does this conference have no shame? asking for a friend

Op-Ed for HealthCare IT News published on IWD 8 March 2018

I’m a woman. And I was raised a Catholic. So I know a bit about guilt and shame. One of the earliest and most confusing lessons I learned was, it doesn’t do to show how clever you are. That would be shameful. Boys don’t like girls who are smarter than them.

This old “girls are not (meant to be) smarter than boys” cliché may contribute to the bias many of us hold that science is male. It may explain why, for example, when I’ve received a prestigious speaking invitation, a leadership role, fellowship, award, whatever – I’ve often also received a comment or two implying that I’d only got that gig because I’m a woman. You know quotas. Affirmative action. The subtle message is that I couldn’t have earned it on merit alone – consequently there must be more deserving men who missed out. Presumably, I should be ashamed.

Speaking of affirmative action, people of all persuasions have told me they don’t support quotas or targets to address entrenched gender imbalance. That wouldn’t be fair to men. Women will feel uncomfortable. No, we must consider merit only. We can’t let this issue affect quality. Hmm, I think…but increasing diversity will affect quality; it is bound to improve.

Anyway, who made up the rules so that merit means pale, male, and stale?

Look around. Look at every sphere of influence, every sector, every decision-making body. There is already a quota system in place. It’s a quota for men. Men are supported by societal constructs, by systems, structures and policies devised by men for men. Systems and constructs that we all adhere to, unconsciously or otherwise.

I am reminded of an infamous conference in 2015 in a field of science replete with high profile women. A conference with 21 invited speakers. Three of those invited speakers were men named Mark from NSW. Yet none of the 21 invited speakers were women. Not one. The conference website proudly displayed the headshots of the invited speakers. It was magnificent in its uniformity. How could the organisers not see this enormous carbuncle of a problem? Did this conference have no shame? Did they expect that no one would comment?

Did anyone tell those invited men that they only got that gig cos they were men (named Mark from NSW)? Do you think it entered their heads that because of an insidious unconscious quota system for old white men, they had benefited from invisible privilege? Did they consider that in accepting that quota, I mean invitation, they had taken the place of a meritorious woman?

Some men are horrified when they find out – and are quick to respond. Others. Well, clearly they must be the best speakers because they wouldn’t have been invited otherwise. That’s how they got that gig. They earned it. What’s more, I should be ashamed for asking such questions and making them feel uncomfortable.

It’s an awkward truth, but this is what entitlement looks like.

Guess what? It’s not that difficult to get quality and equality in speaker lists for conferences or panels. I’ve done it many times. The trick is to be aware that implicit bias exists, to consciously address it, to plan ahead and, you know, maybe count the number of women and men you invite. I wrote a post – a how-to guide if you will – to help others achieve conference speaker gender balance. I published it in PLOS Comp Biol in Nov 2014 with the title “Ten simple rules to achieve conference speaker gender balance”. It’s been viewed over 35,000 times.

Ten simple rules. 35,000 views. And yet conference organisers still mess up. So, more than a year ago I wrote another 5 rules, to provide remedial help. You can see what I’m doing here, I am trying to be polite. I am trying to help. That’s what is expected of women.

It’s more than four years since I wrote that original post. Over three years since the open-access paper was published. And yet we still end up with conferences like this and this and this (scroll down to see the list of speakers) and this. Some of the men who accepted to speak have signed a #panelpledge. They should be ashamed.

Women I’ve never met contact me on a regular basis, women who are ashamed of their professional society, their organising committee, their field, which has – without any apparent shred of shame or guilt or self-awareness – approved and happily advertised a panel, or conference speaker list with no (or very few) women. How is this acceptable?

It’s not acceptable. I’ve had enough. Now, I have no shame.

Our world can’t wait another 200 years or more for equality. So on this International Women’s Day 2018 I will #pressforprogress by pledging to out conferences, panels, societies that have no obvious regard for equality, and to shame men I know that accept speaking invitations without considering diversity and who thereby contribute to normalising this persistent abnormality.

This is really important. Not just for conferences. For our future. If we are to solve the many challenging problems our world faces, we need to make sure that everyone has the same opportunities to succeed, that there is a level playing field, so that we really do end up with the most meritorious people in positions of power, making the big decisions.

Join me to #pressforprogress. Post those #allmalepanels you see advertised, here. And ask questions, like: before I join, what is this society’s speaker policy? why aren’t there any women on the invited speaker list? Inclusiveness and diversity are key to future success, so why should I pay to listen to a panel that isn’t inclusive or diverse?

