on risk and luck in a scientific career

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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)

but what can I do?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



1. ›Put gender equity first not last

›2. Old stereotypes die hard, stamp them out

3. ›Be aware of your own biases

›4. Challenge the status quo

›5. Don’t tolerate sexism and harassment

›6. When there are few women, ask why

›7. Identify obstacles to progress

›8. Change the way we do things now

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

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.

how to measure a professor

“Many of those personal qualities that we hold dear….are exceedingly difficult to assess. And so, unfortunately, we are apt to measure what we can, and eventually come to value what is measured over what is left unmeasured. The shift is subtle and occurs gradually”. So wrote Robert Glaser of the USA National Academy of Education in 1987.

Those words – written about the standardised tests used in American schools in the 1980s – ring so true today for the way we assess academics. The things we tend to measure, because they are easy to measure, are things like publication numbers, impact factors, H-index (regrettably not the Happiness index), citations, grant income. And we tend to value most those who have big grants and papers in big name journals. Are we “driving out the very people we need to retain: those who are interested in science as an end in itself…“? Is the current “Impact factor mania (that) benefits a few” forcing academics to participate in a “winner-takes-all economics of science“? Is the “tournament” competition model ruining science by adversely affecting research integrity and creativity? Have we fallen into the trap Glaser warned of: do we now value what we can measure at the cost of losing what is actually most valuable?

Inspired by Glaser, education policy researcher Gerald Bracey generated a list:

Personal Qualities NOT measured by Standardised Tests

creativity     critical thinking    resilience    motivation   persistence    curiosity    question-asking    humour    endurance   reliability     enthusiasm    civic-mindedness    self-awareness    self discipline    empathy    leadership    compassion    courage   sense of beauty    sense of wonder    resourcefulness    spontaneity   humility

Do metrics for academics assess these qualities? In some respects, they do. Publications and grant success require a level of creativity, critical thinking, motivation, persistence, curiosity, question-asking, enthusiasm. But at best they are a proxy measure. And there are deeper issues. Counting grant income as well as scientific publications – well that’s double-dipping. What’s more, current metrics completely ignore many key responsibilities expected of academics. Committee work. Conference organisation. Reviewing. Mentoring. Outreach. I’ve been fortunate to work with fantastic supervisors and collaborators – people I trust, respect and like – but that’s certainly not everyone’s experience in academia. How do we ensure that academics with integrity, empathy, humility and compassion – as well as leadership, critical thinking and creativity – are rated highest and valued most of all if these personal qualities are not assessed or incentivised? In my mind, the best metrics would (1) enable a fair assessment relative to opportunity, (2) assess more of the duties expected of academics and (3) report on the personal qualities we hold dear in people we want to work with.

To address point 1, the metrics for those who have made it – full professors – ought to be different from those we use to assess academics still in the pipeline.

How might we measure a professor? Well let’s imagine a few more new metrics…..

Publication Efficiency. Currently we focus heavily on three metrics: publication quantity, publication quality and grant income – and “more is better”. Professors are expected to secure competitive grants, attract junior researchers (many bringing in their own competitive fellowships) and train scholarship-funded students. The more dollars pulled in (grants, scholarships, fellowships), the more people in the team, and hence the more outputs generated. But large teams are not necessarily better. How productive has the team leader been with those funds? Using the publication efficiency (PE) metric, publication metrics are weighted by income:


where PO is a measure of publication output over the past 5 years (eg POc could be total citations past 5 years, POn number of publications past 5 years etc etc) and RI is the total research income over the past 7 years (that is, the certified total dollar value of all grants, all scholarships and all fellowships to all team members over that time). Seven years is chosen for research income aggregate, rather than five years, because it takes time to generate scientific publications. The higher the PE, the better.

