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Women leading the way in STEM: Interview with Dr Sarah Pearson
It is impossible not to feel a little bit star-struck when you talk to Dr Sarah Pearson, Chief Scientist and Chief Innovation Officer at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). With a PhD in particle physics, innovations ranging from cancer diagnosis to confectionery, and leadership roles too numerous to mention, she appears the epitome of a woman who has it all.
But as intimidating as her career might appear to be at a first glance, the person behind these enviable achievements is definitely not. From career breaks and staying at home to look after her children, to empowering girls in STEM and driving the start-up scene, Dr Pearson is passionate about shedding any stuffy old leadership stereotypes, and showing that you can make it to the top on your own terms. Read her open and honest account below.
GLOBALLY, ONLY 30% OF RESEARCHERS ARE WOMEN. WHY HAS THIS GENDER GAP BEEN SO PERSISTENT?
A lot of people argue that it takes a while for the pipeline to catch up, but that’s an outdated argument. At the moment, it’s going to take 75 years to have equality for women in science. That is outrageously ridiculous – that’s several generations.
There is this concept of a leaky pipeline, which I experienced myself. When I was doing my PhD, I looked at what it would take to be a woman academic and I thought, how am I going to have children and have a successful career? In particle physics, my area of expertise, all the experiments were done overseas, so I was faced with this dilemma of how do I have children and continue to travel overseas to do my experiments. As it happened I later managed to do that, but at that stage it was just so overwhelmingly challenging. And it’s a struggle many women face.
However, the leaky pipeline starts even earlier than that. You hear these terrible stories of girls being told not to study maths because that’s not what girls do. It makes me very angry and very sad at the same time. How dare anyone tell a girl that they can’t do something?
Girls need to see that it’s not just about having a career – you can actually lead this stuff. We are up there, shaping, driving, strategising
Another factor is that we haven’t made enough of the role models, women in leadership. At the moment we have three women Chief Scientists in the Commonwealth. I think it’s incredible. Girls need to see that it’s not just about having a career – you can actually lead this stuff. We are up there, shaping, driving, strategising.
Then there’s that broader cultural piece that still needs addressing. Many women in leadership describe situations in which they make suggestions in a meeting and everyone ignores it, only for a man to say the same thing and for everyone to think it’s great – this is very real, it’s something I’ve experienced too, and I still sometimes get looked at as the woman in the room who doesn’t have anything to say. I’d really love for this “gender thing” to disappear, but we’re not there yet.
WHAT ABOUT THE SCIENCE ITSELF, IS THERE A CASE OF SCIENCE BEING GENDER BLIND?
I was actually somewhat gender blind myself as a young woman in that I didn’t think of myself as a woman, I thought of myself as a physicist. That was until I entered the world of work and realised that there’s this whole other world of networking through social means, which is male-dominated, and dictates who is trusted, listened to and promoted. And it is absolutely gender blind. For example,a female boss of mine attended a leadership bonding activity – it was go-kart racing which suited the 7 other men, but not her.
Not only did I have this emotional reaction but I also had this intellectual reaction, that if we want to increase our GDP, we’ve got to get more women starting up businesses as well
However, the gender bias issue really struck me in Israel where we were doing a tour of the start-up scene. We visited a female incubator – and I’m still tearing up just thinking about it, because I walked in and I had never before been in a female-dominated environment of entrepreneurs, most of whom were techies. I was overwhelmed, but at the same time I was thinking that this shouldn’t be unusual, I shouldn’t be overcome like this.
Every start-up there needed to have at least one female founder, and they showed us videos of the founders pitching their business ideas. For instance, they would find a need, such as helping busy working women with their shopping, and it was obvious that by engaging women in entrepreneurship there would be a huge number of new businesses that would never have been started without them. Women obviously see different needs, and the businesses they were building were ones that men would never have even thought of and it suddenly hit me. Not only did I have this emotional reaction but I also had this intellectual reaction, that if we want to increase our GDP, we’ve got to get more women starting up businesses as well.
HOW DO AUSTRALIANS FARE WHEN IT COMES TO RISK-TAKING? ARE WE PERHAPS A BIT MORE RISK AVERSE?
Australians are very creative, we’re very good at the ideas. We have slipped down the rankings in the recent global innovation index, but our inputs, as in our creativity, our research base, is world class, and we’re quite highly ranked on that. However, we’ve got some improvements to make in terms of translating some of those outputs into commercial outcomes. Part of that is risk taking, but it’s a very complex beast.
I work in the start-up world where entrepreneurs are taking huge risks. They’re jumping out of employment with secure income streams, and they’re starting up their own companies. There’s a lot more support now than back in my research days, and a lot of programs have been put in place in the last few years to help people navigate from ideas to commercial impact.
What’s missing is that real hunger and thirst to drive a global business across our demography
I think what’s missing is that real hunger and thirst to drive a global business across our demography – it exists in spades in patches, but it isn’t as widespread as I’d like. I think we also need to talk more about the people taking risks. If you go to Silicon Valley, you see that every day newspapers feature several stories about start-ups. We really need to be telling more of those stories on the front pages to normalise it in Australia. People are afraid of start-ups because they think they will take their jobs. They may shift where our economy is going, but they’re the only way we’ll have jobs in the future because many of the current businesses will disappear without adapting, whether we start up companies or not. And the high growth industries of the future need significant STEM engagement – if we don’t drive these so called deep-tech industries Australia will miss out.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE ACHIEVEMENTS YOU’RE MOST PROUD OF TO DATE?
I have to say that my proudest achievement are my sons. I know that’s a very female thing to say – but I am very proud of my boys. I have managed to have a career and have a family even though I took some time off. I did my PhD at Oxford, I was a management consultant at McKinsey, then I got pregnant and decided that I should stay at home and look after my kids – and I have to say it nearly killed me. That is obviously a gross exaggeration, but it was really challenging.
