Mother Nature Needs Her Daughters – The Women Behind The Leadership – Dr Justine Shaw

October 8, 2020


Dr Justine Shaw is a Research FellowCentre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science at the University of Queensland.

A research leader in Antarctic and sub-Antarctic conservation, interested in understanding the way in which species interact with each other and how this shapes ecosystems, Dr Shaw was among 76 female international scientists on an Antarctic Homeward Bound voyage of discovery and hope, which is the subject of THE LEADERSHIP the must-see documentary about the voyage.

THE LEADERSHIP had its World Premiere at this year’s Sydney Film Festival and screened as part of the 2020 Melbourne International Film Festival. It has also been selected for the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

In a wide-ranging interview, SheSociety asked Dr Shaw about the voyage and the film.  

STEMM is defined as working in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine.

Q: Watching the film, I was quite shocked about the statistics. I never thought STEMM would have these problems and it’s opened my eyes up a lot. 

Dr Shaw: My perspective on the program is that I’m one of the original co-founders who created Homeward Bound. I’m a scientist, I’m an Antarctic conservation ecologist and I’ve been going south with Antarctic programs for 25 years or something. Going to Antarctica is not novel to me but going with a group of women is and was. So, as well as being involved in that first inaugural voyage that you saw, I’ve been involved in the subsequent. As a co-founder of the program I had my own lens of what it’s like for women in STEMM and the deficiency of leadership opportunities and what it looks like for the women in STEMM.

Q: So how did Homeward Bound come about? Did you approach Fabian or did she approach you? 

Dr Shaw: Myself and two other women in STEMM, both Antarctic women, did a leadership program with Fabian. With us were lots of other women in STEMM and we, as women in STEMM,  were really interested in exploring leadership a bit more given the lack of opportunity that we felt we had for leadership positions but also as a scientist we weren’t really having enough impact with our research and we were doing the science, we had the evidence there. We know how to make the future sustainability of the planet, we know what we need to do, but we’re just not having impact, not getting our voice at the table. 

So I guess that’s what motivated the STEMM co-founders and we did the leadership program which was led by Fabian. She met a whole bunch of women scientists and their story was very similar to mine, you know my voice isn’t being heard, I’m not getting these opportunities how do I get there. So she came to several of us and said “look how do we do this? How do we grow it?” and that’s kind of where Homeward Bound came from. 

It’s been a really interesting concept of leadership and coaching and what you see in the film is about what you believe in and value and how you can be more impactful as a leader. By working with women in STEMM we can foster more collaboration in this amazing group, who are amazing individually but what they can do collectively is incredible. 

Q: I didn’t see you in the film but you were there. What was your role? 

Dr Shaw: Yes, I was there and I was one of the faculty members that was on the film. It’s an amazing film and they’ve done an amazing job. In the film you just see Fabian, you don’t see the STEMM side of it. You also don’t see much about the other 70 or so women’s experience who were on the voyage.

Q: Why was that? 

Dr Shaw: I guess it’s documentary filmmaking. It’s never going to be every element. I guess it also captures the program’s different things for different people. So, you see the voyage in the film but actually it’s a 12-month program that we do. 

Q:   You are right, I was thinking the program was just 20 days on a boat. Please expand on this as I see you have the 5th program underway. 

Dr Shaw: Yes, and that’s kind of what the film is about and I guess that’s the theatre and drama. You know it would be pretty boring to film women doing zoom calls for a year. When we’re having virtual meetups but that’s actually the first part of the program. Each woman has a different experience and what you see is the director’s version and I’m not saying it’s wrong, it’s just through her lens and she’s beautifully done it specifically focusing on those six women. Meredith Nash, Songqiao, Sam Grover, Sarah Charnaud, Deborah Pardo and someone else. 

Q: Yes, I spoke with Meredith today.

Dr Shaw: She’s a pretty amazing woman, she’s great. So, I think the film focuses on them and their journey and you can even see that the journey of Meredith is very different from the journey of the French woman. Perhaps more important was this disconnect between leadership and STEMM, which is Fabian and the women.

Q: SPOILER ALERT: I didn’t know how it was going to be resolved but I guess I did like those snapshots. I actually thought at the end “oh gosh that was just a waste of time everyone is really unhappy and they didn’t like Fabian” but then when there was the snapshot of the women afterwards and how it actually had worked for them and they were becoming leaders in their fields. 

