careful, your bias is showing

Some time ago, a colleague sent me a link to this document, a “Minute to the Director, Trade Commissioner Service” that outlined opposition to the appointment of the first woman Trade Commissioner in Australia in 1963. It makes for some cringeworthy reading:

Even after some deliberation, it is difficult to find reasons to support the appointment of women Trade Commissioners“. Because whereas “A relatively young attractive woman could operate with some effectiveness, in a subordinate capacity…..A spinster lady can, and often does, turn into something of a battle-axe with the passing years“. (I wonder why that might happen?)

More than 50 years on, we don’t see official documents discriminating so blatantly on the basis of gender. There are laws against that. But vestiges of bias still remain. We do, after all, live in an historically patriarchal society where men were expected to lead, and were valued for what they did at work. Women were expected to have children and were valued for what they looked like and their relationship to men. It’s hard to shake those stereotypes.

The media certainly don’t help. Remember these recent facepalm moments? The opening paragraph of the obituary for Thorn Birds author and neuroscientist Colleen McCullough, “..plain of feature and certainly overweight..”, and the opening paragraph of the obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill “…she made a mean beef stroganoff…”. Not to mention “Rona Fairhead CBE, Cambridge and Harvard graduate, British business ambassador, former chair and chief executive of the Financial Times Group and non-executive director at HSBC and PepsiCo”. When it became clear that she was the preferred candidate to lead the BBC Trust in 2014, the sub-editor who wrote the headline ignored all those accomplishments and went with: “Mother of three poised to lead the BBC.”

As I am writing this post, a new study has just come out supporting the notion that sexism in STEM academia is dead. The authors concluded that women are preferred over men by 2:1 as tenure track candidates in the US. Notwithstanding the apparent problems with the study design, or that the data do not support the conclusions, I proffer my own flawed anecdotal evidence that support a contrary conclusion – that sexism in academia is alive and well. This is not a designed study, and the data are not analysed scientifically. It’s a limited self-selected survey describing women’s recent experiences that made them stop and think about how they are treated differently in academia. Junior women and senior women.

How has this information been collected? I often speak at universities and research institutes about gender equity. After these talks, women academics and professional staff regularly share with me their experiences of bias, harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Experiences that seem so minor they are not called out, flagged or reported. These often unconscious microaggressions feed into stereotype threat and impostor syndrome, marginalising and silencing women. Often there are no witnesses, and even when there are, the transgressions are usually trivialised as jokes. The immediate response of the women in these situations has usually been shock, paralysis. Here follows the experiences from those women who agreed to share their stories…..

On addressing gender balance and gender equity in academia…

Senior male professor “We can’t let it (addressing gender balance) affect the quality of our institution“. (Oh, but it will. It will also increase the Happiness Index and the Diversity Index).

Senior male professor “As long as the women are attractive” and then after a pause, realising this might not have been a very politic thing to say, “you know, like the men have to be sporty and athletic”.

Senior male professor to female group leader “I will lead this (ongoing venture), and I want you to be my deputy. I will set everything up the way it should be. Then you can take over as leader and just keep everything going the way I arranged it.”

A conference committee comprising middle-aged and older men decided they should address gender balance on their committee. They welcomed suggestions of new female appointees that were young, attractive and “acquiescent”, but rejected out of hand a more senior woman nominee because she was “too old“. She was younger than many of the committee members.

Lately, there has been talk of the pay gap in universities and how the sector might achieve gender pay equity. This appears to have caused confusion in some circles: “Yes, but HOW MUCH equity? Do you mean, like, 90% equity?“. (No please, tell me what you really think).

The Senior Man, Junior Woman Dynamic

A PhD student discussed her research with an invited international speaker at a conference dinner. He was not impressed with her project and said that she now had two choices. “Either make a career in research – and I can help you with this” (over another drink at the bar). “Or have babies and a family. That should be easy – you are reasonably good-looking“. Everything else, including any combination of those two, would be a waste of time. He then proceeded to hit on her.

An invited international speaker attended a celebration dinner with the organising committee after a conference. Soon after everyone was seated, the lucky young woman seated immediately opposite to the speaker was surprised to feel his shoeless foot between her legs.

A senior professor asked a freshly-minted PhD student at a conference dinner “You look so yummy, won’t you come and dance with me?”.

