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

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

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

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

Peter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

figurine

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

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

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

It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

5 things I love about Japan

I’ve been in Japan for the past two weeks on a Japan Society for Promotion of Science short-term Fellowship, visiting laboratories and major research facilities to cement current linkages and to develop new collaborations between Australia and Japan. I’ll need to provide a formal report on my activities from this visit, but what won’t be included in that report are the following important points.

the welcome

I had an unnecessarily long flight to Japan from Brisbane. It was my fault entirely. I had left the travel organisation so late that the only affordable flights were via Singapore. This meant 24 hours of travel from Brisbane to my final destination of Sendai, rather than 14 hours. After arriving in Nagoya, I was already very tired and then a little annoyed when the gate-staff very gently asked me to check-in my hand luggage because it was too large for the commuter flight to Sendai. However my tetchiness melted away when, from my window seat on the plane, I watched the ground staff on the tarmac skilfully prepare the aircraft for takeoff and then alternately bow and wave towards us for several minutes as we pushed back and then taxied out to the runway. Unexpectedly, that sight gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling that uplifted me for the whole day and set the scene for the entire 2 weeks. Welcoming and farewelling people arriving and leaving an establishment – hotel, café, restaurant, ticket office, laboratory – is a lovely Japanese custom. I needn’t have worried about my luggage either, it was already making its way around the carousel when I arrived at the baggage collection area in Sendai. Mind you, I’m not looking forward to the return 24 hour flight to Brisbane tomorrow.

I’m tall

At 5’4″ (1.63 m) I am relatively short in Australia, but relatively tall in Japan. Well perhaps not so tall, but at least on the upper end of the normal curve rather than the lower end. That meant I was the go-to person in my row of seats to retrieve articles of luggage from the overhead shelf on the Shankensen train. While this relative tallness may seem like a good thing, there are some downsides (pun intended). For example, sometimes when getting up from my seat on a domestic flight I would bang my head on the overhead luggage compartment. Sometimes my feet dangled over the end of the hotel bed when lying at full stretch. Then, perhaps more a consequence of advancing years than advancing height, I couldn’t get comfortable at a restaurant when sitting at a low table on a cushion with my legs folded underneath me in the traditional Japanese manner. “No problem,” said the woman Prof seated beside me “just stretch your legs under the table like I’m doing. No one else will do that, so there’s plenty of room.”

the food

I don’t eat fish. You might think this would make it difficult to find a diversity of good quality food that I would enjoy in Japan. But you’d be wrong. The food is delicious. The flavours are incredible. The diversity is astonishing. I can’t wait to investigate new options on my last day today. On several occasions these past 2 weeks I had been invited to dinner by academic hosts around the country, so I let them know about my food preferences in advance. I was treated to the beauty and theatre of shabu shabu, sukiyaki, teppenyaki, Korean barbecue and tempura meals as well as a traditional Japanese dinner (where I swapped the sushi course with my appreciative neighbour at the table).

My Shabu Shabu meal

My Shabu Shabu meal

One potential difficulty was in Yokohama, a port city renowned for its fish markets and seafood restaurants. In this case, my host’s secretary was charged with the mission of finding a restaurant to suit requirements. An internet search helped her select a new establishment run by a Japanese chef who had trained in France. He was developing – experimenting shall we say – his own dishes in a renovated traditional Japanese home with a beautiful Japanese garden. The whole enterprise was located opposite a famous Buddhist temple in Yokohama. Not content with an internet evaluation only, the secretary paid a site visit to the French-Japan fusion restaurant to go through the menu with the chef to ensure each course – there must have been a dozen – would be appropriate. It was amazing. Shades of Iron Chef. The only little issue was that the seaweed dish was rather slippery and difficult to consume as it slid off chopsticks or fork. Transferring it with the fork to the finger-sized slices of de-crusted homemade bread on the side plate was a winning combination. Verdict. Delicious. Like everything else I’ve had here.