You never know, we might just change the world one shame at a time.

selfless in seattle

Actually, this post has nothing to do with Seattle. I just liked the title. The theme, eventually, is science leadership through altruism. But to get there, first I need to relate a story that has been on my mind the past week or two.

It’s a story about my highest cited paper. Which happens to be a single author paper. Yet this paper almost didn’t get submitted.

According to Google Scholar (2 Jan 2017) this paper has 785 citations (579 according to the journal). And though it’s more than 20 years old, it still averages 30 cites per year. The paper reports on a protein fold that has been used in Nature to deliver many different enzymatic functions, and in so doing has evolved the most incredible and beautiful diversity of protein architectures.

It is a most enchanting protein fold. (I may be biased).

Sure, after 20 years the paper is probably in need of an update. But as you might imagine, I am inordinately proud of this piece of work. Especially given that at the time I wrote it, I almost talked myself out of submitting it. Funny how things work out, isn’t it.

Let me explain.

A few years before that paper was published, I solved the crystal structure of a then recently discovered bacterial protein (DsbA) that had no detectable sequence relationship to any proteins of known structure. That information implied that its structure would be completely novel. At the time, I was a postdoctoral researcher at Rockefeller University. The structure determination was challenging, for a number of reasons that I won’t bore you with. Suffice to say that it required some pretty nifty labwork to wrangle the structure out of that crystal. The important point is that to everyone’s surprise, despite the lack of sequence similarity, the structure revealed that my protein was related to an already characterised protein (thioredoxin). Unexpectedly we had found distant protein cousins – but it wasn’t their DNA that gave their relationship away, it was their shape.

I published the structure determination as a short correspondence – which meant there wasn’t enough space to wax lyrical about the surprising relationship between the two proteins. So I followed up that line of enquiry separately. I collected all the published protein structures that contained that fold, I analysed their sequences, their structures, their similarities and differences, I wrote up a draft and sent it to my two co-authors for comment. One co-author was my postdoctoral supervisor – Prof John Kuriyan. The other was a collaborator who had worked on the structures of some of the distant cousin proteins. By this stage though, I had moved to the University of Queensland where I was setting up my own lab. John Kuriyan had very generously – selflessly – encouraged me to take the project with me when I left his lab. (Thank you John!)

Then came the spanner in the works. John insisted that this structural bioinformatics paper was mine; and that he should not be an author. After John took his name off the paper, the other co-author followed suit. Eek. I was on my own. As a new lab head I had sort of been relying on these two to help me write the cover letter, respond to reviewers’ comments. And, you know, give the paper some cachet. Now, the cachet would be left entirely to me. My first reaction when the two co-authors jumped ship was that they must think the paper was a dud. Such is impostor syndrome thinking.

But needs must – I hadn’t had any papers published for 18 months because of the move to Australia and setting up a lab. So I timidly submitted the paper to a good journal and – surprise, surprise – it was sent out for review. The reviewers were supportive. The paper was accepted with minor changes and then published. The rest, as they say, is history.

This story of my almost-not-submitted-top-paper is front of mind at present because:

• I am writing a grant application that requires me to highlight my ten best papers

• there is an upcoming celebration of John Kuriyan’s 30 years as a lab head

• I am reminded of Prof Ben Barres of Stanford University.

On that last point, I was deeply shocked and saddened by the news that Ben passed away recently. Ben – a renowned neuroscientist – had a unique perspective on equity and diversity. He was openly transexual.

In a 2006 commentary he told the story of how, soon after transitioning, he overheard a colleague say “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s”.

I never met Ben, but I felt I had. He was inspirational, a champion of those marginalised in academia. He spoke truth to power.

In one of many tributes to Ben, I noted the words of his former postdoc. “Ben told me, ‘Take this work with you to your new lab, Beth. Nobody can do it better than you.’ Mentors aren’t always so generous about ceding areas of research initiated in their lab to trainees headed elsewhere. But Ben was a very special person. Not only was he an incredible scientist, but he also cared deeply about other people, especially his trainees. We were his kids.

Ben believed so deeply on the importance of this point that he wrote an opinion piece in Nature published in August 2017 while “dying of stage four pancreatic cancer“. He argued that lab heads should let junior researchers take their projects with them when they start their own labs because it drives innovation and discovery. That’s what he did for his team. And JK did for me.

So how about it research agencies and organisations? Let’s incentivise innovation. Enable altruism. Support real leadership in science. Metrics for selflessness now!