A mid-career female group leader talking research strategy with a senior professor. Mid-sentence, he interrupts her to pick up the necklace pendant from her cleavage and ask a question about it.

Advice from a senior professor to young women researchers considering applying for early career fellowships “Have a baby, it will increase your chances of success“.

It’s not just junior women. On a tour of a science facility, a senior professor slipped his hand under the lab coat of a senior woman on the tour, placing his hand on her bottom and saying “Don’t worry, I will look after you“. (I think I know who she needs to look out for).

When the only woman attending a meeting of senior staff entered the meeting room, a senior professor patted the seat beside him, saying “Come here, sit next to me“.

Many examples of professors/supervisors who hold entire conversations with women academics, their eyes focused all the while on the woman’s breasts.

Many examples of professors/supervisors who come up behind junior women and grab them around their waist.

A primer for those who are not sure:

Let’s be clear. Touching women without permission is not OK. Neither is condescension. Nor objectification. Yet as a woman, it’s really tricky to call out overt or even microaggressive or “casual” unintentional sexism in the workplace, especially when its coming from a supervisor or a senior academic. And when unintentional or unconscious bias is present in the people sitting on hiring, promotion, grant review and fellowship committees – well I submit that this has contributed in part to the current inequity. How do we address this? The first step is to acknowledge bias. Like accents, we all have biases, but no-one likes to admit it. Yes “good” people have biases too. Men and women. So take the Harvard implicit association test and find out what your biases are. Then address them. Establish unconscious bias management training for all supervisors and all decision makers.

People in decision-making positions, senior people (and let’s face it, that most often means men), have a critical role to play. Powerful people dictate how things operate “now” and set the example for what is acceptable leadership behaviour to the next generation. Powerful good people share leadership, and support women and men equally. How can you check if you support people equally? Ask yourself the Cate Blanchett question: “Do you do that to the guys?“. If you wouldn’t say or do something to a man in the workplace – and that means the office, the lab, social events, field trips and conferences – then don’t say or do it to a woman.

Finally, think about the impact of your actions and words using this 3-point test:

1. Is this appropriate? If the answer is no or not sure, don’t say or do it.

2. Is this inclusive? If the answer is no or not sure, don’t say or do it.

3. Will this reinforce gender stereotypes? If the answer is yes or not sure, don’t say or do it.

The 2015 paper by Williams and Ceci may have concluded that women now have advantages in STEM academic careers. Me, I think there is still a long way to go.

imagine there’s new metrics (it’s easy if you try)

Academia has become obsessed with metrics. Institutions jostle for the “top” positions in international rankings, departments are evaluated nationally to identify the “best”, and individuals are lined up against one another to find the “leaders”.

Let’s take the international rankings (eg THE, QS, SJ) for example. These were established, apparently, to help students and staff identify the highest quality universities. The rankings would allow people to make informed decisions about where to study, teach and conduct research. It follows then that a higher rank will mean more students, especially international students, and this in turn means more money coming into the business university.

Indicators used to calculate these rankings include things like academic reputation, research income, number of publications, number of citations to these papers, industry income, and the ratios of faculty:student, international:local student, international:local staff, and doctoral:bachelors student. Data are gathered from detailed surveys sent to academics, employers, and universities, as well as from companies that specialise in providing research citation data (Thomson Reuters, Scopus etc).

There are two things that are troubling about these indicators. The first is that there are no upper limits where there probably should be. Considerable effort is expended by institutions to increase each indicator with the aim of getting a top spot. If we extrapolate, without applying upper bounds, what could be the consequences of behaviours driven by these metrics? Hmm, let’s see. If the number of PhD students is a key indicator and there is no upper bound, this might lead to oversupply. In turn, this might result in PhD student disenchantment with academia during the course of their studies. If large numbers of PhD graduates are being produced, it’s likely that a considerable proportion of early career researchers will be unable to find positions in academia. The pressures on PhD students to focus on producing research papers would lead to a lack of time and opportunity to “explore (other) aspects relevant to their future career options”. This situation might produce a generation of highly intelligent, highly qualified PhD students/early career researchers who feel like failures.