the trains

ticket

Shinkansen ticket Tokyo to Sendai

I’m in absolute awe of the rail system in Japan. So many trains. So many directions, speeds, options. So much order in commuting chaos. Long distances. Short distances. It doesn’t matter. The trains don’t just run on time every time, they also stop at exactly the same spot each time. The carriage doors line up with platform queues formed along painted lines assigned to each train carriage. Incredible. You can arrive 10 min before your train does, and make your way to exactly where your carriage will be. None of this frantic lugging of suitcases around from one end of the platform to the other trying to find your carriage and seat. And then there’s the astonishment that comes with the realisation that it doesn’t matter which way up or around the train ticket is inserted into the electronic access reader at the gate, it is still read and stamped and spat out within a millisecond in the correct orientation on the other side of the gate. Thanks Helen_E_MC for pointing out that lovely gem. (caveat – bending the ticket will cause conniptions). The electronic screens inside the carriages on suburban Tokyo trains report and update in real time the number of minutes to reach each of the remaining stations on the journey. In Japanese and English. When the Shinkansen glides into the terminus, and before it glides out again on the return journey, all the seats in all the carriages perform a slow pirouette in unison to face the new direction of travel. What’s not to love about that?

timer

Pot of tea and 3-min timer

the little things

There are so many little things that simply delight. The 3-min timers that accompany teapots to the table at cafes (5-min for coffee pots). Baskets provided at restaurant tables to stow luggage, such as my ratty old backpack which has – let’s be honest – seen better days. The backpack in its basket was often also covered with a large brightly coloured cloth. I was assured this was to protect it from spills and splatters but I suspect it was more likely to protect other patrons from the unpleasant sight underneath. Tiny little kettles in the tiny little hotel rooms, for tea-making (my current hotel has a tiny little induction heater built into the desk for the tiny little kettle). Warm towels handed out ceremoniously before a meal. Beautiful ceramics used to serve food. Self-heating lunchtime bento boxes. The way serving staff accept payment and provide change using both hands. And the ubiquitous vending machines, serving everything from Pocari Sweat to Creamy Blendy. The obsessive replacement of shoes with slippers upon entering not just houses and restaurants and hotel rooms, but also some experimental labs – mass spec, NMR, SAXS and x-ray crystallography. The thoughtful provision of shoehorns to speed up the process of reintroducing feet to shoes (note to self – wear slip-ons rather than lace ups next time in Japan). And I haven’t even mentioned the fascinating electronic toilets.

Tiny kettle on tiny induction heater on hotel room desk

Tiny kettle on tiny induction heater on hotel room desk

I’ve had a wonderful visit to Japan. I’ve been treated like royalty, by everyone everywhere. Although this isn’t my first visit to Japan by any means – I’ve been here on conferences and synchrotron trips on a number of occasions – it’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity to really enjoy and travel around this wonderful country. I hope it won’t be the last.

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.

for dad

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

dad-008

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

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

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

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

The White "Road Boss" Photo credit: Jack Martin

The White “Road Boss”
Photo credit: Jack Martin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His own paradise Photo credit: Cally Martin

His own paradise
Photo credit: Cally Martin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

MARTIN — Allan John “Jack”

18.6.1930 – 27.9.2014

Passed away peacefully.

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

Now at Peace.

 

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

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

34 obstacles women face to become CEO

In their 2014 Leadership Quarterly paper (Vol 25 Issue 2 pp 245-266 – sorry it’s behind a paywall), Terrance Fitzsimmons et al reported on the causes and timing of gender disparity in CEO roles (eg 55% of women are tertiary qualified, only 3% of CEOs are women). The authors interviewed 30 female CEOs and 30 male CEOs (matched by industry and company size) to find out how each had accumulated their leadership skills. They reported 34 causes (at 4 different timings) of gender disparity in CEO roles. That is, women face 34 barriers to their progression to CEO. Some were organisational or structural barriers. Some were discriminatory barriers. Put another way, male CEOs benefitted from 34 types of privilege or positive discrimination, that helped them succeed to the top job.