I really wanted to be their teacher for the first years of their lives. I’m not suggesting everyone should do that, and it is really hard to get back into the workforce after a break, but here I am. I’m probably not as high up as I would be if I had not taken that time away, but I have two happy, healthy successful boys.
Apart from that, I’m really proud of the work we do in helping women entrepreneurs in the Indo-Pacific, who are solving social challenges in health, education, agriculture, and climate change. Our Scaling Frontier Innovation program is helping social entrepreneurs build businesses, both directly and through support for accelerators across the Indo-Pacific. Our engagement in the Global Innovation Fund provides investment to help then scale. This not only gives them employment but also financial independence, empowers them. It solves challenges and delivers social and economic impact.
The other thing I’m really proud of is the work that I’ve done to empower young women in STEM. Many years ago I went out to the cotton farm region of Australia, and I really wanted young women there to know that you don’t have to be what you can see, there’s also a whole other universe out there. They had this competition where the kids had to build an irrigation system, and I was paired up with this young girl who hated science and didn’t want to engage. I’m actually not that practical, and so I thought, oh no, I’m really going to damage your chances – but we worked together on the project and she ended up winning! Two months later I ran into her at another event, and she told me that she had decided to study science at university. To have this impact on an individual means a lot to me.
HOW DO WE ADDRESS SOME OF THE CURRENT BARRIERS FOR WOMEN?
I encourage women into entrepreneurship because I feel like getting into leadership is like a sport. It’s a game that people play, and the rules have been written by men, for men. That’s no criticism of men – they’ve just been in leadership for so long and have developed a social system that works for them. Not so much for women. I say to women that if you can’t get on in the industry because it’s so male dominated, think about setting up a company. Build the values and norms around you, and the values and norms you have as a woman, and then a bunch of other women will get drawn in with you and they get to progress in their careers and be leaders.
And how do we help women infiltrate? It sounds like a game of war and I don’t mean it that way, but it needs coordination – we need to help each other, be selfless and instead of just as individuals wanting to progress our careers, gather and share the opportunities.
The parenting thing is still a big barrier as the STEM world is incredibly competitive. We need to let people go in and out and have those career breaks, and stop erasing the children out of the picture. As a woman, throughout my career, I just felt split. There’s a part of me that wants to charge off and make a difference in the world, and the other half wants to be at home with my children and look after them.
I’ve been really lucky in that I could stay at home, and later pursue a career and impact, but not everyone has had those same opportunities, and I still found it challenging to make real progress and be taken seriously because I had time out. I also saw that in promotions - how do we get the promotions system to take that into account? However, I feel like there has been a real shift in this recently. Women are coming out and talking about their other sides.
We also need to show that we’re human. We have a tendency to make out women in leadership as these superwomen, and maybe a lot of them are, but they’re still human, and they still have their human struggles, and they still go through imposter syndrome and all those sorts of things.
AND WHAT CAN YOU DO IF YOU’RE THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM?
One of the first things I would say is do not have meetings, or boards or events where there’s only one woman. I’ve heard stories of sole women on science-based boards where the way they’ve been spoken to is unforgivable. I don’t think this would happen if they were not on their own. We really need to move the dial and get more women on boards, and if you’ve got a meeting where you’re discussing and deciding things, make sure you’ve got more than one woman there.
I’m also finding that as I’m getting older that I can just be bolder. If I start talking about an idea and I’m ignored, and then a man says the same thing later, I say in a nice way that yes, that’s what I was saying earlier. In other words, you said it, own it. It’s about helping women be more confident, but it’s also helping them see that it’s a responsibility to own your ideas.
Work/life balance is like Delta E / Delta T, the uncertainty principle in physics. You can borrow lots of energy for a short amount of time, or a little bit of energy for a lot of the time
ANY MYTHS YOU’D LIKE TO BUST, ONCE AND FOR ALL?
There’s a piece of research where they asked the kids ‘what’s a scientist’ and they all drew men with spikey hair in lab coats because that’s what they saw. A primary school in the UK told the kids that they were going to bring in an astronaut and a firefighter, and they brought in women. All the kids were surprised, but it really helped them change that mindset and see that scientists are women as well.
In terms of the whole career, I think it’s so important to stress that you can be a female and a leader, you can be female and a scientist. You can be a woman. You don’t have to change your personality.
The scientific method, it’s drummed into us, is a male method. I was horrified when I was at school studying physics, and everything appeared to have been done by these amazing old, white men. I had no role models and I’m still angry today that my teachers didn’t inject more women into that education. I didn’t know about Ada Lovelace, that’s horrific.
It wasn’t until I got to do my own research that I realised that I could do research as a woman. You can have amazing breakthroughs, and a lot of the time they will happen when collaborating with other men and women. I also think there’s a lot more commonalities between men and women than we give credit for. We’re all just humans with certain skills, so how do we bust this myth about men and women?
And then there’s the question of balance – both in science and in leadership. I’d like to bust the myth that you can have balance, and I’d also like to bust the myth that you can’t have balance. You can have balance over the course of your career, but I personally don’t think that you can balance it all in any one point in your career, it’s practically impossible because you’re split in so many directions.
SO YOU CAN HAVE IT ALL, BUT JUST NOT AT THE SAME TIME?
Yes! So it’s like that Delta E / Delta T, the uncertainty principle in physics. You can borrow lots of energy for a short amount of time, or a little bit of energy for a lot of the time - it’s the same in terms of work/life balance. In my experience it’s very difficult to have balance in any given time, but don’t give up. You can over the course of your life.