The second thing that troubles me is that international rankings are meant to identify the best workplaces, yet none of the rankings evaluate important indicators like job satisfaction, work-life balance, equal opportunity. Taken to the extreme, the research quality indicators might drive behaviour that leads academics to work ridiculous hours, taking no time off during the year, not celebrating their successes, and expecting the same work ethic from their team. In this scenario, leaders of the largest research teams would thrive, because they would produce more results than smaller groups, so that we might see the rise of academic Ponzi schemes (BTW the independent development plan linked in that blog is worth checking out).

With funding cuts to research and a growing number of large teams led by senior researchers, we might also see grant funding success fall to record lows and junior researchers miss out on funding. Those who work best in collaborative, cooperative settings will become disenfranchised and demoralised in the hypercompetitive environment that develops. Researchers might consider cutting corners, and the academic pipeline will likely leak first with those who have significant domestic and caring responsibilities. Perhaps we might observe an increase in mental health issues among academics.

Hmmm, does this set of circumstances seem familiar to anyone else?

While there are good reasons to evaluate research quality and impact, it is inevitable that bad things will happen when no checks are placed on how the loftiest research heights are attained. If the goal of international rankings is truly to identify the best places to study and work, then new metrics are needed to identify institutions that combine achieving research and teaching greatness with offering the “best” diversity in their professoriate, boasting the “top” work-life balance, and supporting “leaders” who train research students for positions outside academia.

With these thoughts in mind, I’ve dreamed up a few new metrics to use alongside the more traditional ones. Maybe this combination might lead to rankings that identify the most successful, most highly productive higher education training grounds and workplaces that are also best at supporting career aspirations and mental, emotional and physical well-being.

1. The no-asshole rule

A few weeks ago at the SAGE Forum in Canberra, I heard about the no-asshole rule. We’ve all met them. We’ve all had to work with them. According to Bob Sutton who wrote the book on the no-asshole rule, assholes are defined by two characteristics:

  • after encountering the person, people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves
  • the person targets less powerful people

If these characteristics apply, there is your asshole (figuratively speaking). Bob outlined the dirty dozen* actions that assholes use on a regular basis, and described an asshole scoring system (levels 0-3) and management metric. To be eligible to participate in the new international rankings, universities must teach the no-asshole rule to freshers, employ no level 3 assholes and tolerate no level 3 asshole behaviour by staff or students (see, one of too many recent examples, Dalhousie “gentleman” student dentists). One asshole incident without consequences means the whole institution gets the big red dislike button.

2. H-index

No not that one. This is the Happiness index. Bhutan has one, it’s called gross national happiness. Staff and students at universities will be surveyed each year to measure their happiness in the workplace. Someone else has already done the hard part by working out the questions for Bhutan, though no doubt we’ll have to add a few new ones for academic happiness (eg fairness in allocation of – and appropriate recognition of – teaching and service roles, simplicity of university travel approval system, availability of high quality coffee (or tea and biccies in my case) etc). An essential indicator of happiness will be the annual leave ratio (ALR). This is a simple calculation:

ALR = ALT/ALA

where ALT is the combined number of days of annual leave taken by all staff (unprompted by HR) for the previous year, ALA is the combined number of days of annual leave available to all staff each year (with a minimum of 20 days per staff member). Universities for which all available annual leave is taken by staff would rate highest with an ALR of 1.

3. F-index

The F-index is about fairness. Despite published pay scales, men are paid more than women in the upper echelons of academia for doing the same job. Because “loadings”. In my perfect world, to be eligible to participate in international  rankings, universities would make public the average pay for men and women in leadership (professoriate and above) by posting the data on the front page of their website every Jan 1. The F-index is calculated as follows:

F = W/M

where W is the average salary for women in leadership positions and M is the average salary for men in leadership positions. Universities with the highest ratio (and thus the smallest gender pay gap) would rank highest on international rankings. It would be a fun experiment to see how long it would take for this indicator of university ranking to reverse the gender pay gap in academia. Looks like the University of Sydney will skyrocket on this measure: the VC indicated at the “Women at Sydney” event in late 2014 that remedying the gender pay disparity is a strategic objective for the university in 2015.

