Women of Influence

The power of knowing

words RENATO CASTELLO   photography Tricia Watkinson

It’s less than a week before Adelaide’s universities wind down for festive break and Professor Tanya Monro has a full agenda. There are student graduations, last-minute meetings, and the necessary loose ends that must be tied-off before campuses empty for the prolonged summer.

We are due to meet in her office in UniSA’s architecturally-striking Hawke Building on North Terrace, Adelaide, opposite the city’s emerging university health precinct at the heart of an anticipated renaissance of the state’s economy.

But her assiduously planned afternoon is thrown into chaos by an event that many parents could relate to and the face-to-face meeting is relegated to a more convenient chat over the phone so she can play babysitter to an injured son. “Ben was playing laser-tag at vacation care when he walked into a (plastic) gun,” the 43-year-old mother of three boys, and, ironically, an expert in the application of lasers through her world-leading work in photonics, says breathlessly over the phone about her 10-year-old son’s injury. “There was no harm meant.”

Professor Monro, married at 21, has three boys (Ben is a twin) and has juggled the demands of parenthood to carve out an award-winning career as one of the nation’s leading physicists. At age 31 she became the first professor of photonics at the University of Adelaide — where she is still an adjunct professor — and three years ago was appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Innovation at UniSA.

The role has put the 2011 South Australian of the Year in charge of improving the performance and “visibility” of the university’s research program.
The alumna of the University of Sydney is a paragon for women in the traditionally male-dominated field of science, technology maths and engineering (STEM) and for all her achievements she’s particularly attuned to improving female representation in STEM. “Nationally females represent 17 per cent of all academics at full professor level,” she says of representation in the science sector. “It’s not good enough. Quite simply when you have got that disproportionate ratio of men to women it means you haven’t necessarily got the most talented group. There is a richer conversation when you have got diversity and I’m sure it produces better outcomes for the institution.”

Professor Monro has invested $50,000 of her own discretionary grant funds as one of a group of four founding partners of the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Athena SWAN pilot, a program designed to improve gender equity and diversity in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. “In the STEM areas we certainly have got challenges with trying to create more role models for girls (for them) to say ‘I could be an engineer or mathematician or a scientist’ and not eschewing your femininity,” she says.

Her capacity to maintain a demanding workload and balance parenting has been helped by her husband, David, recently cutting back to four days a week to help with “juggling” family responsibilities.

“I think partners sharing the load is absolutely critical … More men need to be given that flexibility and not feel bad,” she says.

The percentage of women on the boards of ASX 200 listed companies has grown from 8.3 per cent in 2010 to 18.6 per cent in 2014

SOURCE: Australian Human Rights Commission

Flinders University, UniSA and the University of Adelaide have 39 per cent, 36 per cent and 25 per cent respectively of female academics in professorial ranks, according to latest federal government figures. The national average is hovering closer to 40 per cent although SA’s universities do match-up to similarly sized institutions nationally.

Professor Jennie Shaw, 50, Executive Dan of the University of Adelaide’s Arts Faculty , acknowledges there is a “long way to go” with her institution to close the gender gap. But she notes her faculty last year achieved a 50/50 split in the associate professor level and believes within five years a similar balance will be achieved in full professor grade.

“I think the university is well aware it has a long way to go to make sure the pathway is clear as possible because one of the challenges female academics have during their career is often about career breaks,” Professor Shaw, who has a Masters and PhD from New York’s Stony Brook University, says. “Having women in leadership positions in our educational institutions provides positive role models for both women and men, staff and students. It is also important that our educational institutions, in having both women and men in leadership positions, reflect the outside world; and, in some areas where female leadership lags, either in number or significance, that they can lead the way.”

She cites the university’s Barbara Kidman Women’s Fellowship Scheme — named in honour of Dr Barbara Kidman, a scientist who defied society’s expectations in the 1940s — as an example of the university’s “conscious” efforts to address the gender imbalance.
The scholarship supports female academics presently at levels B and C to promote their career, with preference given to those whose research momentum has been affected by caring responsibilities.