Vale Ben Barres

show me the policy (part 2)

A couple of years ago I wrote a post (show me the policy) on the gender inequity of invited speakers at conferences I’d attended, and provided ideas on how to address this insidious problem. The post was well received (as of 8 Dec 2016, >2,500 views). And after some prompting from twitter buddies (thank you) the post was developed as a manuscript, and reviewed and published in PLoS Comp Biol (ten simple rules to achieve conference speaker gender balance). That paper has been viewed nearly 25,000 times. I’ve since been contacted by many people to thank me for providing practical suggestions that can be sent to decision-makers on conference and seminar series panels.

Since I wrote that post, I’ve been program chair on a couple of conferences and have relatively easily achieved 35-50% invited women speakers. I have also attempted, reasonably successfully, to give speaking opportunities to minorities and ECRs/MCRs. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive on the quality of the programs.

Quality. Check.

Diversity. Check.

Problem solved? Nope.

I sit here at the end of 2016, wondering how it is that every week I am contacted by someone around the world asking for help on this issue. People point me to conference websites with long lists of invited vanilla men. Or even more annoyingly very long lists of invited speakers from all parts of the world, young and old. But no women. Women, it seems, always come last. There is also an apparent correlation between the number of women in the speaker list and the number of women on the organising committee (ie usually 0-1 women on program committee and 0-1 invited women in speaker lists).

Over the past three weeks, I have used variations of the following email to contact three symposia/conference organisers about imbalance in their meetings (a biology symposium with 4 white men invited speakers, a biophysics conference with 20 invited men, and a chemistry conference with 29 invited men and 1 invited woman).

Dear program committee,

I am emailing on a delicate subject, relating to gender balance in the invited speaker list of the upcoming xxxxx conference. It seems from the information available on-line that all of the program committee, and all of the invited speakers are male. I am writing to ask you (1) to consider addressing this inequity and (2) to consider for future conferences adopting a public policy of inclusivity for invited speakers that is representative of the field generally.

In case you are wondering, I found out about this imbalance through several people – men and women – who contacted me independently to express their concern. My paper in PLOS Comp Biol has become a manifesto of sorts to address this endemic issue – Perhaps there might be some useful ideas there that could be adopted.

I have pledged not to sponsor or support conferences (and don’t accept invitations to speak) unless there is a gender policy and evidence of good faith attempts at gender balance. Many other women and men have done the same. I wonder then, how the men invited to speak at this meeting will feel when they become aware that this seems to be a men-only invitation list. I wonder also, looking at the list, whether women will feel welcome to attend or participate in what looks to be a men-only event.

This imbalance is particularly concerning at a time when academia is attempting to address gender inequity in STEMM.

Thank you for taking the time to read this email. This is a tricky topic, and I trust you will take my comments in the manner in which they are offered – as an attempt to highlight and remove one of the structural barriers to women’s participation and progression in science. Removing barriers such as this will improve science for everyone not just for women.

For the most part, the responses have been rapid and positive. I am thanked for my email, for raising the issues, for suggesting fixes. I am informed that committees are sorry for the dismay they have caused, that they too are concerned about the situation, and that they are doing everything they can to address the imbalance for this meeting and will adopt new policies in the future.

Committees continue to get themselves into a pickle over this issue, raising the ire of their community, because they haven’t planned for balance and they haven’t implemented measures for unconscious bias.

So while I still stand by my 10 original rules (1. collect the data, 2. develop a policy, 3. make the policy visible, 4. establish a balanced and informed program committee, 5. report the data, 6. build and use databases, 7. respond to resistance, 8. support women at meetings, 9. be family-friendly, 10. take the pledge) it’s now time to add a few more.

11. Draw up a long list of women speakers and invite them first

Women more often than men – and for many reasons – will say no to an invitation to speak. If we don’t actively and deliberately plan to include women we will end up with imbalance. So, what to do? Actively and deliberately include women.

Don’t invite women last. Invite them first.

Draw up a long list of women speakers. Ask the relevant scientific community to suggest women speakers, use databases. Search granting agency awardee lists.

Expect women to say no (and encourage them to attend the next year’s meeting if they can’t accept this time round).

Move on down the list of women until the target number is reached. Then invite a few more. Only after that start inviting men. You won’t have any trouble reaching your target of men speakers. And even if you don’t, will it matter if once in a while there are more women than men invited speakers? It might be a small way to redress historic and recent imbalance.

12. When women speakers pull out, replace them with women or not at all.

This is a no-brainer, yet time and time again last-minute speaker gaps are filled with men. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

13. Appoint a gender equity champion

Gender balance won’t happen if no-one is accountable. Appoint a senior person on the program committee whose role it is to ensure (1) policies are in place, (2) everyone on the committee is aware of the policies, (3) data are reported publicly, and (4) the community is updated on the gender balance and how it is tracking. Give that person authority and accountability. Ask them to provide reports at every program committee meeting.