4. D-index

D is for diversity. Diversity is goodDifferences in perspectives and methods of approaching problems lead to better outcomes. In Australia, our universities are populated by people of diverse culture, gender, age, socio-economic status. Yet our leaders are mostly male and mostly white. The D-index measures how well the leadership teams at universities (professoriate and above) reflect the diversity of the broader university (all staff and students). For example, let’s take gender. Plenty of studies show that more women in the workplace, especially more women in leadership positions, is not only the right thing to do it’s the smart thing to do because it’s good for business. Yet gender equity in leadership positions remains at dismally low levels (<20%) across the board while male CEOs dig their heels in at quotas. To counter the entrenched system, the D-index for gender (Dg) will be evaluated:

Dg = GB(lead)/GB(all)

where GB(lead) is the gender balance or proportion of women in leadership positions (usually <0.2) and GB(all) is the proportion of women across all staff and students (usually >0.5). Most universities would have Dg values of 0.4 or below. Those who score the maximum D values of 1 would zip up to the top of university rankings. If the D-index was implemented, would we see an exponential rise in women, POC, Asian and Indigenous people in leadership positions? I’d sure like to find out.

5. K-index

K is for kids. One issue that crops up again and again, is that primary caring responsibilities often fall to women, with a consequent reduction in their academic competitiveness (unless their track record is considered, fairly, relative to opportunity). So problematic is this issue, that some women choose to forgo having children to remain competitive in their career. Why do we make it so difficult for the smartest women to reproduce? Wouldn’t it be good for the world, and for universities, if we made it easier? At the same time, male academics want to spend more time caring for their kids, but face stigma and lack of support from colleagues and bosses for taking time off for parental duties. Why do we make it so difficult for the brightest men to participate in the most important work of all? Wouldn’t it be good for the world, and for universities, if we made it easier? Germany dealt with this specific problem by awarding an extra two months to the standard 12 months paid parental leave when both parents took time off to care for their children. The K-index celebrates the birth of children to academics:

K = (A+3B+C+D)/E

where A is the number of days of parental leave taken by women over the past year, B is the number of days of parental leave taken by men over the past year, C is the number of childcare places on campus, D is the number of parenting rooms on campus and E is the total number of staff and students on campus. On this metric, those universities that best support and encourage families will rocket to the top of international rankings, and most likely will have to turn away large numbers of outstanding students and academics.

endnote

You may say I’m a dreamer (but I’m not the only one). I’m also something of a realist. No doubt if these indices are implemented, game-playing would follow with unintended consequences. Nevertheless, it’s been interesting to think about university metrics that might drive new, perhaps more socially just, workplace behaviours. Maybe I’ll dream up some indicators along the same lines for ranking individual academics in the next post….

 

*Bob Sutton’s dirty dozen

  1. Personal insults
  2. Invading one’s “personal territory”
  3. Uninvited physical contact
  4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
  5. “Sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insult delivery systems
  6. Withering e-mail flames
  7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
  8. Public shaming or “status degradation” rituals
  9. Rude interruptions
  10. Two-faced attacks
  11. Dirty looks
  12. Treating people as if they are invisible

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.

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 9.46.25 am

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.

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*

*updated on 1 April 2017 to correct numbered lists

visible signs of support

This past week or two has seen very encouraging signs for women in Australian science and research.

First, the CEO of the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Prof Warwick Anderson, announced that Australian universities and medical research institutes were on notice (Act on equality or risk funding, unis told Monday 16th June). (Sorry that some of the links in this post are behind paywalls – there is a supporting video featuring Prof Warwick Anderson and Dr Saraid Billiards from the NHMRC).

In 2013, the NHMRC had requested information on policies that were in place to support women at NHMRC-funded universities and research institutes. Over half didn’t respond at all. The NHMRC committee for women in health sciences (of which I am a member) were charged with reading through the submissions, and identifying the best gender equity measures. These are outlined here. We also added a few measures of our own that didn’t feature in any submissions, including – dare I say it – seminar series gender balance.

The NHMRC evaluated the submissions itself and concluded separately that very few universities or research institutes scored highly in support measures for women. Unis and institutes were then asked by the NHMRC CEO last week to provide further evidence of their effective gender equity policies. Prof Warwick Anderson indicated that responses could impact on the allocation of future NHMRC funding of over $800M pa.