Reading through this paper, it seemed to me that these 34 obstacles might also be relevant in academia. I’m summarizing their findings here, and you can compare these to your own “lived experience” (family, education, career progression) and accumulation of “personal capital” (skills, experience, mentors, networks etc). The text in italics is taken directly from the Fitzsimmons et al paper (and I recommend you read it in full if you have access). My summaries/comments are added throughout in normal font.

Childhood

Male CEOs reported very similar childhoods to each other; there was a traditional division of labour where dad worked outside the home and mum worked in the home and cared for the kids. Female CEOs also reported very similar childhoods to each other, but their experience was quite different to the males. Almost all female CEOs reported having a mother who worked in paid employment or was involved in a family business. They almost all had to overcome adversity and take on adult roles as a child (eg through a forced international move; the death or serious illness of parents, siblings or close relatives; domestic violence or serious marital instability; or an estrangement from their parents before the age of sixteen”), through which they developed resilience and self-efficacy (I’ve written about my experience here – be warned, I’m told it’s confronting).

As children, male and female CEOs were treated differently: fathers generally encouraged boys but not girls into academia and careers; generally boys but not girls had the opportunity to take risks in their play and to develop leadership skills through team-based sports. Most female CEOs reported that a strong female role model – who did not fit the stereotypical domestic role – figured prominently in their lives as children.

Barriers for girls to develop the same “career capital” as boys were summarised as:

  1. lack of access to team based leadership activities
  2. lack of access to non-traditional female role models
  3. lack of career guidance
  4. directed into traditional tasks and roles
  5. not allowed to engage in risky childhood play

Junior management

In the early career stage, Fitzsimmons et al found that the self-confidence developed through adversity for women CEOs was not a substitute for the confidence to lead others that was accrued by men CEOs by this stage. The male CEOs had experience in leading and the women did not. This put women at a relative disadvantage.

Barriers for women at this early career stage, compared with men, were summarised as:

  1. not choosing major public company industries (in an academic setting, perhaps this would be equivalent to not training at an elite university – though I don’t know if fewer women than men train at these compared with other institutes – is there any evidence out there?)
  2. less willing to risk moving when faced with blockages (during their career, women CEOs moved far more often than men, in order to get promoted)
  3. lack of leadership capital creates heightened risk of failure
  4. lack of advice, planning and or mentoring (role models and mentors are essential in academia too, see my previous post on this issue)
  5. lack of confidence in communicating success (Impostor syndrome. Also, women CEOs attributed much of their success to the help of mentors; men CEOs were more likely to take credit for their success themselves)
  6. double bind in leadership roles (men are expected to be aggressive, women to be sensitive/compassionate. Yet women are evaluated negatively whether their leadership style is too feminine or too masculine.)
  7. not given line roles (opportunities are passed to men rather than to women)
  8. sexual harassment (yep, that’s a problem in academia too, see a previous post)

Middle management

By this point in their careers, most male CEOs had adopted their childhood model of a family unit: their wife worked in the home, was primary carer of their children and took responsibility for all domestic duties. Men CEOs interviewed often noted that having a family contributed positively to their career. Women CEOs reported the opposite: they had to “develop strategies to ensure their…career capital was not at risk”. Women CEOs that had children were the primary carers, had taken career breaks (usually quite short), had supportive partners, and engaged others to help with kids.

Barriers for women at this mid-career stage, compared with men, were mainly due to caring responsibilities, lack of support structures, and discrimination on the basis of gender:

