Why more women leading in STEMM is our best chance for a healthy future

Why more women leading in STEMM is our best chance for a healthy future

Our world has changed.

Right now, we are out of the CBD, out of offices, we are online, we are collaborating, creating, connecting. We are managing anxiety, uncertainty, and significant social disruption. Many of us are separated from family and friends, and some of us, have lost someone important.

Why this happened will be the stuff of books, blogs, movies for years to come, but the simple truth is that we ignored the science, though it is the science that will rescue us. It is not a matter of belief, it is a matter of fact. Is the world learning, at last that this distinction could save us?

If we learn, and we should, we will listen to and elevate the voices of women leading with a STEMM background. Why women? Because they predispose to be inclusive, collaborative, legacy minded and to be trusted with assets (money and people). Why STEMM? Because their expertise, research, aggregated knowledge, ability to challenge their own findings, their shared process of peer review, the way they think, their pursuit of ‘best available advice’, is simply the best option we have.

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This article reflects the perspective of three women who joined the very first Homeward Bound voyage, on why women leading with a STEMM background is so important. I am the founder and CEO of the Dattner Group, a national leadership consultancy, and of Homeward Bound, a global NFP initiative to elevate the visibility of women leading with a STEMM background.

Professor Robyn Lucas is Professor and Head at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at ANU. Dr Sam Grover is a Lecturer in Environmental Science at RMIT University.

Professor Robyn Lucas in Antarctica

Robyn was a doctor at 22, an oncologist who witnessed her first death – a 28-year-old woman from cervical cancer – soon after graduating. She worked hospitals, took time off to have kids, then started her PhD at ANU. Sam is a soil scientist, a mother and a children’s author. Her PhD research contributed to the Victorian Government’s landmark decision to end cattle grazing in the Alps. Both leaders were part of Homeward Bound in its pilot program in 2016.

To the three of us, leadership is both visionary and sheep wrangling; set a course but then be willing to get behind people and help them engage with the strategy and the part they can play. Leadership is about being brave, standing up for what you believe in.

Although we generalise about the practice of leadership, we all acknowledge that there are some wonderful, experienced, and pioneering leaders – their tenure marked by ‘doing the right thing’. Unfortunately, too many leaders (and all three of us have experienced this), lack transparency, are distrustful, disrespectful, dictatorial, not interested in other viewpoints, not interested in listening to the evidence (i.e. about climate crisis), focused on their own agenda and, ultimately, their own progression.

Dr Samantha Grover

All of us see ourselves as leaders (and, in fact, with multiple leadership roles). I lead two organisations (Dattner Group and Homeward Bound), but I am also a mother, a wife and a friend. For Robyn, who has taken several leadership roles, her sense of her own leadership is about how she enables her own staff, their wellness, while working in public health. She invests in their development because their capabilities are what create sustainability.

In different ways, all of us came to Homeward Bound because we were frustrated with what we were observing. I am a leadership specialist. I have worked for hundreds of organisations and always, there are far fewer women than men, despite their skill. Robyn put her heart and soul into a crucial role, then came up against men with entrenched views that women did not critique or question for fear of consequences. She left but found herself jumping from the frying pan into the fire, repeatedly taking heat from senior male colleagues to protect women working for her. Sam heard multiple times that she couldn’t have a career and have kids, that her work wasn’t crucial and that by taking maternity leave she was demonstrating she was not committed to her career.

We all engaged with Homeward Bound to explore how we could know ourselves better, find solutions from personal to organisational, and to do this with women on the same journey.

This year, we have experienced bushfires driven by climate change – with considerable health effects. STEMM tools show the links. We are now in a COVID-19 pandemic – with its roots, spread and impact bedded in inequality, ecosystem change.  To change our future, we need to understand our past, our current trajectory, and all possible futures. Communication is vital, as is training the next generation and valuing their voices.

All three of us want to say, remember you can! Whatever you feel you want to do, try it.  All women, no matter your age, invest in honing your skills (and keep on honing them), be brave, and step up. Understand yourself and know how (and why) you lead. All leaders, men and women, hone your caring skills, act on evidence, advocate on the world stage for fairness, equity, and valuing diversity.

We are inviting you to join a Women’s Agenda supported event, with scientists Frances Separovic, Sharon Robinson and myself talking about the challenge of change as a leader. Register for the event here.

Melbourne International Film Festival is screening The Leadership (Bunya Productions, Mystery Road, Sweet Country). Find out more here. 

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