The early and mid-career researchers Forum (EMCR Forum) of the Australian Academy of Science had been proposing such measures more than a year ago. This week, the EMCR Forum welcomed the move by NHMRC and called for the Australian Research Council – which funds fundamental and applied research with the exception of clinical medicine and dentistry – to follow NHMRC’s lead to promote “positive action to close the gender gap in Australian science”.

The next major announcement was on Tuesday 17th June, when Adam Bandt MP (Greens) – the Federal member for Melbourne – gave a speech in the House of Representatives highlighting the issue of women in science and research.

He noted that women scientists are chronically under-represented in our universities and research organisations, and that this is unacceptable in 21st-century Australia.  He reported that the NHMRC’s ratings of the country’s universities and institutes found that 70% of those that responded were unsatisfactory or poor. He also noted Prof Warwick Anderson’s statement that “we are throwing away talent”. Adam Bandt suggested that work-life balance and job insecurity were major issues for women, and that “(the time when young) researchers are establishing their careers is also the time when women have to decide whether to continue with their career or to start a family. This is not a conflict they should have to face and it is not one male researchers typically face”.

Actually, some men suggest that one way of overcoming gender inequity is for men to actively take on this conflict. Andrew Brooks and Andrew Siebel made the point on the Women in Science Australia blogsite earlier this month that unis and institutes should provide support to men to allow them to participate fully in childcare and parenting. Moreover, they argued, we as a society should remove the cultural stigma applied to those men who do take time off from their careers to care for their children. I couldn’t agree more.

But let’s get back to Adam Bandt’s speech. He said that missing out on women in science means missing out on new ideas and innovations. He noted the UK model of supporting women in science through the Athena Swan Charter and stated “This is exactly the sort of framework this country’s research institutes should look at”.

This was music to my ears. Music, sweet music, that also brought tears to my eyes. Many others felt the same. One memorable tweet from @deborahbrian that day, “Just a little bit in love with @adambandt today”.

But that wasn’t the end of it.  On Wednesday 18 June it was reported that the Australian Academy of Science is “pushing for the research sector to follow the UK and adopt a charter to promote better gender equity policies within institutions” (Calls for gender equity get louder). Just today, Nobel Laureate and ARC Laureate Fellow Prof Brian Schmidt at the ANU stated “I don’t believe alpha males are any better at research than anyone else. But they do very well on average. As they say, he who shouts loudest gets the most attention.” (Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt leads academy’s equity push – sorry, it’s behind a paywall). He supports “a proposal for Australia to adopt the British system which encourages research institutions to sign on to a charter and have their equity policies independently assessed.”

In Feb this year, the Academy established the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Steering Committee to drive this process. The committee is chaired jointly by Brian Schmidt FAA (ANU Canberra) and Nalini Joshi FAA (ARC Laureate, U Syd) and also includes Sharon Bell (DVC Charles Darwin U Darwin, author of the 2010 FASTS Women in Science in Australia report and the soon to be released update previewed here), Caroline McMillen (VC U Newcastle NSW), Roslyn Prinsley (Office of the Chief Scientist, Canberra), Marguerite Evans-Galea (Founding Chair of the Australian EMCR Forum within the Academy, Melbourne), and myself (ARC Laureate, U Qld, Brisbane).

The SAGE Steering Committee is convening a development meeting in Canberra on July 30. Representatives from research stakeholders across the country have been invited to contribute to a dialogue to discuss the UK’s Athena Swan Charter, and to find a solution that is fit-for-purpose for Australia.

So let’s check all that again. 1. The Chief Executive Officer of the NHMRC. 2. A Federal MP. 3. The Australian Academy of Science. 4. A Nobel Laureate. Each highlighted that there is a problem regarding the progression of women in science in this country. Each stated that this issue needs to be addressed. Although brewing for some time, these announcements all happened in a little over one week. In Australia. Seriously, I had to pinch myself. Several times.

This flurry of activity has certainly garnered the attention of those passionate about addressing gender inequities in science in Australia. Hopefully it’s also enough to get the attention and action of those who are not (yet).

So what can you do as an Australian researcher/scientist? Let your university or institute know that you want change. Better support for women. Better gender equity policies. More diversity in leadership. These measures benefit everyone. Let’s make a competition out of being the best at supporting diversity.

**Updated some hours after posting with a weblink to AAS SAGE Forum

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.