  1. work structure: can’t part-time or job share line roles
  2. difficult to return to line roles/skills diminishment (after career breaks)
  3. selection methodologies: application versus sponsorship (differences were apparent in the way female and male CEOs were appointed to middle-management – women applied on their own initiative, men were sponsored)
  4. flexible work practices lack experiential credibility and resented (flexible work practices can be even more difficult for men to access for the same reason)
  5. lack of appropriate childcare/partner support (childcare access also a problem in academia)
  6. constrained in accepting international assignments (those women CEOs who reported international experience had gained that before they migrated to Australia)
  7. lack of opportunity to acquire social capital (lack of time due to family commitments meant that women CEOs focused on completing tasks rather than developing networks)
  8. children and relationships causing opting out (this is also a reason women leave academia at the mid-point in their career)
  9. assumption of having children: “will leave anyway” (women with children, but not men, are discriminated against in this way)
  10. won’t put in hours: “lack of commitment” (women with children, but not men, are discriminated against in this way)
  11. optionality of career: “lack of drive” (women with children, but not men, are discriminated against in this way)
  12. fear of reputational damage to mentors through sexual innuendo (another double bind; there aren’t many females up ahead who can act as mentors to mid-career women)

Executive management

When it comes to the source of the CEO appointment stage, once again there were some distinct differences in the narratives of men and women CEOs. Men were twice as likely to be appointed to the CEO position through an executive recruitment agency. Women were twice as likely to be appointed through an informal contact.

Barriers for women at this stage, compared with men, appeared to be due to leadership stereotypes and perceptions:

  1. lack of visibility to board networks
  2. lack of breadth and depth of experience relative to peers (presumably due to barriers at earlier stages)
  3. cultural inertia: it’s just the way it is (don’t blame us – it’s society/system fault – Athene Donald wrote about this same issue recently)
  4. riskier appointments result in failure (the glass cliff)
  5. disconnect between diversity management and succession planning (making the right noises but not the right actions)
  6. not credible in front of stakeholders (discrimination by boards; implicit bias)
  7. doesn’t possess appropriate leadership traits (discrimination by boards; implicit bias)
  8. doesn’t possess the confidence or resilience to be CEO (discrimination by boards; implicit bias)
  9. informal interview processes/co-option (discrimination in appointment processes)

What next?

It seems there is quite a bit of overlap in the issues affecting gender disparity in CEOs and leadership positions in academia and science. However, many of the barriers outlined above are not only barriers to women, they also block progression of those who don’t fit the white male heterosexual stereotype of leadership, and perhaps those who do fit that stereotype but who want to participate more fully in raising their children.

The finding that so many structural barriers and implicit biases are in play makes for sobering reading. On the other hand, that these 34 obstacles are now identified from this cohort of achievers can help us develop processes to remove them in the future. For example, some of the barriers for girls to develop leadership skills and self-efficacy during childhood are being addressed by Gina Meibusch through her innovative Girl Guides QLD Women of Substance program with the tagline “if they see it, they can be it”.

Going back to those 34 obstacles, it seems that I’ve been pretty lucky in my “lived experience”. By my count, only half of the barriers apply to me. Mostly because I don’t have children and because my childhood experience as eldest girl in a large family helped me develop self-efficacy (defined as a “belief in one’s own ability to complete tasks and reach goals”). There were one or two obstacles not listed in the Fitzsimmons paper that probably held me back in mid-career. Maybe I’ll write about those some time.

But now over to you. How did you fare against the 34 obstacles in your own “lived experience” and “accumulation of career capital”?

_____________________________________________________________

*updated on 1 Sept 2014 with correct link to Women of Substance*

*updated on 1 April 2017 to correct numbered lists

#crystalcakes

This year is the UNESCO International Year of Crystallography (IYCr). And today – August 12th – is the last day of the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr) Congress and General Assembly being held in Montreal where more than 2,500 crystallographers from around the world have gathered to discuss the latest results, methods and analyses. The Congress is a bit like the Olympics for crystal scientists. It’s held every 3 years, and bidding to host the event is fierce. The 2017 Congress will be held in Hyderabad, and – just announced today – the 2020 Congress will be held in Prague. I hope I can make it to both!

