Looking to the future: talk 11/8/16

What follows is the slightly edited text from a talk I gave on Thursday the 11th of August, as part of an event between WISE and ExxonMobil.

“It’s such an incredible pleasure to see our members here with brilliant women from ExxonMobil. My talk will be slightly aimed more towards the students, but it will hopefully include ideas everyone can get behind.

For the students among us, we haven’t really entered the real world yet. We’ve completed high school and suffered all the injustices that your teenage years and early 20s provide and certainly we can enter bars (mostly) and gamble and get our democracy sausage  but universities are often a small-l liberal bubble – the large-l liberal youth branch notwithstanding.

What kind of issues exist within this small l liberal bubble? Well it’s things like the informal mentoring and sponsorship that men often benefit from. It’s how men assume they’re smarter than their female classmates. It’s the social pressures that mean the involvement of women in undergraduate computer science degrees peaked in the eighties and has since declined. Women made up 37% of comp sci undergrads in 1985. In 2012, that was 18%. It’s the social pressures that means I first got the Grandchildren Talk at 20. As a queer woman, I’ve had precisely zero role models for the bulk of my scientific journey but if you’re a white man you’ve got a glut of them.

Having said all that, this is a bubble – we are safer and more respected within this space and it’s associated with our ability to choose the spaces and people we interact with. You’ve chosen WISE, which was a great start. That isn’t a luxury that’s necessarily available or encouraged when you get straight out of university. We all know how bad the job market is – who here is confident of getting a job when we graduate?

There’s a feeling that you have to take what you can get and keep your head down. It’s a big jump into the workforce from university and nobody wants to make a splash. Because after all, it’s one thing to be a woman in a STEM degree. It’s another thing to be a young woman in STEM career.

There are ways to bridge that gap. Workplaces will have an HR induction that should clearly detail things like complaints policy – and you’re never so far down the pecking order to invalidate your complaints. It often feels like there’s a pressure to call out sexism or feel like we’ve betrayed the sisterhood. This pressure can fall on young women, with ideas like the “generational shift in thinking” which is meant to incrementally close the pay gap at some point around 2075. Or, if you’re staying in Australia, the gender pay gap increased from 15 to 17.5% between 2005 and 2013, and this year according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, it’s 19.1%. That’s ridiculous.

Young people need to be more politically engaged, young women need to be more outspoken, we need to ask for more, actively seek out mentors, surely we can just lean in – I’m sure so much of this room has heard a variety of one or all of these. But sometimes calling out sexism, or working yourself to the bone, or being an activist is honestly not worth it. The entirety of women’s rights doesn’t rest on our shoulders and sometimes we’re not safe or able to call something out without risk. Never compromise your safety for ideals.

Having said that, I do enjoy calling out sexism. Some of my favourite ways involve being a bit sarcastic, maybe leaning back and going “is that… is that right?”, “huh”, or “That sure is an opinion, and you definitely have it.”

But in all honesty, transitioning to the workforce isn’t just being punched in the face with sexism, homophobia, and racism – things which during my brief foray into the working world I have watched or experienced, and that’s in New ZealandNew Zealand is like a less terrible Australia. But it isn’t just that – it’s things like finally having money, not having homework (unless you do law which, why did you do law), it’s cool older friends, working out what you want from life, and maybe starting to take a multivitamin like a real adult. It’s fun!

It’s just scary, and that applies to an extent to all changes you make from safety to newness. It is confusing the first time a colleague queries borderline aggressively into your personal life, and colleagues of mine now get subtly asked if they’re planning a family soon. I get the added difficulty that it’s likely my partners will be female so talking about personal life is this balancing act of trying to work out if you’re homophobic before letting anything slip.

But what are we likely to face in our future?