14. For major congresses, ask sub-committees for balance

In some cases, international program committees of major congresses are limited to selecting speakers from hundreds of suggestions they receive from their community or from dozens of sub-committees.The cognitive bias “science is male” is held by a majority of people, so we need everyone in the process to be thoughtful and considerate – to actively and intentionally consider women in the list of nominees. The over-arching program committee may have the goal of balance in mind, but they need their sub-committees to support that goal. The solution here is to require sub-committees to provide a balanced list of suggestions. For example, ask sub-committees to provide 6 suggestions – 3 women, 3 men. Ask individuals to provide 2 suggestions – 1 woman, 1 man. In this way a long list of potential speakers can be built up that is balanced from the beginning, and that gives the overarching committee the wriggle room to achieve gender balance overall.

15. Run regular workshops on the fifteen simple rules 

Educate people. Inform the community as to why we need change. And explain how to make change happen, using conscious and deliberate processes such as these rules.


After all, we could all do with better balance in our world in 2017.


event horizon LBS

So. Where was I? Oh yes. The London Business School (LBS) Senior Executive Programme (SEP). October last year. In my last post, I wrote that the SEP experience was transformational. But I didn’t explain what the programme was or how it changed my life. A twitter buddy wrote that I left the post on a “cliff-hanger”. In the present post, I want to document what made SEP such a powerful, emotional and delightful experience for me. And in a third post I will write about my transformation. These two new posts, I hope, will address the cliff and the hanger!

Now, about the title of this post. One might argue that using “event horizon” is perhaps a little melodramatic. After all, LBS wasn’t a black hole. It didn’t suck me in so I couldn’t escape. Yet, looking back from the vantage point of ~4 months since graduation, I can clearly see that SEP marked a point of no return – in some senses. So please forgive me my melodrama; it brings me just a little joy to link this post to a key scientific concept.

To paint a clear picture, I should also explain that I am writing this series of three LBS-SEP posts mostly for my own benefit. It’s extraordinarily valuable for me to record my feelings and experiences, so that when I return to them in years to come the detail I might otherwise forget will be crystal clear. (and just in case you didn’t pick that up, “crystal” is another scientific concept that I like including in posts/blogs). Anyway, I hope that these trilogy of posts will benefit others. But I recognise they are very self-focused, so I won’t be at all offended if you are not interested and don’t read any further. Please be gentle with comments. 🙂

So why was LBS SEP such an incredible experience?

powerful, planned, prepared

The gravitational pull began a long way out, ~6 months prior to the course, with the on-line expression of interest. This required detailed responses to questions about where I was in my career, what my learning objectives were, and how and why I thought I would benefit from the course. I had to think deeply about my professional journey (lucky that I’ve been writing blogs on that for a few years!), where I was going, and what was stopping me progressing. Following this, a phone interview was set up with the LBS programme director to ascertain my “interest and suitability“. I was on tenterhooks taking the 30 min call from the UK one evening late in April last year. There was a grilling of course – why LBS? why SEP? how was my organisation supporting my participation? how would I hand over my current roles during the 4 week intensive course (“there’s no way you can do both“)? how would I set aside time for the extensive, compulsory pre-reading and preparation? Fortunately, at the end of the phone interview I was given verbal assurance that I was accepted, though it wasn’t until 8 May 2015 – when I received the official email: I am delighted to confirm that your application has been approved and we would like to offer you a place on the programme” – that I really celebrated. After all, I was about to embark upon an educational journey that will likely transform (my) professional life.” Hurrah! Champagne time.

Information from LBS flowed in regularly from then on. Importantly, we were advised early on that we would have 5 free evenings and 4 free weekend days during the 27 day programme “you may wish to arrange your own social and business activities”. Being an organisationophile, I pre-arranged a weekend visit to friends in Rugby for the single free weekend during SEP, booked a 4th row seat to see Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51 one free Saturday evening, and signed on to attend “Bridging the Gender Gap – How Men Can Be Allies For Women in STEM” in nearby King’s Cross one free Wed evening.

