obediently. But not dad. He refused, saying “I might die with it too”. He was moved to palliative care for the last few hours of his life. I arrived from Brisbane late on Friday evening to join most of his family who had been at his bedside all day. He was unconscious when I got there, and passed away barely an hour afterwards.

Dad died as he lived. His own man. Uncompromising. Doing things his way. Sorting through some of his possessions this week, I came across a stamp he had used for many years to mark cheques “Not Negotiable”. In some ways, that phrase described the way he lived his life too. Perhaps the most succinct description of dad came from a staff member who looked after him at the nursing home: “He was a nice guy. A bit of a shit at times, but a really nice guy. And he will be missed.” Yet there was more to him than that too.

He was a complex man. The most precious things to him were family, home, kids, animals, his footy team (Essendon) and nature. He battled demons we cannot know about. He was father to a brood of strong, and strong-minded, women and men. He was fiercely proud of and loved every one of them.

Reading a paper; cat on lap. Photo credit: Cathy Martin

Reading the paper; cat on lap. Photo credit: Cathy Martin

Now that he is gone, this man I once thought invincible, I will think of him through simple things that we both enjoyed: a quiet cup of tea, a native flower, a cat on my lap. I will miss those enormous, all-encompassing bear hugs with the sloppy kiss on the cheek when he said goodbye. I will treasure the times I spent with him recently – too few – helping him when he couldn’t help himself. And I will remember dad the way he was when I first knew him. Tall, dark and handsome. The strong and silent type.

 

MARTIN — Allan John “Jack”

18.6.1930 – 27.9.2014

Passed away peacefully.

Will be sadly missed by his family Judy, Tony, Ian, Steven, Jenny, Cathy, Geoff, Peter (dec.), Jan, Cally, Gerard (dec.), and their families.

Now at Peace.

 

This post was prepared in part from text used in the eulogy (Cally Martin) and tribute (Jenny Martin) given at the funeral of Allan John “Jack” Martin held on Thursday 2 Oct 2014 at Wilson Chapel, Springvale Cemetery, Victoria.

[1] Well, OK, maybe not that tall, but then I’m pretty short

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*

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.