Interview: President's Award winners Women in Research Network

31 Jan 2018
Women in Research Network at the UNSW President's Awards

Inside UNSW spoke with the Women in Research Network (WiRN), winners of the People's Choice at the 2017 President's Awards. Committee Co-Chairs Professor Karen Fisher (Social Policy Research Centre) and Associate Professor Suhelen Egan (School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences and Centre for Marine Bio-Innovation) told us all about the WiRN and what diversity means to them.

For those who are not familiar with the Women in Research Network, how would you summarise it? 

SE: From my involvement, in the last three years, it has been a bottom-up initiative, supported by the Research Division Unit, but really driven by women who are interested in and concerned about the needs of women working in a research-intensive environment. It's really a support network, an opportunity to inform other researchers within the university, and advocate for the needs of women researchers at UNSW. 

The focus is on women in research, but we all have diverse career pathways and different demands on our time. So we also have discussions centred around the teaching and leadership roles of women at the university. 

KF: We intentionally went out to all faculties, several years ago, to make sure there is a leader from each, including UNSW Canberra. It means that there's a much more diverse representation within the network at the leadership level. And secondly, the Research Development Unit is now very involved in seeking support from the WiRN to integrate the shared activities into achieving the relevant strategic goals of the university. The network now works very closely with Laura Poole-Warren, so that means that communication goes backwards and forwards. The three goals of the network are "support, information and advocate", and we really strive to achieve that last one at a personal level right up to meeting with the Vice-Chancellor and academic board and so on, to make sure that's effective. 

Considering you received the People's Choice Award, the work you're doing is clearly getting out to the wider university and the profile is growing. 

SE: As Karen said the network's grown over the years tremendously and now having faculty representation at the leadership level gives you that ability to reach out across faculties. 

KF: Now there's that visibility at senior decision level. And part of that is because of the Strategy too, there's a really good corporate commitment that diversity is actually addressed and I think senior leadership sees this as another way of trying to achieve that goal. 

What sort of impact do you think the actions and the behaviours of the WiRN have, and how does it improve the experiences of others around the university? 

KF: One of the things the network does well is communicate with its members about what their priorities might be, and then sets up events and activities to meet those. That ranges from workshops, to lunchtime meetings, to individual representation, to a website now that's much more up to date. So we're responsive to what members want, and what the university is trying to achieve. I think what that means is that women who are active in the network know there's someone to speak to and know that they can trust what they raise will be acted on at an individual level but also at a system level. 

SE: The activities of WiRN are both planned and reactive. Members will come along and they experience a supportive and collegial network, so you get a great opportunity to meet people from different faculties through the events and the lunches. The events are often geared around ways in which the individuals can improve their work-life balance, effective writing, effective time management, leadership, dealing with the media; all those skills that are required that you often don't get at your day-to-day work. We also respond to current events and request from the UNSW leadership team to engage in policy changes or new initiatives. For example, WiRN was involved in providing material and feedback on the unconscious bias training currently being rolled out to UNSW leaders. 

What does diversity mean to you? 

KF: Diversity comes to the core of my research! But on a personal level, for me, diversity means anyone who doesn't look like the boss. That means in terms of what you look like; what you sound like; what you do; what your priorities are; what you've done in the past; what you're going to do in the future. It's actually getting to the point where this community values that difference and sees it as an asset.

SE: From a biological point of view, for me, diversity is having variety in all sorts of ways: variety in skills, variety in background, variety in expertise, variety in levels. As a microbiologist, I look at things and a diverse environment is one that's going to be resilient and successful in the long-run. So that's kind of how I'd like to mirror people-diversity in the university. 

We talk about diversity, but something that is just as important is that we include "inclusion". There is a potential for us, at a university level, to ensure we've ticked all the boxes by hiring people from diverse genders and backgrounds, but including them is another level which I think is even more important. That's where UNSW becomes more than just "diversity potential" but we actually are using and benefiting from that potential. Creating an environment where everyone is being the best they can be, and that what they can be is very different. 

How do women at UNSW get involved in the WiRN? 

KF: We have a website, and all events are open to all members of the university community. They can participate in events or they can make contact with their faculty representative or any of the committee at any stage. 

Being a part of of the executive committee of the WiRN must keep you busy, especially on top of your devotion to your research, how do you strike that balance between work and your personal life? 

KF: I used to be a working family consultant, so this is core to what I do. I've always worked part-time and I'm absolutely firm about not working on the weekend or in the evening. I'm very much "good enough" within achieving good academic standards. I think that if I'm going to be good at my job, I need to be good at the way I manage myself. 

SE: I know when I've had enough. Having kids still at school-age, I struggle with maintaining the time that I need off with them, with time off during work. Essentially, I do still work on weekends, but it's a trade-off between making sure I can leave at three o'clock on a Tuesday to take kids to swimming lessons. It's probably more the flexibility which I really appreciate now. 

And finally, if you could recommend a holiday destination anywhere in the world, where would it be and why? 

KF: I've just been to the Timber Trail, in central-North Island, New Zealand. It's two days if you're cycling, or four day "tramping" - which is New Zealand language for bushwalking. It was amazing!

SE: I would say my dream trip is a tropical island, or on a live-aboard boat, going scuba diving. When you come up after a dive you are often physically exhausted but you have had an opportunity to see a whole world of diverse creatures that's not visible to those above the water. The South Pacific is amazing.