  • We’re likely to face jobs that aren’t necessarily in STEM. There was a recent news article about how science degrees were not great degrees, which realistically read like someone bitter that their law degree didn’t handhold them right into a partnership. STEM degrees qualify us to research effectively, to problem solve, and to think critically – and that’s applicable far beyond strict STEM careers.
  • Unless something dramatically changes, we’re not likely to see equity in parliament.
  • We’re probably going to continue to be higher-qualified and get better marks than men.
  • Amazing trailblazing women are going to continue to push for pay transparency, because that will be the easiest way to get paid the same as men very quickly.
  • The discussion about feminism will becoming increasingly mainstream. The difference even since 2009 in how easily feminism, the wage gap, gender-based issues will be discussed as a real issue rather than relegated to extremist, bra-burning lesbians.
  • Beyoncé will continue to be a beautiful feminist icon.
  • We’re going to have way more female astronauts – the groundwork is already there to fill space with women.
  • The rates of reporting of sexual violence will likely continue to increase. That means we won’t really know if the actual rates are going up or down – which is beside the point because they’re disgustingly high – but reporting might mean that things change.
  • We aren’t likely to have long-term jobs. The average job length for a millennial is 3-5 years. This means if you have a bad work environment, or boss that’s not good, you can shift jobs and that’s becoming normalised.  We’re also likely to change careers a lot, so you can chill on that immediate post-university choice.
  • We’ll have more control of our fertility and bodies than ever before (unless you go to the USA).
  • Thanks to the connectivity of the world and the democratisation of storytelling (thanks, twitter), we’re going to have more access to inspirations, mentors, and women who accurately reflect us. We’re not going to have to fight the way people even 30 years older than us did.

The women who went before us changed a lot of the world which meant we aren’t going to have to fight for the right to work while married, for the ability to do what we want. The future can seem stressful and bad but the world is changing – for the better. And that’s great.”

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The panelists at the event where this talk was given. Names above refer to panelists, right to left. Photo thanks to Jess Vovers.
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Gender Equality: The Final Frontier

Last Friday, I gave a talk at the Final Frontier festival on gender equality in space. This talk focussed on two things: the unsung stories of women involved in space travel (from Margaret Hamilton to the scientists and engineers behind the Mangalyaan mission to Sally Ride, Mae Jemison and Valentina Tereshkova), and secondly, space menstruation and how we’re gonna deal with that when we go to Mars.

You can have a listen and watch below – unfortunately the only closed captions currently available are youtube’s automated captions, but I’ve asked if this will change soon (hopefully it will!). A link to this, any other media I’ve been in or created, can also be found on my “Other Media” page.


The tampon giveaway at the end has been described as “Oprah-esque” which may make it one of my proudest moments.

The power of storytelling to inspire and engage us is incredible – Mae Jemison is the fantastic example I flag in my talk, as she was inspired by Lt. Uhura in Star Trek – but it’s so important to have a range of role models and inspirations available so people can gravitate towards ones that most represent them rather than choosing the best of a bad bunch.

Recently I got the wonderful opportunity to speak to young women at the Spark Engineering camp (as part of a group from WISE) about amazing women who have changed the world, and a number of them said how nice it was to hear about the women doing this work. Telling stories only about men alienates women from areas where they could excel – and this holds true for when we only talk about white people, or straight people, or able-bodied people.

Not being part of a majority group isn’t a disqualification for being a good scientist, and we need to start reflecting that in the stories we tell.

 

Language and Leadership

Throughout my life as a female human, I’ve been counselled to be less emotive. It’s been suggested I moderate my tone, show less emotion, and generally never act like I care that much. The reasoning was that people would take me more seriously, I would seem more professional, and I would get listened to more.

I have a vibrant, occasionally overbearing, personality. I’m a demanding presence in a room, and one of my favourite skills is I can make people feel things. This is achieved  partly through honesty and partly through an emotive and empathetic nature.

I don’t have temper tantrums or meltdowns. I’m just comfortable using emotive language and expressing passion.

Being counselled not to do so rubs me the wrong way for a few reasons.

It suggests that emotionality precludes logical thought or facts

Often the advice comes after I’ve monologued a bit on an issue I’m passionate about. Now let’s be clear: I take care to back up what I say with statistics and logical chains. If I drop a few words like ‘abhorrent’ or have a cadence to my voice that indicates passionate feelings, that doesn’t immediately negate my statistics – they’re still true.

If I say something like “when you ignore queer people they don’t like it and might feel disenfranchised” that’s true regardless of whether I sound like I care (or indeed, flag the fact that am personally affected by it).

The idea that emotions and logic are necessarily mutually exclusive is historic and should be confined to  history. It can also be lowkey sexist. Typically women are seen as being “more emotional” – for worse or for worse or for worse – and advice to minimize emotions is likely to be disproportionately given to women.