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Preparation didn’t end there of course. There were colleagues to invite (thank you!) to complete questionnaires on my 360° leadership skills and on the organisation’s strategy execution capabilities. I too had to complete those questionnaires as well as surveys on personal health and wellbeing, media background, and Hogan personality (bright side), Hogan development (dark side), and Hogan motives, values and preferences inventories (inside)  (Hogan reports would help reveal my “core values, goals and interests” – “hmm” I thought, “this should be interesting!”). Not to mention the short bio, photo, corporate logo, and org chart (to show where I fit in the organisation) to be uploaded onto the portal. Then there was the email discussion with other participants from this part of the world about our contribution to the mid-programme International evening (what food we would like prepared, what antipodean souvenirs we would bring to showcase this part of the world, what we might present in our 5 minute overview etc). And a week prior to leaving, I downloaded a bunch of pre-reading material (case studies and articles) and printed them off for perusal on the long-haul flight from BNE to LHR via SIN and DXB).

delightful, enchanting, charming

SEP is a residential programme. We were housed in the London Business School campus in Regent’s Park (a posh suburb of London) just a nip down the road to Baker St and Regent’s Park tube stations and Marylebone railway station. Nice. We were allocated “executive” rooms – tiny British bedrooms outfitted with all the mod cons: TV, en-suite, hairdryer, internet (essential for skype calls home). The proverbial cat would have trouble being swung within those confines, but somehow we all managed with our 1 month’s worth of belongings. One overachieving senior exec training for a triathlon whilst undertaking SEP even managed – somehow – to secrete his bicycle into the phone-booth sized bedroom.

My room was on the top floor. Pros: the stunning views across Regent’s Park and the opportunity for extra exercise (more steps in the highly competitive pedometer challenge – spoiler, triathlon man won). Cons: the hot water struggled to make it to the top floor at peak shower times. The food provided on the course was incredible. My only complaint – too much of it for someone with very little yummy food willpower.

Social events were organised throughout the course by the SEP management team “to help capture that London experience“. Early on there was a cocktail reception hosted by the LBS Dean (Sir Andrew Liekerman) in the Dean’s residence – he gave a terrific history of the School and the beautiful Regency building including its bombing during the Blitz. To get our London bearings, we were treated to a dinner cruise on the Thames, with an unexpected “bonus” of a stop-start London A-Z tour during the 1 hour each way 5km trip to the London docks! There was a dinner in a swanky restaurant in the Old Royal Exchange Building mid-programme, and for graduation evening we were packed into a red double-decker bus to transport us to the farewell dinner on the top floor of Tower Bridge (Yes! Dinner in Tower Bridge!). We definitely captured an amazing London experience.

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Souvenir program for Tower Bridge Graduation dinner; restaurant located in the top span with glass floors to watch the traffic below

memorable, immersive, intense

As a strong introvert, the prospect of walking into a room full of people I’d never met, high achievers across the business, not-for-profit and government sectors, was – well – intimidating. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt incredibly nervous as I entered the lecture theatre. How do you break down those barriers, put people at ease, create the conversations that build a community from day one? You make it special. You set aside the same beautifully appointed, spacious and modern lecture theatre for the entirety of the programme. You remove the anxiety about where to sit by indicating each person’s spot with large font nameplates that slot into the front of the long curving desktops. On the nameplates you print the participant’s’ name and organisation as well as their home country flag – that’s more than enough to stimulate conversation. For example, my immediate neighbours in week 1 were from Indonesia (bank), Taiwan (pharma) and Nigeria (bank).

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Nameplate indicates my spot in week 4. Water bottle to the right. LBS loan iPad in front.

At the beginning of each week, nameplates were moved to new positions, so that over the course of 4 weeks each participant would sit in every locale of the theatre, and beside people from all corners of the world. Name badges in lanyards helped with remembering classmates’ names during breaks from the lecture theatre and could also be used to magically procure unlimited free coffees (hot choc in my case) at the local LBS cafe. Also provided on day 1 was the printed SEP course information in a leather-bound LBS folder, LBS pen and notebook (miraculously outfitted with the exact number of pages required for four weeks of copious note-taking), LBS water bottle (for health and wellness – important to stay hydrated), LBS coat and umbrella (it is London after all – people from some parts of Australia and Africa have never seen rain before), and LBS backpack (to carry all the paraphernalia). Well that little lot must account for some huge chunk of the course fee. And of course these “gifts” build a strong connection with LBS (not to mention the brand power when the commodities travel off to 26 countries). On day 1, we were also asked to submit to the programme managers a song that had a special meaning for us – the song should be one that transported us back to a precise moment in our life, that captured an important, unforgettable time or turning point.

Most days began the same way. After early morning wellness sessions (yoga, pilates, exercise class or gym), followed by a (possibly cold) shower, and sumptuous breakfast, we would make our way to the lecture theatre by 8.30 am. Then, when everyone was seated, we would be asked in groups of 4-5 to discuss our major learning from the previous day and appoint a spokesperson to write this on the whiteboard and explain the learning to everyone in one or two sentences. Photos of the whiteboard were loaded onto the programme portal for our records. Finally, 3 or 4 people would be called upon to relate the story behind the song they had nominated. These stories were riveting: hard-nosed senior execs were transformed into vulnerable souls with deep feelings and emotions. Stories of new love, of lives lost too young, of new life directions and of deep passion for country.

