Dr Sarah Morgan
For the girls wanting a career in science, or the young women wanting to get out: my story.
My journey through science as a woman has been a bit of a meander. As a kid I was the one playing down the back of the garden mixing up magic potions (mud, leaves, flower buds…), and then as I got older, reading almost non-stop. Sci-fi and fantasy books, of course. One summer I re-read the LOTR trilogy over and over again to the despair of my mother (and my eternal embarrassment, as we bumped into a teacher in town and she told her). This is probably an important distinction – dragons, magic potions, and adventure – not just experiments for the pleasure of knowing the ‘what’ of something: I also wanted to imagine the why.
I was your classic over-achieving nerd all through school. At primary level I was a librarian’s assistant then in high school I studied maths, English and all three ‘sciences’. I was, of course, Academic Prefect and eventually dux, which took a PhD to make people forget about. I used to tidy up the school labs and clean the safety glasses collection for fun. None of this is a good thing – I had horrible social anxiety and very few friends. I didn’t discover feminism for myself until my honours year at uni (and not Intersectionality until post-PhD), when I sat as Science Rep on the board of executives for the Otago University Students Association (OUSA). This was the year I started to grow up and become a “whole” human. I started caring less about what other people thought of me, and started doing what I wanted (it was a baby step on a long journey). I cut my first Mohawk, flatted in mixed company (gasp!) and completed a dissertation in genetics and microbiology. The OUSA team enlightened me to the reality of gender imbalance in pay and promotion, and the rife misogyny still present in our society. My small-private-girls-school-raised self was horrified, and awakened. Fight the power, and take back the night, indeed.
At university I studied a range of subjects during undergrad, including management, philosophy and a minor in psychology. I majored in Genetics for Honours and PhD, and was in the ‘school’ system for 21 years. Twenty two years now, as I went back last year for a teaching degree: which leaves five years of pre-school, and only six years of being in the work force as an “adult”. My KiwiSaver has suffered as much as you can imagine.
It took about six months after my PhD to decide that I didn’t want a job as a researcher, and I think I cried for about a week solid. I was 100 per cent indoctrinated into the lofty ivory towers mindset, and my suspecting happiness lay outside of academia was the worst failure I could imagine at that time: Quitters Guilt 101. It took me realising that I enjoyed all of the extra-curricular aspects of my PhD more than the research science itself to come to this conclusion, and kick off the “alternate careers” investigation (FWIW a career in research science is actually the “alternate career”, when statistically so many women leave). I dabbled in science writing (terribly), design (much better), and eventually fell into a postdoc (oh the irony) working between high school science teaching and research scientists. However, all of the toxic elements of academia remained, and I left in my second year for a job in project management. Despite bearing some horrible postdoc-induced mental scars, I actually took to the job like a duck to water. All of my organisation skills, science background and genuine interest and care for people were suddenly priceless.
While my job descriptor is ‘project manager’ I think a more honest one would be ‘Problem Solving Organiser’, but maybe that’s what management is in general. I’m much more hands-on, on the ground out in the community and I love it. I’m also at a higher conceptual level with regards to management of projects and that really appeals to my uber-organised, in-control personality type. I work with a really great team of people, all focused on systems change for a better, more equitable and accessible, education across Auckland. I manage the STEM portfolio of projects at COMET Auckland, which includes SouthSci (an initiative under Curious Minds, from the NZ Government) and the fledgling STEM Alliance Aotearoa (formally the Auckland STEM Alliance). And I love it.
Diversity is the key to successful adulthood. Some of my favourite people in science came from arts backgrounds, and I’ve been in situations where my science background has been beneficial to conversations as varied from education to public policy.
The science/STEM subjects are important to every single person alive. How can society progress positively without an increase in knowledge and understanding driving it? Science literacy in New Zealand is pretty bad, with the classic examples of vaccination and water fluoridation debates shining an unpleasant light on our ignorance. For the record, since I know it’s a popular soapbox at the moment – I am, of course, pro humanities and the wisdom therein. There can be no STEM without ‘A’, and all of this fighting over acronyms and working in silos sucks. It sucks for our working STEM professionals, it sucks for our teachers, and it sucks for the next generation of excellent humans we’re raising in this society. Transdisciplinary learning is the way of the future, stop building walls when we desperately need bridges.
I’m a firm believer in the sciences teaching you a way to live in the world, rather than a way to a specific career. The ability to question your environment and logically find your way to an answer is essential in our current society. We are bombarded with information, being able to find the facts you want, and filter the truth out of the rest, stops you from being hoodwinked in so many areas (medicine, nutrition, environmental change and protection, child rearing, world economy…).
People often trot out the old “we need more women in STEM” refrain, and I’m going to be a bit picky and say it’s important to have equity in access and attainment across all subjects and employment industries for all demographics – ethnicity and gender being the top two in the visible ‘suffering’ stakes. This comes back to the diversity point – better answers and outcomes come from diverse teams of people, who are able to consider more and wider angles to a problem/question/task.
The issues currently are both male-dominated careers being unattractive to women/ethnic minorities/gender+sexuality nonbinaries, and careers/workplaces being either overtly or subversively hostile to women/ethnic minorities/gender+sexuality nonbinaries. This is not an issue that can be solved overnight, most people find it very hard to overcome an entire childhood of conditioning, which is what we still see – in my parents’ generation, women were still predominantly nurses or teachers or secretaries or stay-at-home mothers, and children were raised to this norm.
I used to think during my uni days that it was OK, our generation where women outnumbered men studying at uni, and ethnic diversity was increasing, would move up to fill the ranks of authority and even out the stats. However, this hasn’t happened: old white men have been dying off since the beginning of time, something else needs to change to improve the diversity balance in positions of management and authority in our society.
Everyone should be able to live, study and work in whatever area they want (including traditional roles), and have the same chance at advancement and happiness as their peers.
Fight the power. Smash glass ceilings and build bridges for those coming up behind you. Be the best human you can be.