The UNESCO 2014 IYCr is an exciting time for crystallographers. There are so many things to celebrate: recent centenaries including those of the first evidence of diffraction of X-rays from a crystal in 1912 (by von Laue, Friedrich and Knipping), the derivation in 1912 of the equation relating planes of atoms in a crystal with the X-ray diffraction pattern (by Lawrence Bragg – hence Bragg’s Law) that led to the first crystal structure determination in 1913 (by Lawrence Bragg and his father William Bragg), the first Nobel prizes to crystallographers (von Laue in 1914, father and son Bragg team in 1915). It’s a source of special pride in Australia that Lawrence Bragg, born and raised in Adelaide, the first Australian Nobel Prize winner, also holds the record for being the youngest ever Nobel Prize winner (he was just 25).

To help mark IYCr there have been ceremonies, stamps, coins (well 1/5th of a coin), sculptures, crystal blogs, photo competitions, videos and public lectures. But you don’t have to go global, or even national, to enjoy crystallography or to learn more about this fascinating science. This year, the Martin lab has gone crystal with its birthday cakes. On the suggestion of Dr Gordon King in the team, we decided to make our birthday cakes crystal-themed. And we chose to celebrate not just our own birthdays but also those of crystallography pioneers. I’d like to share with you 4 of the 15 amazing #crystalcake creations we have enjoyed to date.

Sodium Chloride #crystalcake by Dr Róisín McMahon

First up was Dame Kathleen Lonsdale – her 101st birthday was celebrated on Jan 28th. Dame Lonsdale was a fascinating person: born in Ireland, the last-born of a family of 10 children, she became the first woman Fellow of the Royal Society (1945), and the first woman Professor at University College London (1949). She was also “a committed pacifist and served time in Holloway prison during the Second World War because she refused to register for civil defence duties or pay a fine for refusing to register“. Lonsdale worked with William Bragg, who actively promoted women in science. Indeed, in her own wordsIn 1929 my first baby came and I found it rather difficult to do everything in the home and also find time for ‘Arbeit’ (research); so I wrote to W.H.B. (Bragg senior) and he persuaded the Managers of the Royal Institution to give me a grant of £50 for one year with which to hire a daily domestic helper. Her name was Mrs. Snowball (it really was!) and, with her to wash and clean, I managed to care for the baby, cook and continue the structure analysis of C6Cl6.

NaCl-cake

Sodium chloride crystal structure #crystalcake, designed and made by Dr Roisin McMahon

Gordon King, our #crystalcakes MC, noted “Her work included studies on the crystal structures of hexamethyl benzene (1929) and diamond (1944). Her paper on the structure of diamond (Nature 1944 Vol 153 No3892 p669) finishes with this interesting paragraph: “In some ways the problem of diamond is like a crossword puzzle.  We have clues, but in some cases we do not know the solution; in other cases there seem to be more than one possible solution.  But as Sir William Bragg said many years ago: “There is no cross-word puzzle that can compare in interest with the practical working out of a problem in Physics or Chemistry.  You may say that to work at an amusing thing is not a very noble task.  I can only answer that it makes a very happy life and I think that, if we can increase the number of human beings who find happiness in their work, we shall have gone some way towards creating a better state of things”.

Seems a pity that scientific journals don’t allow musings like this in the discussion any more.

Electron density #crystalcake by Dr Premkumar Lakshmanane

Prem-Magawcake

Electron density chocolate #crystalcake, designed and made by Dr Premkumar Lakshmanane

On June 1, we celebrated the birthday of Helen Megaw. Helen, like Kathleen Lonsdale, was born in Ireland, and her career spanned several decades and several countries and laboratories. She is credited with contributing crystallographic images used in art. “Her electron-density contour map of afwillite inspired both textiles and wallpapers.” Not to mention her Martin lab birthday #crystalcake. Helen received many honours in recognition of her research on the structure of ice and minerals. For example, she was the first woman to be awarded the Roebling Medal of the Mineralogical Society of America (in 1989, when she was 82). And according to Wikipedia, she has an island and a mineral named after her.