Barack Obama crying
More emotions please. They make a difference.

It suggests that we shouldn’t be passionate

I am a passionate person. I’m passionate about my research, about equality, about eventually being ruler of the world because currently the people in charge are hecking it up big time. That passion drives much of what I do.

If someone sounds passionate when they talk, that’s not a bad thing.

Being emotive is how I get things done

A key part of leadership is empathy. As a leader, I ensure that things happen and people are happy by being empathetic, reading situations, and bringing people along for the ride. A lot of people are on the empathetic leadership bus, and it’s a good time.

By shutting down the expression of emotions or labeling them as unprofessional, you prevent the development and growth of empathy and other emotive skills of people in the interaction, and punish those who already have those skills.

It delegitimizes anger

Often when a marginalized group is angry it’s because they’ve tried being nice and you’ve ignored them. Asking why someone is angry is much more productive than criticizing the decision to express it.


 

I’m not saying I’ll always be this passionate. I genuinely don’t think I can promise that.

My emotions are a key part of how I express myself and navigate working relationships – and they facilitate that. I’ve gotten incredibly positive feedback about my emotionality; I’m not inclined to listen to outdated ideas of what a leader “should” sound like, or that an advocate should present statistics and ideas dispassionately.

I’m going to keep feeling, and I’m going to keep sounding like it.

Priorities, the PhD Way

I often get asked how to balance a lot of commitments, especially when studying. I suppose I seem capable on some level. Personally, I don’t think I am that good at balancing a lot of things – normally I just ignore how busy I am and hope it all works out.

That doesn’t work long-term – sure, I busted honours year with a ludicrous amount of commitments, but that was never going to work for my PhD. This year I finally made a list of commitments and prioritized them.

Writing a list is one of those things like goal-setting – my dad told me it would make my life a lot easier, and he is probably right. I have never consciously set goals, but if you have trouble envisioning how to get where you want to go, it is a good thing and you should do it. Don’t be like me, be better than me.

The pyramid below is (to my mind) a manageable amount, but I know that not everyone suffers from my total lack of a social life.

pyramid of commitments ranging from PhD to Free Debate
“Ma’am, do you think you do too much?” “I plead the fifth.” “Ma’am, we’re in Australia.”

The important thing to note here is that in the interest of aesthetics, I put one card underneath the PhD card – the “self-care” card.

I’ve learned that self-care can never fall below any other commitments. If you fail at self-care, you will start to fail at everything else.

Sometimes I forget this, and forget to eat, or don’t give myself space or time. I’m trying to get back into yoga (using Yoga with Adriene) to help regularly clear the cobwebs out. It’s important to remember that while undergrad might be a sprint, the rest of life is a marathon, and we need to make sure to take breaks and drink enough water.

I’ve also signed up for Adopt a Grad Student, a wonderful enterprise started by Jess Shanahan (@Enceladosaurus), a disabled astrophysics grad student in the US. The idea is that being a grad student is suffering; you work long hours, have regular stress, and are underpaid. You deserve a Fairy GradParent. It’s wonderful, and I hope other grad students get on board – if you’re in NZ, YouShop is a good way to help get around the “million dollars plus your soul” international shipping fees.

 

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This is why I have trust issues.

 

Looking back at my list of priorities is a good way to reset the whirring to-do list in my head and remember what’s important – health, relationships, and currently, study. It’s also good to remember that this focus on my studies isn’t going to last forever and one day I won’t have Thesis Fear because I will have Thesis Satisfaction.

No matter what you’re doing, remember to take care of you.

Safe Schools Coalition

Trigger warning: discussion of depression, suicide, self harm, homophobia, and transphobia.

If you’re in Australia and not full of blistering rage about the inquiry into the Safe Schools Coalition, you’ve possibly been pointedly ignoring all of the news. Although, seeing as a lot of last week involved Australian mainstream media defending blackface, I really don’t blame you.

For the uninitiated, the Safe Schools Coalition (SSC) is an organisation that provides resources and support to help develop a positive classroom environment for LGBTQIAA students. Most of the bullying of young LGBTQIAA people happens at school, and the idea behind the SSC is that a safe school is a better school.

