As communities around the world prepare for International Women’s Day, we celebrate the contributions of ten female researchers at the University of Sydney who are transforming the lives of women and men.
International Women’s Day is celebrated annually across the world on 8 March, providing an opportunity for communities to recognise the achievements and leadership of women.
The University of Sydney is passionately committed to advancing gender equity, promoting women in leadership and furthering women’s education.
Whether through world-leading research that influences public policy or leadership in a field historically male-dominated, there are many women at the University of Sydney who are paving the way for future generations.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, we reflect on the contributions of ten women at the University of Sydney who are making a difference in their field.
Starting her academic career in 1983, Marian Baird’s appointment to professorial status in 2009 made her the first female professor in industrial relations at the University of Sydney.
Professor Baird’s research focuses on the way women combine their care and work responsibilities and methods to ensure the contributions of women are valued appropriately.
“I am a strong believer in doing research for the social good and in informing policy change by undertaking rigorous and relevant research that can answer the social and business questions of the day,” Professor Baird said.
Recognising the need for an increased research focus on women’s working lives, she established the Women and Work Research Group at the University, which she continues to serve as co-director with colleague Associate Professor Rae Cooper.
“The world of gender and work is critical to understanding and progressing society. Every country in the world is grappling with changing social dynamics."
She has influenced public policy debates including proposed changes to paid parental leave and been instrumental in changes to gender equity in organisations.
Professor Zdenka Kuncic is ahead of the curve when it comes to multidisciplinary research. Her work spans a broad range of areas, including biomedical imaging physics, medical and biological physics, bio-nanoscience and nanotechnology in medicine.
“STEMM (science technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) is exciting because it’s about shaping the future,” Professor Kuncic said. “I want to contribute to scientific discoveries and breakthroughs that lead to new technologies and open up new possibilities for the future."
Having researched at the University’s School of Physics since 2005, Professor Kuncic said women looking to begin a career in STEMM should consider their career as an investment.
“As with any investment, you need to diversify your portfolio and broaden your horizon. This is ultimately more rewarding."
A world-leading figure of her generation, Professor Liza Lim joined the University of Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music to mentor and grow the reputation of women composers in Australia.
I would particularly like to see more women being encouraged to do composition and to get involved in all aspects of music technology.
Nationally women composers comprise just 26 percent of composers registered with the Australian Music Centre; her appointment aims to redress this gender imbalance.
“There is a quite serious underrepresentation at the professional level in these areas of music-making. Positive action in other areas of the arts, particularly visual arts, provides some models, but there's a lot to do in terms of reclaiming history and making investments of resources.”
Associate Professor Renae Ryan from Sydney Medical School leads a research team that investigates biochemical and molecular techniques to treat a range of diseases such as chronic pain and cancer. Associate Professor Ryan is also the newly appointed Academic Director of SAGE (Science in Australia Gender Equity).
In this latter role, Associate Professor Ryan drives the SAGE initiative, a program which promotes gender equity and diversity in STEMM.
Recognising that women’s contributions, career satisfaction and feelings of belonging are daily challenges faced by women in the workplace, Associate Professor Ryan said, “Everyone has the power to be an advocate for diversity and inclusion, and improving gender equality is everyone’s responsibility. We all need to speak up, support our colleagues, and work to ensure everyone feels included and able to fully contribute.”
Driving Dr Susan Heward-Belle is her desire to improve the lives of marginalised people, including women and children who experience domestic and family violence.
A researcher and lecturer in the Social Work and Policy Studies Program in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, Dr Heward-Belle is leading the PATRICIA project investigating how to improve services for women and children who experience domestic and family violence.
“In this ‘post-truth’ era, what drives me is the belief that research and teaching can counteract ignorance and prejudice,” said Dr Heward-Belle.
"I engage in qualitative research because I believe in its transformative potential. Hearing and engaging with another person’s lived experience can help us better understand each other."
Dr Jane Gavan has worked as an academic with teaching and research focused on design, business and visual art for 18 years. A senior lecturer in sculpture at the Sydney College of the Arts, Dr Gavan is motivated in knowing that her work with organisations and communities develops new forms of artistic practice.
“When I worked in the fluorescent pigment factory in Belgium or the textile factory in Vietnam I noticed that my skill base allowed for less demanding mastery of other materials and processes,” Dr Gavan said.
“I would encourage women to be mindful of the range of social situations for contemporary art practice, and seek out opportunities within a local and a global context."
Success in life is not necessarily determined by brainpower alone but by socioeconomic skills too, according to research by Associate Professor Stefanie Schurer.
“I am fascinated by people who are able to defy the odds of their disadvantaged backgrounds or who break vicious cycles of damaging behaviours,” she said.
Associate Professor Schurer’s research in the School of Economics focuses on the economics of human development.
“I now look at the role that parenting behaviours and public policy play in skill formation. This question is of paramount importance to an economist because skills are the driving factors of human development and therefore also of economic development, innovation and growth.”
“Seeing what other women in STEMM have achieved first-hand is important,” Professor Zreiqat from the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies said.
Through her biomedical engineering research, she has developed a unique ceramic material that acts as a scaffold for the body to use to regenerate new bone and which gradually degrades as it is replaced by natural bone. This could assist the millions of people around the world who suffer bone loss and require the regeneration of new bone.
A lawyer and lecturer in health law and ethics, Dr Sascha Callaghan is a lead researcher in the Sydney Neuroscience Network on intersections between neuroscience, law and ethics, and is currently researching consent issues and harms in childbirth.
She is driven by deep questions about what it means for us humans to feel, think and act, and how the law makes us responsible for our actions. Her research interest is in brain sciences and law, as well as law and reproduction and medical treatment in pregnancy.
“There’s a kind of modesty and reticence that many young women indulge in, sometimes rather too much,” Dr Callaghan said.
“It’s good to be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses, but it’s also important to back yourself. Work on your professional confidence, and have a strong story to tell about your skills.”
Her research contributes to one of the major issues confronting the built environment – its ability to foster healthy living.
“Mentoring and supporting women through the various stages of promotion is essential; particularly for women with children, who are at a disadvantage when it comes to career building,” said Dr Loke.
"We should aspire to create an inclusive culture of best practice that can influence global thinking and behaviour."
The University of Sydney now has 31 percent female professors, up from 28 percent, just over a year into a formal program designed to increase the number of women in senior positions.
Work and care policy needs to reflect research evidence, writes Dr Elizabeth Hill, co-convenor of the Australian Work and Family Policy Roundtable.