Women of Influence
Story By Kate Hannah
In her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf famously wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
Woolf limited her observation to fiction, the need for the right practical and intellectual toolkit for success (that is financial stability and personal autonomy) rings true for most successful women. The Westpac Women of Influence Awards, one of Westpac Bank’s contributions to supporting and developing inspiring leadership across a variety of sectors, are a way in which women have the opportunity to have more than just the tools required for autonomy and success. They also give women a real sense of a like-minded peer group.
The MacDiarmid Institute had four investigators placed as finalists in the Science and Innovation category for 2014: MacDiarmid Director Professor Kate McGrath, Principal Investigator Dr Nicola Gaston, Associate Investigator Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble CNZM, FRSNZ, and Associate Investigator Dr Michelle Dickinson. The women were nominated and selected as finalists not only due to the excellence of their science—a given for any MacDiarmid investigator—but also for their contribution to profiling and promoting science. Professor McGrath reflected on a busy 12 months, highlighted by the successful re-bidding for Centre of Research Excellence (CoRE) funding for the MacDiarmid Institute saying, “It is nice to have at least one of the CoREs funded in the 2013/14 round led by a woman.” The importance of having examples of female leadership is heightened by the current profile of the physical sciences in New Zealand and internationally; amongst the number of MacDiarmid Institute principal investigators 22 percent are women, while in the associate investigator cohort this number reduces to only 17 percent.
Distinguished Professor Brimble, whose work was internationally recognised in 2007 when she became the first New Zealander to receive the L’Oreal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science, was delighted to be announced as Westpac’s Woman of Influence in Science and Innovation in 2014. Brimble sees this achievement, and the award of New Zealand’s top science honour, the Rutherford Medal, as a culmination of many years of pioneering work as a woman of science. Being recognised as a world-class leader in New Zealand cemented for her that the efforts she has made as a senior woman in the physical sciences have been worth it. “It is hard to juggle all the calls upon one’s time—teaching, research, outreach, doing commercial work, representing NZ on international organisations like UNESCO, and the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), and helping to establish the Rutherford Foundation to support early career scientists—but being the Westpac Woman of Influence in Science and Innovation in 2014 is recognition, for me, of the value of attempting to juggle these things in order to try to make a real difference for science in NZ.”
Dr Dickinson, better known to children around New Zealand, as well as Twitter users and the world as ‘Nanogirl’, sees her finalist status as a reflection of the work she has done in developing the nanomechanical lab at the University of Auckland, and in prioritising outreach: “I want kids to know that you don’t have to fit the stereotype— you can be a fun young woman in science or engineering, fixing things and solving problems.” Being a finalist makes the hard work worthwhile she explains: “It reminds you that you’re part of a movement of strong, influential women making a change from within.”
Dr Gaston’s year has seen her take on the role of President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, and lead conversations nationally about the processes surrounding the development and establishment of the National Science Challenges, the proposed revised Code of Conduct for Scientists in New Zealand, and sexism in science. Gaston says, “Of course this [the nomination] has to be about scientific achievement,” going on to point out her slight reservations about the word ‘influence’, “It worries me that it is a gendered word. Is this the only kind of power women can aspire to have?”
In the context of this concern, it is interesting, even revealing, that the most notable aspect of the Westpac Woman of Influence event for those who attended the ceremony was not the nomination, or the speeches, or even the prospect of winning or not winning. Instead, as Professor McGrath explained, “It was lovely, and so very rare, as a woman in the physical sciences, to be in a room filled with women, at an event dedicated to celebrating women’s achievements.” Dr Dickinson echoed this sentiment saying, “What I loved about this year was that when I looked about the room, I knew all the women in my category—at least by reputation—and many of them are people who have inspired me or mentored me.” Similarly, Distinguished Professor Brimble described a sense of satisfaction, even contentment, when she lined up to have her photograph taken with the other category winners, “There we were, women, all feeling humbled by each other’s amazing achievements, yet we came from very different walks of life.”
Dr Gaston, who has been thinking about sexism and science a lot over the last 12 months, recalled the first time she’d ever consciously noticed being in a room filled with women; her boss at IRL popped into her office and said, “I need a woman,” to send to the Association of Women In Science conference. It was in that room filled with women in science that she realised how, at conferences of approximately 100 people, it would not be unusual for her to be the only woman in attendance. It’s hard to negate the sense that in many ways, more than a room or lab of one’s own, what women in science actually need is a cohort of women to be part of.
Distinguished Professor Brimble suggests that it was this sense of a peer group, or a network, that was hard to build when she was developing her career. “I advise junior scientists to build relationships not just with their peers and those more junior than them, but also with more senior people.” Having networks up and down the science hierarchy provides support as one’s career advances. Dr Gaston is delighted that we’re now talking about things like unconscious or implicit bias; “We can de-personalise the conversation about sexism in science, thus avoiding the necessary cognitive dissonance,” which is a coping mechanism for both women and men operating in a system that tends to minimise the impact of sexism or discrimination. “For me, it has been important to make a sharp distinction between my own lived experiences and the situational average,” says Dr Gaston.
Dr Dickinson’s approach is personal—she puts herself out there via both mainstream and social media because it is important to her to be actively seeking out conversations about science, and women in science, with people who might not otherwise engage. “There is a responsibility that comes alongside being given access to talk about your science with the public, and part of that is talking about things like sexism in science.”
Setting aside the connotations of ‘influence’ and focusing on making an impact for the future, Professor McGrath articulated the clear need for a network to both be able to succeed in science, and to be happy; “At any one time, there’s been almost no women senior to me to take on mentorship roles.” She is a champion of finding your network amongst like-minded colleagues of both genders; “What is great about having all four of us as finalists is that we’re very different, and hopefully at least one of us will resonate as a role-model or potential mentor for young women contemplating a career in science.” There is a real sense that finally we have an embarrassment of riches; a growing, and increasingly high profile number of women in science who represent a number of different ways of being, both scientifically, and as individuals.
This is made clear with the winning of the 2014 Westpac Woman of Influence in Science and Innovation, by Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble, in recognition of her role not only as a medicinal chemist, but also as a person who has received the highest level of international recognition for her work as a scientist, and as a woman in science. Distinguished Professor Brimble credits the L’Oreal-UNESCO laureate award for showing her how much influence she could have. She explained how “the French team made a video of my life in the lab”, which was then shown at a Girls into Science forum. “Suddenly I saw that young women could then relate to what I did as a scientist and could contemplate pursuing their own careers in science.”
Eighty-five years ago Virginia Woolf saw access to financial independence and career autonomy as necessary for women’s success, and in 2014 we could easily add the need to have multiple examples of female leadership to follow. What seems to be different about the rooms that Distinguished Professor Brimble, Professor McGrath, and Drs Gaston and Dickinson find themselves in—be they offices, labs, ballrooms or conference centres—is that instead of being the only woman in the room, things are starting to change. “For me, seeing four outstanding women working in the physical sciences getting celebrated was awesome,” said Professor McGrath. It is no longer a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of what a ‘female scientist’ is, but instead a variety of approaches, a plethora of conversations and an opportunity for diversity.