I am proud to have been involved in the recent launch of the Women in Coastal Geoscience and Engineering network at the International Coastal Symposium in Sydney. I say ‘involved’ because, although I helped with setting up the network, I was 40 weeks pregnant during the conference. My waters broke on the day of the launch, so I ended up staying at home (where our baby boy arrived around 3am!). I was disappointed not to have also attended the launch of the network, which we had been working on and getting excited about for some time. Ana Vila-Concejo, who was chairing the conference (the first woman to do so in fourteen years!) was keen to mark the occasion with this step toward gender equality in the broad disciplinary fields of coastal geosciences and engineering.
In the same week, a special science episode of the Australian political show Q and A was aired. The usual panel of politicians was replaced by five scientists. Their passion for basic and applied science shone as they fielded questions from a curious (and endearingly nerdy!) audience. Given the recent launch of the network, one particular question caught my attention about why there are less women in senior (post-PhD) positions in scientific careers, and why they appear to be less happy than their male counterparts. Marine scientist Professor Emma Johnston responded:
‘I love science. The reason I’m in it is because it’s so exciting. It’s such a great career and it never gets boring. Women should be able to access those jobs that are so exciting … I think the thing to hold onto is how much you enjoy the actual research and that structured inquiry and finding data and working things out, because that’s what will get you through some of the tougher times’.
I really enjoyed hearing this, partly because it went beyond the usual observation that women leave science to have babies. More importantly, it offered a sensible and reliable piece of advice about focusing on the parts of our jobs about which we are most passionate to increase our job satisfaction. This strategy works well for both male and female academics, who are increasingly judged by their research output.
I was reminded of Emma’s sentiment the next day while I was cooking in the kitchen and feeling guilty for thinking work-related thoughts on day 4 post baby. We were listening to See!, an album of children’s songs by Holly Throsby (which, incidentally, I recommend as being far more palatable than most renditions of incy wincy spider). The opening track, Putt Putt! goes:
‘I’m still young, young these days, I’m gonna put to the back of my head these daydreams instead, I’m gonna buy me a motor boat and we’ll go putt putt! over the ocean, I’m gonna buy me a motor boat and we’ll go putt putt!, set this boat in motion, I’m gonna set this boat in motion…’
Three years ago we had our first baby. The University of Wollongong gave me a return to work grant for keeping my research on track while building a family. Those same song lines inspired me to spend the money on finding two boats that took me to 22 islands on the Great Barrier Reef. My family even came with me for some of the ride! This was a unique opportunity that was not necessarily available to women scientists at other institutions. So I made the most of it and the modest amount of money went far. I forged some lasting research collaborations from which several interesting and important publications have emerged, and through which we have subsequently won funding to extend the work in new directions.
This return to work grant was money well spent. It enabled me to focus on how much I enjoy science, moving me in a clear direction away from the spectre of dropping out after having children. My hope for the Women in Coastal Geoscience and Engineering network is that it generates similar opportunities for other women working in scientific disciplines. In doing so, the network will make a meaningful difference.