Professor Shaw has studied and worked in New York, Houston, Japan and Melbourne. She has taught law at Flinders University, was Head of School at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and a member of the management team at NSW’s University of New England when she joined the Armidale institution to work in Adelaide. “It’s such a beautiful part of the world,” the Sydney native says of Adelaide. “It just really needs more jobs, if there was more job security and opportunities you would see the place boom.”

Flinders University’s Professor Clare Pollock, 52, calls herself a “new Adelaidian” having relocated in January 2016 from Perth, where she was Associate Provost, Dean of Students (Health Sciences) and Head of the School of Psychology and Speech Pathology at Curtin University.

The PhD graduate from the University of London is Flinders’ first Deputy Vice Chancellor (Students) and is in charge of the experience for its 26,000 students. “It’s why were are here at university; if we didn’t have students we’d just be research institutes. I like to teasingly remind my colleagues this is the most important role,” the Oxford University Honours graduate in Experimental Psychology says. “You get into higher education because you have a passion for it and for me the passion is the difference higher education can make for individuals and society. I really like the enterprise and opportunity for enterprise in South Australia, that’s where I think there are considerable opportunity.”

Professor Pollock agrees that more progress is needed in gender equality within senior academic levels, particularly in science, technology, maths and engineering. “Diversity in our research environment is critical for creativity and innovative thinking,” she says.

The university has signed up to the SAGE initiative but Professor Pollock says the discussion around diversity was not solely about the female and male dynamic. “It’s about diversity more broadly, cultural diversity, age diversity,” she says. “I think there are dangers in focusing on, say, of having or not having a top leader in an organisation being male or female … I think it’s about having discussion of what are the barriers to progress and what you can do to break down those barriers. I hope that I look at my colleagues for what they can do and not what their gender is; that’s more important to me and I hope that’s what is more important to the people who look at me as well.”

Fatima S. Reyes-Della Verde, 45, was a lawyer at the Philippines Central bank when she came to Adelaide on study leave and graduated in 2009 with a Masters of Science in Public Policy Management at the Australian campus of Carnegie Mellon University.

Seven years later, she is married, has a son, Anton, 4, and is working fulltime as the Director of Operations of the Carnegie Mellon campus in Victoria Square, which this year celebrated its 10th anniversary as the only Australian campus of the university headquartered in Pittsburgh, USA. Her role is managing the university’s day-to-day operations, policy administration, human resrouces, health and safety compliance, staffing as well as planning, budgeting, student accounting and more.

Mrs Reyes-Della Verde says her passion for education and the desire to keep learning was instilled by her engineer father.

“My father used to say ‘I can’t leave too much when I go but you can study as long as you want to and get as many degrees as you want, that’s my biggest gesture to you,” she says. “On my father’s side my grandfather was a Chinese migrant who had seven kids and all finished college.”

As a mother, she is particularly concerned about the performance of Australian children in science and maths.

“I think coming from an Asian background you tend to really push kids, whereas here it’s more about kids being confident and happy growing up, which is good and fine but when you see kids here are lacking in basic skills of reading, maths and science we do need to do something about that,” she says. “We need people like Tanya Monro who can get students interested in these fields and who can get children interested in these fields; role models who are doing fantastic things.
“Research powered by universities, that is what we can really harness here in Adelaide, that is why we are trying to partner with the State Government to get funding for research and invest in technology and projects that can really move Adelaide forward.”

Championing South Australia’s universities to the international market – and growing the state’s share of foreign students – has been Karyn Kent’s job for the two-and-a-half years as chief executive of Study Adelaide.

The 45-year-old has a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Adelaide but it was a desire to pursue a tourism career that saw her complete relevant education at TAFE SA in 1993.

Her first job was working for the SA Tourism Commission based in Los Angeles (her first time overseas), which for a country girl from the small SA town of Mundulla near Bordertown was in an eye opening experience. But it propelled her through various senior positions within the SATC, including international marketing manager, and later with Tourism Australia based in Singapore as the regional manager for South Asia and gulf countries. She says the experience plus the pull of family (her husband ran a small business at the time) provided the impetus to return home in 2014 to take up the mantle as head of Study in Adelaide.
But she says it is not her perception that being a woman has been a barrier to progression. “I’ve had fantastic managers and mentors who have been male as well as female,” she says. “I consider myself to be very fortunate.” She says having a mentor for advice who you can “reach out to” is “extremely valuable”.