The Australian government, after pressuring from some pretty disgusting conservative elements, has decided to launch an inquiry into this group as it might be “promoting a political agenda”. The SSC receives $8 million in public funding, which pales when compared to the $244 million the school chaplaincy program receives, both over four years. Chaplaincy is almost definitely promoting an agenda.

Had the SSC existed when I went to high school, it would quite genuinely have changed my life. When I first came out to my closest friend, she told me I was disgusting and abnormal, and to stay away from normal people. Being terrified to come out to anyone else because of that reaction meant it was a pressure point for me until I graduated school, and contributed substantially to my mental health issues.

moody teenager stands by a pole
This is all a bit heavy so have a picture of me as a (very gay) teenager for a quick laugh.

Conservative politicians in Australia have described telling teenagers – 13 and 14 year olds – that heterosexual isn’t the only or best identity as akin to paedophile grooming. When you consider that the suicide, depression, and self harm rates for LGBTQIAA people are many times that of the general population (and there’s been a spike in demand for mental health support for young people since this whole ride has started), allowing politicians to make these kind of comments without clear and strong response is being reckless with our children’s health. The Prime Minister’s response was soft and insufficient.

People are feeling comfortable to spout offensive vitriol at all angles. An article in The Australian puts “non binary gender identity” in scare quotes. It’s suggested that the SSC program akin to sex education – which it’s quite clearly not.

The discussions about same sex marriage are also bringing homophobes out of the woodwork like the worst kinds of termites. And it’s hurting incredible vulnerable people.

It’s just like Christmas In July, except it’s Homophobia In February and it’s not whimsical or fun.

Rebecca Shaw, in this rather excellent piece

I don’t know what kind of internal acrobatics these politicians, commentators, and “Australians” do to justify this vitriol. All I can tell you for certain is that I tried to kill myself twice when I was fifteen, and a lot of that was to do with feeling abnormal and ‘wrong’ for being attracted to girls.

We need to do better by our vulnerable kids that are still working out their sexuality and gender. We need to do better by those that know for sure they’re gay as heck or trans or non binary or bisexual or asexual or different in any way, regardless of whether they’re out to everyone, just one friend, or nobody at all. And, damn it, we need to do better by the LGBTQIAA people that just exist every day in Australia and put up with a constant stream of absolute garbage.

I don’t think it’s too much to want to live in a country where the people in power don’t imply my existence is inherently wrong. To have marrying someone I love independent from their gender. I don’t like feeling that by simply existing, I am an affront.

Children and adolescents like it even less.

 

 

If you or someone you know being negatively affected by this, help or information can be obtained at Lifeline 131 114, beyondblue 1300 224 636, and the Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.

The Research Bazaar

From February 1st to 3rd, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Research Bazaar, a free three-day intensive set of workshops in digital tools for researchers. I attended the one in Melbourne, but Bazaars were also held in Dunedin, Vancouver, Perth, and many more sites worldwide. (If your city missed out, and you want to host your own, check out the cookbook for making your very own ResBaz)

The origins and development of the Research Bazaar is covered here, but the short form is: there are a lot of digital tools that researchers need. It’s hard to find out about them, and once you do, there’s not a lot of support. Teaching yourself takes valuable time out of saving lives/increasing food security/understanding the world, and honestly, it’s hard.

The Research Bazaar (“ResBaz” to those in the know) comes to the rescue by running two days of intensive workshops for particular tools – this year, Melbourne included R (the statistics package), Python, MATLAB, D3 and many more – and short sessions for introductions to tools on the third day. They bring experts and researchers together, but it’s not the opportunity to upskill (for free) that makes this special. It’s the focus on community, networking, and helping each other.

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There was a session on Twitter, and I’m not saying I won the session on Twitter, but I definitely won Twitter (with this tweet).

It’s been a long time since I sat down in a class for more than an hour, so two days of Python workshops was always going to be a struggle. Arriving on Monday morning (late, without coffee) to have my boots sink into damp grass while I tried to hear the “key story” didn’t set me up particularly well but, like the weather, my mood improved.

ResBaz worked us school hours (9:30-3:30-ish) and the afternoons were left for more social events. The lack of structure gave this time an unconference vibe. On the Tuesday afternoon there were professional masseuses, a personal trainer, and yoga sessions available. The one possible problem was there was very little to force people to mingle – you could go through the entire event without meeting anyone. However, leaving all social events opt-in contributed to the relaxed feeling of the Bazaar.