Ribosome #crystalcake by Dr Maria Halili

ribosome

Ribosome #crystalcake, featuring the 50S and 30S subunits, and made from chocolate cake, fondant, chocolate sweets, licorice and marshmallow. Designed and made by Dr Maria Halili

Ada Yonath, born in Israel on June 29 1939, shared the Nobel prize for Chemistry in 2009 with Venki Ramakrishnan and Tom Steitz for work on the structure of ribosome, the molecular machine that reads RNA and translates that information into the biosynthesis of proteins. Her research began in Dec 1979 and took many years to come to fruition. Ada persisted, and achieved her goal, despite advice from others including this is a dead end road’, and ‘you will be dead before you get there’. 

Photo 51 #crystalcake by Dr Wilko Duprez

Rosalind Franklin was born in London on July 25, 1920.

Photo 51 #crystalcake created from lime tart, Raffaelo, chocolate sweets, cocoa and icing sugar. Designed and made by Dr Wilko Duprez just a few weeks after his PhD was awarded.

Photo 51 #crystalcake created from lime tart, Raffaelo, chocolate sweets, cocoa and icing sugar. Designed and made by Dr Wilko Duprez just a few weeks after his PhD was awarded.

She died tragically young, at the age of 38. Martin lab celebrated what would have been her 94th birthday a few weeks ago, with a #crystalcake representing her famous photo 51. This diffraction image of DNA, described by JD Bernal as the most beautiful X-ray photograph of any substance ever taken, and more recently as the most important photograph ever, led to the molecular description of DNA – the blueprint of life. Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel prize for the structure of DNA. Rosalind Franklin’s untimely death meant she missed out.

There’s a bit of a theme

Yes, it’s true. I have focused on women crystallographer #crystalcakes in this post. They have such wonderful stories to tell. And that’s even without the Dorothy Hodgkin #crystalcake. Crystallography has a rich tradition of women pioneers, though perhaps less so in recent times. One might wonder what has changed recently. Perhaps there are clues to be found in the stories of Lonsdale, Megaw, Yonath and Franklin.

In any case, there are plenty more #crystalcakes to come this year, and plenty more stories to discover.

**updated on 15th Aug with corrected dates**

light at the end of the tunnel?

This week was pretty amazing. First I returned from more than 3 weeks away – **ON HOLIDAYS** – without email or internet (well not much anyway). As always, it was a mad scramble to catch up with things the first day back. And if I’m honest, I’ve still not quite caught up on everything.

Then, on Tuesday afternoon I traveled to Canberra to prepare for a very important meeting run by the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Forum. The SAGE Forum is an initiative of the Australian Academy of Science, and is chaired by two incredible scientists, Nobel Prize Winner/ARC Laureate Fellow/FAA/astronomer Prof Brian Schmidt (ANU) and ARC Georgina Sweet Laureate Fellow/FAA/mathematician Prof Nalini Joshi (Sydney Uni). The SAGE steering committee also comprises Dr Roslyn Prinsley from the Chief Scientist’s Office, Prof Sharon Bell DVC Charles Darwin University/author of previous reports highlighting gender inequity in academia, and Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and former Chair of the Academy’s Early- and Mid-Career Researcher Forum. And me. Regrettably Prof Caroline McMillen, VC and President at the University of Newcastle was unable to attend. What a team though. It’s humbling, inspiring and exciting in equal parts to be part of this incredible group.

The SAGE Forum Development meeting on Wednesday 31 July 2014 also included invited representatives from the following organisations:

  • Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes
  • Australian Academy of Science
  • Australian Research Council
  • Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
  • CSIRO
  • Defence Science Technology Organisation
  • Group of Eight Universities
  • Innovative Research Universities
  • National Health and Medical Research Council
  • Office of the Chief Scientist
  • Regional Universities Network
  • Research Australia Rural Research and Development Corporations
  • Universities Australia

We were all there to talk about gender equity in science, research and academia. To my knowledge this is the first time these organisations have been brought together to discuss this issue. We began with the data – presented first by Roslyn Prinsley showing that in Australia, in all fields of science and engineering, women progress through the pipeline at considerably slower rates than men. Then Sharon Bell presented new data supporting these figures and revealing that women are leaving in much greater numbers than men in large part because of the casualisation of the workforce, including the prevalence of short-term contracts in research and academia.