Sponsorship Index. One of the most important roles a professor can take on is training the next generation of research leaders. Trouble is, the way we rank and assess academics leads to a hypercompetitive environment. Take for example publications, the major currency of academia. The senior author position on papers is highly coveted because it identifies the intellectual leader of the research. Future grant success (= future survival) for senior academics requires senior author papers – and the more the better. A well-established professor, leading a large group, traveling extensively and with a large admin/committee/teaching load, relies on mid-career researchers within the team to generate ideas, direct the day-to-day research, train students, analyse results, write the papers. Yet the way the system works at present, the professor needs to take the senior author positions on papers. This is justified because the work was done in the professor’s lab, using equipment or protocols they established and using grant money they brought in to cover the salaries of the team members. The sponsorship index, SI, changes the incentives. It rewards professors for supporting mid-career researchers in a team:

SI = (SAS+2M+4A) / N

where N is the total number of papers from the team in the past 5 years, SAS is the number of papers over that time for which senior authorship was shared between the professor and a team member, M is the number of papers where the professor was middle author and a team member was senior author, and A is the number of papers where a team member is senior author and the professor is gratefully thanked in the acknowledgements (and not by inclusion in the author list). Requiring that a professor maximise their sponsorship index will place greater emphasis on selflessness and in turn this will help ensure career development of the next generation of academics.

Good Mentorship Score. Following on directly from sponsorship is mentorship. Using current metrics “whether you are the best or worst mentor is irrelevant“. But it’s hardly irrelevant to potential team members and colleagues. How can a PhD student or postdoc find out if a professor is a person they can rely on to help them achieve their career goals (whatever they may be)? Horror stories abound of professors who treat team members appallinglytoxic academic mentors. Sadly, despite university policies that prohibit these behaviours, it’s usually the victims that suffer most. People in positions of power above the professor may not be aware of the problem (asshole behaviour is usually directed downwards) or may have an inkling but the grant income and papers generated by the professor are too valuable to risk losing. So how to address this? My solution – get references. From former team members. HR can provide a random selection of 10 diverse former team members (ie male/female, PhDs/postdocs, different ethnicities). These referees then use a 5 point scale, where 1 is strongly disagree and 5 is strongly agree, to rate the professor against various statements. You know the sort of thing: “My ideas for developing my research were respected and valued”, “I felt included and appreciated as a team member”, “My goals as a researcher and a person were supported”, “The professor was someone I respected and trusted and want to be like”, “I was confident to speak to the professor about issues that arose regarding my work-life balance”, “I was encouraged to explore career options outside the traditional academic path”. Perhaps we should also poll mid-career colleagues in the same school – for example “The professor actively helps more junior colleagues develop their career”, “The professor takes on a fair and equitable teaching and committee workload”, and “The professor is a positive and encouraging role model”. To generate the good mentorship score (GMS), the scores are averaged across all questions and all reviewers. The GMS can then be used in discussions at performance reviews and considered in a mentoring component of track record assessments for grants and fellowships.

Civic-Mindedness Tally. Academics are expected to do much more than research and teaching – though it is research and (to a lesser extent) teaching that are assessed, measured to the nth degree, and valued most highly. Those other things we do – contributing to department/institute committees, professional societies, conference organisation, peer review and community outreach are difficult to measure, so they tend not to be measured or assessed and therefore are not valued highly. The civic-mindedness tally (CMT) ensures that outstanding professorial citizens, who give their time for the good of society, are recognised for their altruistic contributions. The CMT is simply a sum for each year over the past 5 years of each certified committee, representative role, organisational appointment, grant review panel, editorial responsibility (see also academic karma for a new take on valuing peer review), science communication and community engagement – and yes I think that should include blog posts 🙂 .

I know, it’s too simplistic. But it’s better than nothing, which is what we do now. On its own, a high CMT won’t lead to *favourite* status for a professor. But in combination with current metrics, and the metrics described above, it should do wonders for improving the Happiness Index of institutions.

There you have it. That’s my philosophy for how we should measure a professor. It’s only a start, and no doubt there are many things that could be improved or are still missing (for other ideas see roadmap to academia beyond quantity and is competition ruining science?). So now over to you, what are the measures you think should be implemented to assess the qualities that really matter in our professoriate?