Leading change

Professor Sharon Robinson researches how Antarctic plants respond to climate change

Despite being over-represented at undergraduate and entry levels in academia, women are still underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine (STEMM) disciplines. Furthermore, women make up only 20% of senior leaders in STEMM, which means Australia and the world are missing out on a large portion of their top talent, expertise and knowledge.

Due to assumptions that shape who we think can be leaders, often women are viewed and evaluated first as women and second as professionals or leaders. Women are not progressing through the ranks, due to a multitude of reasons, like unpaid care responsibilities, cultural attitudes and biases, and ineffective organisational and government policy.

International Women’s Day is an important time to reflect on the women who came before us, who fought for women’s rights to work, to vote, to be safe and to lead, but it’s also a reminder that we still have much to do if we want to achieve gender equality. Women, not just in science or in STEMM but in most academic disciplines and industries still have a long way to go to catch up due to cultural and systemic inequalities existing since time immemorial.

University of Wollongong Professor Sharon Robinson wears many hats, she is a Senior Professor from the School of Earth, Atmospheric and Life Sciences, Leader of the UOW Global Challenges’ Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones challenge, a plant ecophysiologist and climate change biologist. She is also Science Faculty and co-led the 2019 On Board Science theme of Homeward Bound. Homeward Bound is a mentoring program supporting women in science from across the globe to strengthen their confidence to lead, build networks with other science leaders and gain support professionally and personally. The goal of the Homeward Bound initiative is to train 1000 women in leadership who have an interest in climate change and the future of the planet.

“I’d like any girl to do what she wants to do, look at different careers and feel like she could do any of them. I hate the idea that anyone might think they can’t be a scientist.”

“Women are not progressing in STEMM and we need to work out why this is happening. It’s not because there aren’t enough women in schools interested in science. It’s cultural, we all have to really keep questioning our ourselves, our behaviors, and our attitudes.”

“As scientists we are trained to believe that we can be totally objective but this is impossible, we all have our preconceptions. We have unconscious bias. We are all human.

“Women can feel that if they show that they are passionate about something then it will count against them as scientists. If they engage in programs to mentor women or to progress women, unfortunately, it’s not always seen as valuable, it’s often seen as detracting from your science career.”

In December, eighty women took to the Southern Ocean on a two-week journey to Antarctica as part of the Homeward Bound Program. Professor Sharon Robinson and PhD student Claudia Kielkopf from the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute both represented UOW on the voyage. This was the third Homeward Bound voyage.

“One of the reasons we go to Antarctica is because being immersed with each other and not in contact with the outside world, poor internet and no phone coverage means that everyone really is engaged in the program, you can’t call home, you don’t go home at the end of the day, you’re not distracted by other responsibilities.

“Once you’re in Antarctica you have that sense that your life might depend on some of those people you’re working with at a station or on a ship, so you do build up quite close relationships and you have to trust each other, and I think that really is a vital part of why the program works.”

“I think it’s probably the one place on the globe where I feel smallest and most insignificant. You can go from being in a quite tranquil and peaceful environment, to suddenly being in a blizzard, where you can barely stand and you can’t see. It’s amazingly beautiful and you feel completely vulnerable and reliant on the people around you.”

“You can just stand there silently and you can hear the sound of crashing ice, or the sound of a whale breathing. At times it’s so still that you can hear when a glacier is dropping ice on the other side of the mountain. That stillness has grandeur to it, it’s spectacular.”

Professor Robinson’s research on East Antarctica’s moss beds has taken her to Antarctica 13 times since the 90s. These moss beds are among the only plants that can withstand life on the frozen continent and Prof Robinson’s research has recently found that these plants are changing at a faster rate than anticipated.

“Healthy green moss has turned red or grey, indicating that plants are under stress and dying. This is due to colder summers and stronger winds, as a result of climate change and ozone depletion.”

“At the moment, Australian’s is very concerned about the environment because we have all these unusual weather events occurring, drought or fires in one place, floods in another, and many of these events are to do with our changing climate. As a climate change biologist I understand that most of these things are connected but many people don’t make that connection – and I find that concerning.”

“I grew up in a time when everyone thought science was going to save the world. There was the moon landing and everyone was thinking science was going to solve everything.

“In a sense, it may, science can give us tools and show us the way forward, but fundamentally whether we actually do save the world or not is a political, social and cultural issue. The science of climate change is clear, but what really makes a difference is whether we all decide to take action. We can’t just rely on scientists, it’s going to take all of us.”

Robinson said her interest in science stemmed from her innate interest in nature and growing up on the English countryside. Her father a mathematician but her mother and other immediate family members all had a strong interest in history and English - it was her teachers and mentors that sparked and fostered her interest in science.

“I’ve been lucky over the course of my career, in that I’ve had mentors who I don’t feel ever discouraged me from doing anything because I was a woman.

“It all started at school. I had a teacher who took us on field trips and who really enthused us about the environment. We spent so much time doing project work and being outdoors, we were actually spending 20% of our time doing science in primary school. I’m lucky I had these great teachers because otherwise I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.”

“Professor Barry Osmond who I did my post-doc with was very instrumental in encouraging women. He always gave us the feeling that we could suceed and now has a strong legacy of mentoring women who have become successful.”

Professor Robinson says it is important for girls and women to have visible role models, to help younger women envision STEMM careers as potential pathways. Peer-support and mentoring programs like Homeward Bound not only seek to train women in establishing their leadership skills, but encourages women to apply for promotions and learn from other women who have succeeded at juggling professional and personal challenges.

Homeward Bound provides women with a network of other women in STEMM across the globe.

“Homeward Bound both highlights the problems but provides solutions, because you’ve got a lot of women who have done an undergrad or PhD, often gone and had kids and not gone back into an academic career. This shows women that their career can develop in many different ways, and that you don’t have to be on a single track.

“The diverse professional cohort has many women who have changed careers, out of academia and who are now actively driving change, building awareness of climate change and the environment and I see this as a really positive thing, for science, for women and for the environment.”

Programs like Homeward Bound allow women to build networks on a personal level, they discuss the barriers to being leaders and build strong connections that can carry them to the next level. Homeward Bound brings together women leading transformative and sustainable change toward gender equality in not just science, not just in academic settings but provides a foundation and motivation for millions of other women around the world who hear their stories and realise they can in fact do absolutely anything.

Climate change and the environment do not discriminate. They are forces that are already impacting all of us. Ensuring we have more women in leadership and decision-making positions, at all levels of society can only ensure that we have a larger portion of the world’s top talent, expertise and knowledge sitting in positions of power and decision-making. Moreover, as representatives of over half the world’s population, of course women should be heard in every debate that impacts their health, the environment and the planet.


GLOBAL CHALLENGES PROGRAM Learn more about Global Challenges at UOW

PROFESSOR SHARON ROBINSON To know more about Professor Sharon Robinson Click here

HOMEWARD BOUND To know more about Homeward Bound Click here