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Top left: the ResPlat(y) branded chocolates they plied us with. Bottom left: my (in theme) reading material while at the Bazaar. Right: Jess Vovers and Rosie the ResPlat(y), ready to change the world.

ResBaz in Melbourne this year had a focus on diversity, reflected both in the attendees and in the three key stories across the conference. It was therefore slightly disappointing that the final panel appeared entirely Caucasian and was four men and one woman. While they were clearly all heavyweights in their respective fields, it was more than a little jarring after the rest of the Bazaar had been such a celebration of diversity.

The Research Bazaar 2016 was a very fulfilling experience – I learned some things, I met some people, and I maintained my flexibility with the yoga session. The catering was A++ and the relaxed feel meant I didn’t get overloaded. I intend to return next year, possibly as a helper for one of the sessions, and would thoroughly recommended keeping Research Platforms and ResBaz on your radar – and trying to attend ResBaz 2017.

 

Depression as an Overachiever

Disclaimer: I don’t want to say that my experiences are universal, and neither do I want to suggest that any experiences of depression are illegitimate. We all have our own struggles, whether you’re an academic overachiever like me or talented in other ways. One of those struggles is depression.

Depression is a mental illness that can make it hard to do things, stop you from enjoying yourself, or make you feel tired all the time. One of the warning signs is doing fewer activities, or doing worse at school or work. This can make discussion, and depression, difficult to navigate when you’re an overachiever like me.

I saw my first psychiatrist when I was 15. The first line of the report she gave me on leaving stated that I was “a very intelligent young woman”. It went on for a page and a half, finally stating there was nothing wrong with me – I was just being a teenager. It’s part of that intelligence (appropriate adjectives: brutal, painful, aggressive) that has made depression so difficult.

In my final year of high school, I competed in the International Biology Olympiad, worked part-time, was in five music groups, practiced piano and flute, swam regularly, and did five scholarship exams. I wasn’t withdrawing, or not being involved, or doing badly at school. About the only hallmark of depression I showed was a stubbornly low mood. I was still depressed.

In my honours year I attended national and international debating tournaments, spoke at a poetry conference in the USA, taught for the university, taught for charity, helped found the Science Community of Otago, spent time with friends – I did well, I was brilliant, I was still depressed.

I felt guilty for being depressed and being unable to fix it myself. Whenever I achieved something I believed if anyone found out about my depression, they would take it away somehow. And (this is my favourite part) I was terrified of going onto medication in case it stopped me being smart.

Depression isn’t something that can be whisked away by listing your achievements. I can’t get out a book of newspaper clippings and use that as a shield to make my brain be better. What I can do, what I have done is get medication that brings me up enough to function. It doesn’t stop me from having depressive episodes, but it’s enough that I don’t lowkey want to die constantly.

Medication doesn’t work for everyone, but my second go at it (and five psychiatrists, two psychologists, and three counselors later) did work. I’m not doing more, or more awake, or nicer at all – I just have the ability to be happy again.

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This hashtag was a great thing 10/10 would recommend.

There’s a belief that intelligent people are often depressed. I was told it a lot. Ignoring for a moment the fact that higher-educated “intelligent” people often have a higher socio-economic status so are better placed to get official diagnoses, it’s a bad thing to say even if it is true.

Connecting mental illness and intelligence can transform itself into perverse beliefs in the depressed mind – like the idea that without hating myself I wouldn’t be as motivated or intelligent. That’s obviously not correct. But it’s important to remember that the depressed mind twists things very readily.

I know I do well. I know I am good; good at science, writing, speaking, running events, and generally being a fantastic knowledgeable gorgeous all-rounder. But none of that changes the fact that I have depression. Being good has made talking to mental health professionals difficult, as my work doesn’t suffer and I don’t stop doing things. Being good has made accepting that I’m not good at depression difficult.

Recently I got called one of 20 Young Australians on the Cusp of Greatness. It’s amazing, I’m incredibly flattered and excited to be listed alongside other amazing people. I’m still depressed. I’m still a suicide survivor. I’ve still struggled with self-harm since I was 14.

Being good doesn’t change any of that. But I’m finally in a place where none of that changes my ability to be good – and maybe quite soon, great.

If you might have depression, or have been struggling with your mental health, check out Beyond Blue or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.