Dr Marie Clark

University of Melbourne alumna Dr Marie Clark has taken part in a 3-week voyage to Antarctica as part of the Homeward Bound program, an initiative to nurture the leadership and strategic capabilities of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

By Kyle Birchill, University of Melbourne

Woman in beanie and jacket
Dr Marie Clark. Picture: Supplied

In her time as a student, a researcher and now as a high-school biology teacher, Dr Clark has experienced a culture of women being held back or excluded from leadership roles within the fields of science.

“I saw while I was still in academia that women don’t really rise to leadership and how difficult it is if they choose to go down that path,” she says.

“I noticed lots of little things that added up to a culture that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of. Things like seeing male PhD students introduced as ‘brilliant’ and female students as ‘lovely’ or ‘beautiful’. Things like seeing women try and return to the workforce after having children and finding it really difficult due to the gaps that they had in publishing research.”

She talks of the ‘leaking pipeline’ that sees many women in science unable to re-enter the workforce after having children. According to the Australian Government Department of Education and Training, over half (52.3 percent) of students completing degrees in natural and physical sciences in 2016 were women. However, women remain poorly represented in STEM at the top level. According to Australia’s Chief Scientist, just 16 percent of top-level science and technology researchers and professionals are women.

Marie always felt quite strongly that this was an issue that needed to be addressed and when she came across the Homeward Bound program she saw a way to help combat this.

“I’m really interested in gender issues in academia and also the environment and those two things coming together sounded really exciting,” she says.

Launched in 2016 by Fabian Dattner, a Melbourne-based leadership consultant, Homeward Bound seeks to ‘equip a 1,000-strong global collaboration of women with a science background to lead, influence and contribute to policy and decision-making as it informs the future of our planet within 10 years’.

Dr Clark was in a cohort of 80 women from diverse science backgrounds taking part in a 12-month leadership program culminating in a three-week expedition to Antarctica.

“The program really helped cement where I was going and what I wanted to do and how I could contribute to the overall Homeward Bound project.”

She says being in a confined space aboard the Antarctic vessel with people she barely knew, with little or no connection to her normal support networks was an eye-opening experience which, combined with the remote wilderness that is Antarctica, forced the women aboard to self-reflect and to create new working relationships.

Dr Marie Clark, in a thick coat, standing on a ship in the water
Dr Marie Clark aboard the Homeward Bound vessel. Picture: Oli Sansom

They were self-organised into groups around particular research themes and over the year-long program worked towards actionable plans for the future. Dr Clark was part of the group that looked at ways to communicate climate change to the public and had the opportunity to work with several women who had worked in public policy around the world.

Leadership was a common theme throughout the program with participants learning a range of skills from visibility, self-reflection, peer coaching and science communication.

“A lot of the program was focussed on the fact that the current paradigm of leadership is a bit broken,” she says.

“There’s that phrase ‘its lonely at the top’; that’s not really how it should be, it should be a matter of a team creatively solving problems together. That’s something that we all have to bring back to our workplace.”

With regard to career progression and re-entry into the workforce, the publish-or-perish mentality in academia can be very difficult for women in particular. In brainstorming ways to change perceptions, participants discussed focusing on quality or impact of publications rather than quantity as a more inclusive way to rate academic work and aid career progression in a more equitable manner.

What most stood out to Dr Clark over the course of the program was the realisation that the challenges we face in Australia are shared across the world and that to meet and overcome these challenges we must collaborate and innovate.

“We all brainstormed as many solutions as we could come up with at the individual level, at the organisation level and at the global level, because it’s in all countries, its everywhere. There were heaps of things that came out of that – lots of great ideas around mentoring and fighting to change the perception of success in academia.”

Dr Clark has returned with a renewed sense of purpose and empowerment. She says the program has changed the way she thinks about challenges and interactions from a local to a global level.

The Faculty of Science is committed to equality, diversity and inclusion, and has implemented a range of measures to address imbalance, including female-only academic positions, establishing a Women in Science working group, and participating in the SAGE Athena SWAN Awards Program. If you would like to support the Faculty’s efforts to encourage women in STEM, please get in touch on +61 3 8344 9366 or science-alumni@unimelb.edu.au