After a short break, we’d then move onto lecture content. We were warned beforehand. There would be “long days filled with thought-provoking lectures, activities, exercises, and group work” the emails said. This programme would be a “challenging, inspiring and intense (yet fun) experience” the emails said. And you know what? Those emails were right. It was challenging. It was fun. It was engaging. As evidenced by emails home to my husband, it was intense; Day 1 “It’s been very intense already. Met lots of nice people from all over the world.” Day 2 “Another long day. Started at 7am finished at 9pm. I’m somewhat exhausted” and later “Its certainly an intense course. Not much time left over for anything else.” “Week 2 is even more intense than week 1, if that is possible.” “Another busy day – got up at 6.30 am, wrote up notes, emails, showered, breakfasted then lectures from 8.30 am till 5.45 pm then a Women In STEM event at Kings Cross at 6.30 pm, returned back to room by 10 pm. Some reading homework to do now and then to sleep. I’ll try to get up for a walk tomorrow morning at 6.30 am.

The regular lecture programme was interspersed with extra-ordinary days: a mystery-shopping outing to Oxford St and Regents St for brand evaluation (complete with full-day tube ticket and map); a whole day session at the Royal Society of Arts in central London working with actors on performance skills (“leader as performer” – It was terrific! Lots of ideas on voice, posture and rehearsal); a full day of radio, TV and crisis event media training, including an unexpected and unrehearsed TV vox pop outside the lecture theatre (think hot choc in hand, backpack slung over shoulder, camera in face, mike likewise, interviewer: “Do you think media has too much power?”); and a day devoted to governance and board directorship including role-playing in a dysfunctional board setting.

Lecturers were incredibly skilful at describing new ideas by using a range of engaging techniques: citing the literature (eg how the natural phenomenon of regression to the mean reinforces incorrect use of negative feedback); asking questions rather than telling the answer; using videos to stimulate thinking (eg the invisible gorilla movie highlighting that selective attention in a complex task can lead to important detail being missed); setting a 10-min challenge to design our personal coat of arms (thereby defining our core values); using the marshmallow challenge to stimulate “collaboration, innovation and creativity”.

On graduation, as a record of our time together, we were ceremoniously presented with several items: an LBS graduation certificate (mine is currently being framed for display in my new office), a group photo, a 20 pound voucher to spend in the LBS shop (I bought an LBS fridge magnet and LBS phone charger – which came in handy barely a month later when I was stuck in Kolkata airport for 12 hours) and an LBS USB with MP3s of all the songs selected by participants – which was now the soundtrack of our journey together. What was my song? Well. We’ll have to wait for LBS blogpost 3 to discuss that.

Overall, LBS SEP lived up to its tagline London experience. World Impact. It was indeed a special, life-changing, immersive experience. A turning point for many. A point of no-return for me.


how will I know (if we have succeeded)

Today, Wednesday, 16 September 2015, is a very special day. A red letter day. A day to mark in the calendar. A day we will look back on in years to come as the day we changed the course of history herstory. Today we launched the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) pilot of Athena Swan in Australia. At Parliament House in Canberra. In the presence of MPs and academic VIPs from around the country.

From the kernel of an idea a couple of years ago, a group of incredibly inspiring people have now changed the landscape of science in Australia. I cannot tell you how proud I am to count myself among their number. And I cannot describe the overwhelming feeling of joy when I learned that 32 Australian institutions had put up their hand to participate in the rigorous SAGE Athena SWAN accreditation pilot that rewards best practice in supporting the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). Those 32 organisations recognise that diversity is strength; diversity is good for business; and that supporting and achieving diversity will give them a competitive edge.

For me, it was a blur of a day, starting with a SAGE committee meeting at the Academy of Science, then the SAGE launch at Parliament House, a brief lunch with attendees, followed by media interviews, photos and video shoots.

A question posed by many was “how will you know if you’ve succeeded?“. In one respect, we have already succeeded. After all, we have 32 Australian institutions – including 25 of the 39 Australian universities, more than half! – signed up to participate in a pilot program to address the attrition of women in STEMM. That’s got to count as a win.

