This week I put on my ‘business suit’ and gave a talk to our daughters’ Montessori school on World Oceans Day about the oceans, especially coral reefs, and what we can do to help them. I told them about all the things the oceans do for people, and how, for example, lots of people all around the world depend on coral reefs to feed their families. “Why aren’t we taking care of the corals, then?” one of them asked. A pretty obvious question, but one that isn’t easy to answer. If more people understood the connection between their carbon-producing daily activities (e.g., driving, flying, air conditioning, food choices, etc.), AND the same people had an emotional connection of some sort with reefs, perhaps humanity would collectively be doing a better job of curbing our impacts on coral reefs. Talking to children like this is one way I can make a teensy tiny difference in both of those regards. Hopefully by the time these children are old enough to make their own decisions, saving coral reefs will still be an option.
We took to the streets in Sydney this past weekend, along with hundreds of thousands of other concerned people all over the world, to call for evidence-based policy decisions in the best interest of humanity and the planet. Worryingly, as we all know, science and even basic truthfulness is currently under heavy attack in US politics. We nearly didn’t make it out the door to get to the march in time, thanks to a series of pretty standard parenting mishaps…but we persisted nonetheless, both for the sake of making out voice heard and teaching our children to do the same. Hopefully, in the coming years, the pendulum will swing back towards fact- and evidence-based decision making. But if not, at least we’ve primed our personal next generation to get out there and keep on shouting until it does.
This year on International Women’s Day, I was invited by our Faculty of Science and Engineering to speak at their event to celebrate the day and launch Macquarie University’s Workplace Gender Equity Strategy. I was asked to talk about the kinds of support I’d received that had helped me succeed in my career up to now. It was all the more relevant given that that day just happened to be my first day back at the university after seven months of maternity leave.
In thinking through what to say, I realised that the support I’ve received is actually only half of the equation. The support my husband had received, which in turn has allowed him to support me, is the equally important other half. Indeed, I firmly believe that one of the keys to having been able to maintain my career, and indeed flourish, since finishing my Ph.D. and having our first child eight years ago is the flexibility we’ve both been fortunate enough to have.
I’m blessed with an incredibly supportive husband. When we first had children, my husband – who’s a fellow academic – and I decided that although our careers were very important to both of us, we also wanted to ensure that one of us was caring for our children as much of the time as possible. I feel really fortunate that our university and funding agencies’ willingness to be flexible with parental leave leave and part-time work for both of us has meant these aren’t mutually exclusive goals.
As many professional women who have championed the cause of gender equality in the workplace have said – including Annabelle Crabb, Cheryl Sandberg, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, to name just a few – a critical part of the equation for women continuing their careers while raising families is more equal roles for men and women in caregiver roles. And this often means men taking a step back from work, just as women have traditionally done. Now, after having lived it, I believe 100% that supporting men in doing so is just as important as supporting women.
These policies have collectively had a hugely positive impact on:
- our children’s lives, by having both parents very present with them,
- my and my husband’s overall happiness, by decreasing the stress associated with achieving work-life balance…allowing us to be more creative and productive in our work,
- and, importantly, my professional development, by allowing me to continue to pursue my career while being actively engaged in raising our young children.
Sadly, this is still quite exceptional. When I tell friends and colleagues in other institutions, professions, and countries about how I’ve been able to work over the past 8 years while raising small children – i.e., various levels of part-time, interspersed with multiple bouts of parental leave, with a husband who’s also taken parental leave when I went back to work – they’re often incredulous. This quote from Cheryl Sandberg’s excellent book, Lean In, sums it up all too well for many of us:
Today, despite all the gains we have made, neither men nor women have real choice. Until women have supportive employers and colleagues as well as partners who share family responsibilities, they don’t have real choice. And until men are fully respected for contributing insider the home, they don’t have real choice either. Equal opportunity is not equal unless everyone receives the encouragement that makes seizing those opportunities possible. Only then can both men and women achieve their full potential.
Of course, not everyone wants children, but during the courses of our lives many of us will face some sort of carer’s responsibility, for example, caring for elderly parents, or even ourselves…so this is not just an issue that’s relevant for parents of young children. It will matter to just about everybody at some point.
In the future, I hope that more and more people – and in particular, my own children – will have the kind of support that we’ve had that allows them to both be present with their own family while pursuing their career passion, rather than having to make a choice between the two. Everyone – both institutions and employees alike – will be better off this way.
This week I had the pleasure of being part of a small contingent from the Australian Coral Reef Society to brief The Honourable Mark Butler, the Parliamentary Shadow Minister for the Environment, Climate Change and Water on the threats facing Australian coral reefs and possible policy-based solutions. It was a rare and welcome opportunity to do my part to help bridge the science-policy gap! Mr. Butler was well-informed and interested in what we had to say, asking great questions and likewise helping us to understand the political considerations surrounding coral reef conservation policy. Hopefully this will be the start of an ongoing dialogue between the Shadow Minister’s office and our scientific society.
UPDATE: Now, two weeks later, the Labour Party has announced that it will pledge $500m over five years to support scientific monitoring and science-based management of the Great Barrier Reef. Labour leader Bill Shorten said the GBR is now one of party’s ‘highest priorities’. Hopefully we had some role in helping make that the case!
Due largely to the record-breaking high temperatures we’ve had lately, large sections of the northern Great Barrier Reef have begun bleaching (i.e., expelling the symbiotic algae that live within coral tissue and serve as a life-support system for corals). This is very bad news. In past bleaching events like this, some coral reefs never recover and become seaweed-dominated reefs lacking coral. Most experts agree that the root causes of the high temperatures (and the resulting coral bleaching events) include the burning of fossil fuels and release of other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (e.g., through beef production)…which are both ultimately driven by human overpopulation and overconsumption.
Below are some recent photos taken by coral reef scientists Wen-Sung Chung and Justin Marshall (University of Queensland) from Lizard Island on Australia’s northern Great Barrier Reef. They tell a sad, rapidly-unfolding story of desperate corals.
I’ve just returned from the 2016 Gordon Conference on “New Frontiers in Understanding Predator-Prey Interactions in a Human-Altered World” in Ventura, California. It was an excellent meeting! This is the second meeting in this series (the first was in 2014) and it will be happening every other year into the future. This is one of my favourite meetings – it’s nice and small (with a cap of 200 participants), there’s plenty of time to have meaningful discussions with new and existing colleagues, and there’s a general sense of integration across disciplines that’s not often found at more system- or discipline-specific meetings. I presented our work on how human activities change marine ecosystems by altering predation risk (see poster above) and got some great feedback. Looking forward to the next meeting in 2018!
Dr. Aaron Harmer has been snagged by the Institute of Natural and Mathematical Sciences at Massey University in New Zealand…we’re sad to see him go, but know he’s got lots of lizard-catching to do over there! We’ll miss you, Aaron!
This past week has been an inspiring one with thousands of conservation-minded scientists and conservation practitioners descending upon Sydney for the once-every-decade World Parks Congress. Meeting Sylvia Earle was a highlight (thanks, Lance Morgan!), but seeing so much green enthusiasm and action from around the world was equally great! Looking forward to the next one…
Elizabeth has been invited to attend World Wildlife Fund’s Next Generation Event with WWF President Yolanda Kakabadse as part of the upcoming IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney. The event is being held for 15 young, emerging conservation leaders to meet and discuss conservation issues with Yolanda.