My contribution was to present on the Athena SWAN charter run by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) in the UK, which represents one possible model for addressing the systemic problems. Athena SWAN was established in 2005 in response to the chronic under-representation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine (STEMM), and the negligible change in progression of women in STEMM since the 1990s (i.e. the same issues we face in Australia). During my recent holidays in the UK I had the opportunity to visit the ECU in London and to talk with the CEO David Ruebain and the Athena SWAN manager Sarah Dickinson. They also very kindly provided me with information to present at the SAGE Development meeting.

The Athena SWAN Charter’s 6 guiding principles are simple:

1. To address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation

2. To tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation

3. The absence of diversity at management and policy-making levels has broad implications which the organisation will examine

4. The high loss rate of women in science is an urgent concern which the organisation will address

5. The system of short-term contracts has particularly negative consequences for the retention and progression of women in science, which the organisation recognises

6. There are both personal and structural obstacles to women making the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career in science, which require the active consideration of the organisation

Athena SWAN members apply for awards that recognise attainment and leadership in gender equality. A University department can only apply for awards once the University has achieved a bronze award. Currently, there are 319 award holders (61 Bronze universities, 4 Silver universities, 162 Bronze departments, 85 Silver departments and 7 Gold departments).

Why is Athena SWAN different? Because of what it is NOT. It is not simply a box-ticking exercise to show that appropriate policies are in place (eg family friendly support packages, support for women returning from extended leave) although these are clearly important. Instead, Athena SWAN requires member organisations to:

1. Collect data on women’s progression within their organisation
2. Critically analyse that data
3. Identify reasons for exclusion and under-representation of women
4. Develop an action plan to address these reasons (so that action plans will necessarily be unique to each department)
5. Show progress over time

There were 10 founding members of Athena SWAN in 2005, including the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. Now the charter boasts 115 members. A turbo boost came in 2011, when Dame Sally Davies (Chief Medical Officer in the UK) announced that as of 2015 large MRC funding to departments would be conditional on an Athena SWAN Silver award. According to David Ruebain and Sarah Dickinson, this changed the landscape in the UK – universities now see an Athena SWAN award as a necessary measure of excellence, and departments want to be involved to show how well they are doing on this issue. Recently the NHMRC in Australia suggested they might also tie funding to gender equity.

To date, there have been two reviews of the impact of Athena SWAN in the UK: one in 2011 performed by the ECU itself and then another this year run independently by the University of Loughborough. Both found similar outcomes. Better visibility of women; better representation of women on decision-making committees; increased proportion of women in STEMM departments; improved working practices to support career progression. Interestingly, the report noted that “the good practices implemented generally benefits all staff and contributes to improving the working environment and culture within their institutions”. Making things better for women, makes things better for everyone. More flexible work options, better work-life balance, different models of success.

Athena SWAN has been so successful, and so visibly successful in a relatively short space of time, that this year the Republic of Ireland signed up to work with the ECU on a 3-year pilot study for its own universities. Athena SWAN is also being rolled out to independent research organisations within the UK. These organisations want to be involved because Athena SWAN is an informed, tested, validated system, with procedures established that lead to real and substantial change.

After these presentations at the SAGE Development meeting, a general discussion followed of where we are at and where we need to go next. As reported in the Australian media, there was a consensus around the table that gender inequity is a systemic problem and that action needs to be taken urgently. One way to address this might be to adopt something like Athena SWAN in Australia. The next step in the process is a SAGE Forum workshop (25th and 26th November 2014) involving representatives from all universities and medical research institutes, as well as the organisations listed above, and the SAGE steering committee. The Office of the Chief Scientist has provided financial support to organise the workshop. David Ruebain and Sarah Dickinson from the ECU in the UK will attend and present on the Athena SWAN model.