But what if I pose the question to myself? How will *I* know when we have succeeded? Well that would be:

• when 50% of professors and vice chancellors in Australia are women

• when 50% of Australian scientists taking extended parental leave or working flexibly are men

•  when 50% of grants and fellowships in Australia are awarded to women

• when 50% of invited speakers at 100% of conferences in Australia are women

• when 100% of women scientists are paid 100% of the salaries earned by men with equivalent loads/roles

•  when 0% of Australian STEMM professionals experience workplace sexism, racism, intimidation, harassment, or bullying

•  when the alpha-male model of success is the exception not the rule

Clearly, we have a long way to go when we struggle to reach 1 in 5 women STEMM professors. The SAGE pilot of Athena SWAN in Australia is only the first step on a long road towards a new norm of true gender equality. Nevertheless, my heart sings knowing that the winds of change are finally blowing through the crusty old cobwebbed halls of science in Australia.

Today, the sound of that howling wind means success to me.



goosebump moments

It’s been rather hectic these past few months. There’s been little time to sit back and reflect, to prepare for and write a blog post. So, apologies for the delay if you’ve been waiting. You see, I need a chunk of thinking time before I write these things. Finally, I have a few hours to contemplate and muse.

What comes to mind most prominently are the awesome women and men I have had the privilege to meet recently. People who carve their own path, challenge and disrupt societal norms, rewrite the rules, and leave others awestruck. There have been a bunch of mesmerising, goosebump moments for me recently; I’d like to share just three of them with you.

wonder woman

Perhaps the most surprising encounter occurred a month or so ago. After returning from an overseas trip, I found a 5-page letter waiting for me in my office. The first two pages were handwritten in pencil. That was decidedly odd; I don’t often get mail that isn’t electronic and, well, who uses pencils to write with these days? It was all very curious.

Dear Prof Martin”, the letter read,

Our Big Hero 6: from Hypatia to Honey Lemon.

We have been learning a lot about different female scientists throughout history – our scientific heroes! We have read several biographies about women such as Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, and Rachel Carson to try and understand their scientific work and lives.

We would really like to meet you as a modern-day scientific hero and hear about your work. We are making a film to share with our classmates so they can learn about our heroes too. Mum has written a letter to you as well. We have included some of the questions we would like to ask you there. We really hope we can meet you. We will be happy to come to you at the University at a time that suited you. Thank you for reading our letter.

Yours faithfully

Scarlett (age 10) and Clementine (age 8)

Well who could resist the charm of that appeal! Not I. In the accompanying (typed) letter, their mother Karalyn went on to explain:

I am a mother of four very enthusiastic young scientists (Harry, Scarlett, Clementine, Violet). The children have been active members of the CSIRO double helix science club and also, are keenly involved with science programs at their schools. Every year since Harry started school, we have researched enthusiastically as a family, different science topics at home, too, including: energy; flight; chemistry (molecular gastronomy and also, testing lunchbox contents for the presence of fat, sugar, protein and starch); nanotechnology; light and pinhole photography; space science and astronomy; leukaemia; sport science; the mathematics of origami; nuclear science and “plastic” oceans. In addition to our own background research, we also get creative and make short documentary films…….

This topic (from Hypatia to Honey Lemon) was prompted by Scarlett commenting to me last year that all the scientists we had met/interviewed to date had been men.

I can tell you confidentially that I nearly fell off my chair whilst reading those letters. Who does this? What a super-family. What a wonder woman. What creativity, originality, what a delightful family occupation. It was truly a goosebump moment. Of course, I arranged a meeting as soon as possible.

So during their school holidays in July, the family visited the Martin Lab (as well as many other women scientists’ labs, I might add). We found out then that Karalyn had trained as a lawyer but had always been fascinated by science. She had stepped back from her promising legal career to take on caring responsibilities when the family moved overseas for her husband’s business. Now that the family were back in Australia, and the children all at school, she was about to embark on a new adventure, undertaking a university science diploma – she is enrolled in the UQ School of Mathematics and Physics, taking first year courses, and loving it.


I couldn’t help but be fascinated and spellbound by the energy, strength and sheer uniqueness of this incredible woman. In one of those uncanny coincidences, Karalyn had baked and decorated a #crystalcake themed morning tea (see above) for the Martin Lab. Not surprisingly, their visit made it onto our lab website, and Karalyn is now an honorary Martin lab member. I’m looking forward to catching up with her on campus very soon.

blue-collared woman

Saturday, another goose bump moment. After being introduced electronically in May, with every intention of catching up soon thereafter, I finally met with the awesome Teagan Dowler, founder of The Blue-Collared Woman (BCW).