Dr Shaw: Yes, and I think the only other comment I would make is that you didn’t see the women so much that did like Fabian and did like the program because it’s a bit boring, I suppose. I think the women who were challenged and who were struggling with Fabian, in their eyes, elevated her as a leader which is an interesting thought. Every woman who came on that voyage was amazing and through the story telling what you see is the perspective of several.

Q: But there are so many other stories like you said. 

Dr Shaw: Yes, for me to be on the ship and watch everyone’s own story unfold at sea was really quite powerful. I’ve done three voyages now and it’s just amazing to watch what happens when you take women out of their everyday and put them in the middle of the most insane, brutal, stunning wilderness in the world. What happens, it’s just such a powerful thing. We’ve had women come on the program who haven’t had 20 days to themselves for 21 years. It’s actually really common, they’re high powered women in these big careers and they’ve got children and they’ve never been on their own for the past 20 years.

Q:  And I guess that’s the whole process of self-awareness isn’t it? It’s very hard to be self-aware when you don’t have time to yourself. 

Dr Shaw: I guess it’s why we talk about it being a transformational program, you’re with yourself and you don’t have your smartphone and you can’t just jump on Instagram. You’re in the wilderness and it’s a really provocative experience and you’re surrounded by amazing women. It’s about self-actualising, who am I, what am I here for. But also in a really beautiful, exciting environment with other women who are having a similar experience of their own version. 

Q:  Do you think in this environment it shows sisterhood more than out in the big wide world where we are actually scrambling to be seen and heard?

Dr Shaw: Yes, I mean Antarctica was our backdrop by design so as women who worked in Antarctica and in that wild space for years we knew what the power it would bring to the program so we wanted to share that with women in STEMM who don’t work in Antarctic science but we wanted to allow people to come to the wilderness that’s still out there in the planet and how can we ensure we save it and how can we ensure we will save the planet more broadly. It was there by design, we chose to have it as part of the program as the backdrop. We now talk about Antarctica as a faculty member because it helps deliver the program. The interesting thing about Antarctica is it’s never had a majority of women at any time in the history of Antarctica. It’s a male domain, it’s a heroic space for a whole bunch of reasons. It’s a male space in Antarctic science and it’s very male dominated, so to take a group of women there to share it together was really powerful. But for most of the women they’ve never been in an all women majority in their workspace. I think in nursing or retail or other spheres where women used to be in a majority, STEMM, these women have never been anywhere that was all women in a STEMM science context and certainly not in a remote location. Yes, they bonded for many of them because they never had that opportunity.

Q: Do you think women in STEMM do think very differently to men? Do they have a different view of things?

Dr Shaw: We say in this day and age that gender is not so black and white. You know there’s spectrums of everything. I think someone who identifies as a woman and who lives their life as a woman is shaped by that experience and so I think every woman who comes on board with ‘her’. We had a woman come on board from Uganda who’s a fifty year old woman working in African conservation so her lens is really different from a Melbourne 23 year old PHD student studying plant physiology but they’ve got this commonality that they’ve experienced life as a woman and I guess that’s what unites them. Which is bigger than biology.

Q: How far away are you from your 1000 strong network?

Dr Shaw: Yes, so 1000 is our target. Before COVID we were on track to have another 100 women going south which would’ve taken us up to about 460 so we’re on track. We do 80 to 100 women each year. This year during COVID, we advertised and went public and then the pandemic was declared whilst applications were open and we extended the timeline for six weeks or so because of the pandemic. We got the most applicants we ever had. So that really spun us out. We thought, do we need to pull the pin and then we just got swamped from applications from women all around the world. 

Q:  The statistics on inequality in the film were really confronting particularly regarding sexual harassment, but also that after having children, they lose 43% of the women in the workforce.

Dr Shaw: I know I’ve been working in the STEMM space for 20 something years and I’m only 47, so what has changed in the last 20 years is we’re having the conversations. We’re calling it, it’s being recognised, but the number of people I know who have seen the film, who still spin out over the statistics like yourself. That’s still a story and conversation that we need to have. Is it changing in the last 5 years? I think what is changing is the conversation is getting louder, particularly in Australia. At least there is more accountability for gender equity in institutions and organisations and we’re seeing in the STEMM space, we’re seeing people calling out, you know when they talk about ‘mammals’ all male panels. 