These are exciting times. There appears to be a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel, but much more remains to be done. I urge you to please encourage, lobby, hector your university, medical research institute, or other research organisation to send a representative with some clout to the SAGE Forum workshop in November. For more information on the workshop please contact the SAGE Forum.

We need to ensure everyone is consulted, everyone has buy-in, everyone is on board. Let’s work together to fix the system. Let’s make the system work better for everyone.

 

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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

a funny thing happened today

It’s been a while since I’ve had a few moments to myself to think, let alone put words on screen for a blog post. In the nearly three weeks that “reason and resilience” came out I’ve had a seemingly endless run of hard deadlines: ranking 30 Fellowships for a national research committee, presenting on my career path at an Institute career forum, being interviewed live on SCOMBOMB (terrifying), hosting a collaborator from Perth for a couple of days, traveling to Melbourne for a family get-together one weekend, catching up with my expecto patronum circle of peers another weekend (all three wonderful women flew in to Brisbane from other Australian cities), running annual performance reviews for four team members, participating in my own performance review with the head of Division, providing comments on a submitted paper for an international journal, revising a draft of one of our papers, submitting another paper to a journal for review, and editing proofs of two recently accepted papers. That’s not to mention the usual round of weekly meetings and committee work. No wonder my head is spinning.

Anyway, today I did have time to think. I had taken a day of annual leave to attend a breast cancer screening clinic (my dad’s side of the family has a history of the disease). In between having my breasts squashed to the point where the tissue must surely spurt out through the nipples, I was able to take a few deep breaths and mull over my surroundings. I should add, just in case you are wondering, that I was given the all-clear. No sign of disease.

The clinic is superbly run. Appointments fill a year in advance for general screening. Upon arrival, I was taken to a change room, provided with a front-closing gown in a bright fabric, and given a locker key. I was instructed to remove all my upper clothing and place these in the locker, don the gown and move to the waiting room where I would be called for appointments. The waiting room held 20-30 people, all wearing the same happy gown, and variously reading, talking, laughing, or watching TV. To help make the wait more bearable, a coffee machine was available in the corner, with biscuits, and someone had kindly brought in slices of home-made cake. This was all free. Yum. Did I mention I like cake? Especially home-made cake.

I had brought some reading material with me (in case you want to know, it was a paper titled “Gender disparity in the C-suite: do male and female CEOS differ in how they reached the top?” in the April 2014 issued of Leadership Quarterly – I’d provide a link but it’s behind a pay wall), and got started on that with a cup of tea in one hand. Before many pages of the paper had been turned, and certainly before I’d finished the cuppa, my name was called to go to one of several mammogram rooms. After divesting myself of the gown, I stood naked from the waist up in front of the mediaeval torture machine, while the radiologist twisted and turned my body this way and that to get the images of the innards of my breasts. Re-gowned, I then returned to the waiting room.

Another 10 minutes or so, and I heard my name called again. This time I was to see the consulting doctor who advised me that the mammograms were fine (just a few small cysts that were there last time), and who then asked me to put my arms above my head and proceeded to examine my breasts. Again, nothing too much out of the ordinary but ultrasound was advised as a follow-up. So, back to the lounge, and a few more pages of reading before my name was called once more. Not long after, I was lying supine beside the sonographer in a darkened room with the screen glowing ultrasound images of my upper body lady parts.

Through the wonders of technology, the images magically appeared in the doctor’s computer where I went for my final consultation. As indicated above, all was clear. No evidence of anything nasty lurking in the breast tissue. I was free to leave a little over 2 hours after arriving.

The funny thing about my morning, apart from the obvious thing of getting my breasts flattened in an instrument resembling an old-fashioned washing-machine mangler, was that every single person I met was female. The receptionists, the breast clinic nurses, the patients, the radiologists, the consulting doctors, the sonographers, and other highly skilled professionals at the clinic. All were women. And most were of a similar age to me or older.

That is entirely different to my usual day.