In her own words (well somewhat paraphrased) “BCW began a couple of years ago following my experiences as a HR professional, leadership coach and consultant in the construction and mining industries of Australia. As a young woman fresh out of Uni I was motivated to achieve, ready to take on the world and make positive impact on the industries I was passionate about. However after a few years it became apparent that I was experiencing challenges that didn’t seem to bother male colleagues. At the time I thought it was me, that I was failing and that I wasn’t good enough. But then other women began coming to me, talking about their own similar experiences. This made me realise there are gender specific challenges women must navigate when working in a masculine environment.

From this experience I thought there must be other women, all around Australia and across a whole range of industries, that could be feeling the same thing. I started a Facebook page and website/blog as a way to reach out to them. My approach has always been to tell the truth of what it’s like, in all its ugliness and awesomeness and this seems to have resonated with people.

Teagan’s blog describes the realities of being a woman working in a testosterone-rich environment. The BCW website provides advice on how to navigate and overcome problems, how to influence and build relationships. Was I thrilled to find that Teagan runs workshops and information sessions? Yes, I was! How valuable is that going to be for those undertaking the SAGE/Athena SWAN Australian pilot? Teagan is also writing a book which “captures the experiences and advice of a range of women across traditionally masculine industries (resources, construction, engineering, manufacturing).” I cannot wait to read it!

We discussed impostor syndrome, self-awareness training, strategies to develop diversity and many, many other things besides. I was captivated by the powerful, self-confident message this young woman was presenting. Through her own ingenuity she had developed a toolkit of skills for success and influence, and by sharing these was empowering other women and men. So much understanding, so many great ideas, such a clear vision for change. Goosebumps! We will meet again Teagan 🙂

champions of change

The third goosebump moment was last week. I was privileged to attend a lunch forum in Sydney held in honour of Elizabeth Broderick, one of my heroes. Liz is about to step down from her highly successful role as Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner after two terms and eight years.

One of the many initiatives she established was the male champions of change (MCC). Some have questioned why these champions of change are male. The reality is that CEOs of major national companies in Australia are almost exclusively men. As MCC Gordon Cairns has said “Men set up the system, men largely run the system, men need to change the system”. Champions of change – whether male or female – recognise that winning the war on talent means supporting all of the population, not half of it. Champions of change disrupt established norms, and rewrite the rules. They develop action plans that support careers of women and men, policies that support work-life balance for everyone, pledges that ensure women’s and men’s voices are heard equally.

The event was a stirring celebration of Liz’s extraordinary, remarkable leadership; of charting a course that will change the world. “We need more decent, powerful men to step up beside women in building a gender equal world” she says. I’d had the honour of meeting Liz earlier this year, and on the occasion last week I was also introduced to another hero of mine, male champion of change David Morrison, former Australian Army chief and star of the viral video that called out sexism in the army.

The MCC message Step Up Together is powerful and consistent. Below are quotes from speakers at the lunch or from the MCC website that hosts videos screened at the event.

Listen. Learn. Lead. Listen to women. Learn what to do. Commit to action. This must start with leaders and executive teams. Fix the system, not the women. Leave excuses at the door. The idea that addressing gender equity will compromise on quality is fanciful. The Australian workplace is deeply embedded with a male way of being and a male way of succeeding.

  1. develop targets with teeth

Gender equity is often last on the list of priorities. This needs to change. Set targets, track progress, incentivise with bonuses, and consequences for failure to act. Remove assumptions about what’s possible. Set stretch targets. Aim high. 40% across all levels. Ensure a balanced short list for new appointments. Ask for daily, weekly, and monthly reports. Targets and merit are not mutually exclusive.

  1. take the panel pledge

Women have important, vibrant and different things to say. If women are not heard, everyone misses out. Commit to increase gender balance in internal and external forums – aim for 50:50 100% of the time; insist on including women; call out imbalances; support balanced conferences – tie sponsorship to diversity. Don’t accept excuses.

  1. all roles flex

What if flexibility was the starting point not the exception? In 2013, Telstra adopted a new and disruptive attitude – all roles were advertised as flexible. Without exception. Other organisations have now followed suit. Ask for flexibility and choice for all.

  1. take action on violence against women

800,000 women in the Australian workforce today are living in, or have lived in, an abusive relationship. For many, their only refuge during the day is their place of work. Violence against women is a workplace issue. A focus on safety and zero harm must include tackling violence against women. Establish a framework. Listen without judgement. Make a start.

not cold, captivated

The dictionary definition of goosebumps is “small raised areas that appear on the skin because of cold, fear, or excitement“. I got goosebumps meeting these three awesome, thought-provoking, inspirational women, and hearing from dozens of male champions of change. I was not cold. I was not afraid. I was captivated, awestruck, spellbound. Each time, I was thinking “this is how individuals change the world for the better – locally, nationally, globally“.

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)