So people are calling it out and we’re seeing male champions, not many, but we’re seeing male champions saying “hey, I’ll come on your panel, but not when it’s all men” or “hey, I’ll happily do that, but why don’t you ask a woman.” 

So those male champions, they’ve always been there but they’re getting more recognition and it’s been applauded more loudly and we’re kind of helping men and women work out what they can do together. Since the first one I think, probably what’s become more prominent is diversity and this issue of intersectionality and our women in STEMM have a hard time. The film does a really good job at showcasing that, but we know women of colour or women, who are an ethnic minority or come from disadvantaged backgrounds, we know that they’ve had an even harder time. So, 50% of the population are women so we should at least have representation of women but actually know that we’ve got that conversation happening. Let’s talk more about what it’s like for others. 

Q:  Tell me about the research grant model and how it doesn’t give security to women. 

Dr Shaw: So, your question is, are women more disadvantaged in the granting and research funding space? Yes, they are. Obviously, it sits really close to my own heart as a woman in STEMM and research is what I do. I’m a research only academic. When I’m not doing research, I do Homeward Bound in my spare time. We’re socialised to be more collaborative and even the good girl vs the bossy woman, you don’t talk about yourself, you don’t push yourself forward. A lot of it is being done by men, who are forthright and powerful and come forward and are very opinionated. It’s rewarded and applauded. In science we see it as well. We have a model of a professor in our mind, we think you know it’s an old man, who has been a full time employee the whole time and he’s got lots of people under him and that’s who we will give the money to because we know he can do the job. I mean I myself I’ve been conditioned that way that’s what success looks like in science. 

But it needs to change and so one of the challenges for women in STEMM and women in research is your credentials of what you have achieved to rank success. So, if you’re a granter or someone who is giving out money you want to give it to the best person. But when you’ve got people who’ve got careers that have been interrupted to have children or careers that have been a bit diverse or a bit different, they might have a teaching component, they might have a mentorship program in there. In their time they might have kicked off an initiative for leadership of women in STEMM but that doesn’t fit the mould for granting. I guess our model of success in STEMM is really around that senior white professor leading a big team, but actually we know that he’s no better at science than a young woman or mid-career woman or a woman who was part time for 5 years. So we really need to change those metrics. It’s not just about child rearing either, it’s about power and how we want strong, powerful, dependable leaders and, you know, we’re conditioned to see that as being that old professor. 

Q: At what point do you think young women realise there is inequality in the world? 

Dr Shaw: So, it’s interesting isn’t it. As I say, I’m 47, so when I was at university I was a feminist, we were all ferminists. We knew what it was about. But I think today’s generation, you’re right, a lot of my students say “oh I don’t need to be a feminist, everyone’s equal now.” So I think this generation that you’re talking about, I think it’s a bit sad to say but I feel like once they get beyond their first appointment, once they’ve worked alongside their male peers but they stop getting the opportunities they might start realising it. 

So one of the interesting things we hear in Homeward Bound, senior women who’ve been in the game for a long time and have achieved amazing things, talk about how they become invisible as they become older. So old men get notoriety and senior authority and stuff but old women get nothing and they really have to work hard to maintain their integrity as they age. I remember seeing a really interesting saying from one of the old Australian feminists “if young women want to get around in hot pants and push up bras and show their cleavage in workplace and say that feminism is dead, you know they don’t need feminism”, we’ve actually succeeded as the first wave of feminism because that’s what we wanted for them. We wanted them to have that freedom, but I think what we all know is that it looks like it’s there but actually when they scratch the surface it’s not. I have much more equity and opportunity than my mother and she, her mother and my daughter, will undoubtedly have more opportunity. 

But I think it’s not equity yet, I think we’re getting better at some things. I think even in my space now, I have half of my students, I’m in kind of the biology conversation space in the University, at a PHD level, which is an entry level to research. It’s fifty fifty men and women and that’s great. That’s in biology, nothing like that in Engineering. But when you get to professorship there’s only 10% women and 90% men. So, while my students are feeling equal in that kind of wonderful, youthful perspective, what they’re not necessarily noticing is everyone that’s making the decisions for them and their future and their system and their research is predominately old white men. It is getting better, I say that, and I think it’s getting better because we’ve now got these programs of accountability and equity and you know, most places in Australia now, we’ve got this diversity, equity inclusion committees, are they implementing stuff well? Not yet. 

Q: I’m excited. How are you feeling about the future of women?

Dr Shaw: I think it’s a slow road and I think there will be a lot of casualties before we get there. I love your optimism. You’ve got a daughter, I’ve got a daughter, we’ve got to be optimistic. I think there’s institutionalised barriers still and there’s subconscious or unconscious barriers. I often hate the conversation about women in STEMM getting de-railed by sexual harassment stats, but I think in this instance the two aren’t mutually exclusive. 

Q: Does it come down to power and control and gender imbalance. 

Dr Shaw: It’s really hard to explain, I try to say to the men I work with, you know when you walk into the office of five senior men in suits and you’re going to talk to them as the only woman it’s a really weird feeling and you’re suddenly really aware of your femaleness. And no doubt it’s like that for the man who walks into the office if it’s five women, but in terms of power that’s rarely happened to them. In science, that’s rarely happened where they walk in and there’s five women in power and it’s a really nuanced thing. Your gender, you can’t escape it. 

One of the other beautiful moments was traumatically beautiful, a man came on that inaugural voyage, he’s actually in the film. Greg. He’s an old Antarctic, he’s kind of framed as the expedition leader in the film. So, Greg’s a great guy, he’s a lovely man, he’s incredible and he’s married to a wonderful woman. He’s very in touch with his feelings and stuff but he and one of the other guys, who’s also in the film, Marshall, kind of the cuddly guy with a beard, who says “this is a really hard gig”. They were having a conversation, and because we hang out on our own, they were both really spun out and they said they’ve been sitting at dinner and one of the women had said, she was saying to the rest of the table these big group tables: “It’s like you know you have your car keys in your hands when you go to your car at night.” Everyone at the table knew what she was talking about except Greg. And he said he had no idea what was going on and then Marshall said he had the same thing and they just kept quiet and listened and then they realised what the implication was, but they realised just the acceptance for the rest of the table, because it was a female majority but everyone knew what was going on. To me when they came to us “that is insane, you’re just walking to your car after a normal day at work” and I was like “yeah that’s our reality.” Are those things going to go away? I don’t know.  

Q: Has becoming a mother affected your career? 

Dr Shaw: I’m such a statistic, I’m such a cliche. I didn’t have my daughter until I was 40. One of the reasons I didn’t is because I’m an Antarctic scientist and you just can’t do that. It’s not even like being a jungle biologist or a desert ecologist. Antarctica is the extreme frontier, so the only expedition I’ve done since becoming a mother has been Homeward Bound. I will again one day when she’s a bit older but I’ve put off motherhood for so long because of those reasons. Why would I want to burden myself and ruin my career, there’s never an appropriate time in your career. Very much in science, because it’s a progression, it’s a trajectory, it’s like now you’ve done A, you’ve gotta do B, now you’ve done B you’ve gotta do C. It’s like a treadmill and so for myself, I’ve been part time and I’ve never had a long-term contract since becoming a mother. I’m good at my job. I look good on paper, I’m achieving things. It is a struggle, I think because I had my daughter at 40 and because I’m with lots of women who don’t have children. It’s not just motherhood though that makes it a struggle for women in science. It’s just that mothers are having an even harder time. 

Q: There are a lot of men that want to take on the caring role and being home with the children. Would that help women?

Dr Nash: Yes, that is one of the things that we talk about and someone asked me today, Homeward Bound just looks like a program for self-help for women and I was like “no it’s actually about affecting change.” Beyond the film, which is what you’ve seen, we’re actually doing a lot of other initiatives, so one of the things we’re doing is just like a factsheet we’re putting out there to institutions and to workplaces that the women can also take to their workplace and say here’s the facts. These are the barriers, these are some of the things we can do to overcome

Q: So, you’re getting into the advocacy space, which is great. 

Dr Shaw: Yes, so hopefully we can see that happen more. 

The Leadership is out now in Dendy Cinemas Australia wide.

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