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To celebrate International Women’s Day, we sat down with some of our amazing UNSW Canberra alumni, staff and students and asked them to answer your #WomenLead questions.
Dr Bianca Capra is an aerospace engineer and Senior Lecturer at UNSW Canberra. Bianca is passionate about promoting, enhancing and supporting gender equity in STEM and is the Young Women in Engineering (YoWIE) Co-Chair.
Bianca shares her advice on supporting other women, tackling the men’s club mentality, and finding a great mentor.
Can you share some advice for climbing the ladder in a male-dominated field?
I find the analogy of career success with a ladder troubling. A ladder is designed to only ever safely and firmly hold one person. The implication of course being there can only ever be one person, in isolation, ascending to the top at any one time. I completely reject this concept. Success in any area be that work, or life, takes a team. Generating this success can be very difficult and challenging for all women and minority groups in traditionally male-dominated fields like engineering and especially engineering in academia. My biggest piece of advice for those in the early stages of their career is to find mentors, supporters and establish your personal board of directors. Seek regular advice and feedback from these trusted people. Learn from their experience and reflect on what they are telling you. Don’t be afraid to ask for constructive feedback from them. If you have selected them right, they will help you reach and exceed your career ambitions. My other key advice is that you lift up all the others with you, which can be done at any career stage. Working together to ensure we all succeed is, in my opinion, the foundation to ensure all our career success. Ditch the ladder.
As a young woman in academia, do you ever feel dismissed or not taken seriously? How do you handle this?
I often feel dismissed and not taken seriously. However, this is subsiding for me with age and experience. It does, regrettably, still happen. In my career I have been talked over, ignored, mocked, tagged with the derogatory ‘you only got the job because your female’, undermined, patronised and had, frankly, revolting comments made to me about my success. So how have I handled this. Well, truthfully, with difficultly. In my early career I never called these types of behaviours out – it's hard, and the emotional load is heavy. Now, I find humour that reflects the issue to the other person can help. I have found it is a successful and non-confrontational way to get them to reflect on their behaviour. Humour, however, is not for everyone or for all situations. I also speak with a mentor or trusted colleague when this happens to get their perspective, honest feedback and advice and importantly, ally-ship. I strongly believe in reflective practice, so I will reflect on the situation and unpack the behaviour and my response. I do this for me and my personal growth, as it helps frame and develop future responses. And lastly, I find my work walking/running buddies and go out and talk with them, this helps significantly.
Can you share some of your habits that help you to promote yourself at work?
There is great power in being authentic and passionate.
It has always felt more comfortable for me to highlight and promote others rather than myself, and this is one habit I do regularly. Sometimes this promotion is highly public and visible, and sometimes it’s more discrete and anonymous. I love supporting others, and especially all women and minorities. First and foremost, they deserve it and have been overlooked for too long. Secondly, by lifting others up, we will get a more rewarding, rich and cultural workplace where all are promoted and valued.
Regarding myself, I don’t actively seek out self-promotion at work. However, I do accept opportunities to sit on hiring panels, committees, or promote my research and work. I take ‘risks’ by nominating for positions on boards and committees where I know I can contribute in making change. In everything I do, I always bring my authentic self and openly wear more core values. I may not always get it right, but these traits do not go unnoticed, and I think it has helped to raise my profile organically.
Promote others, take risks and accept opportunities.
My experience as a female academic is that universities still operate like a men’s club and that much of the decision making and patronage is not done transparently. How do you deal with this culture where only a few women are admitted to the club while the majority are told to wait or are excluded from where the power to make decisions lies?
I am really saddened to hear that this behaviour and practice of admitting a few, select women into the ‘club’ and excluding others continues. It has to stop. I acknowledge that many institutions still operate on a ‘mens’ or ‘boys’ club approach and I would extend this to some of the academic research societies we often belong to. I have seen it in action first-hand, so I committed myself to making change. It took me until my mid 30s to embrace the role of the ‘troublemaker’ pointing out uncomfortable truths and how to change. I am no longer afraid of how I will be perceived when I raise these issues and will readily address the issues. Anybody can be this voice, and I encourage all to stand up in inequities.
I decided to directly tackle this culture by nominating myself to university committees, staff hiring panels, and technical society committees. You need to be in the positions of influencing decision makers to make change. Dismantling the ‘club’ from within has been one of the most effective mechanisms I have found. In these spaces, I have introduced gender policies, policies to help women reengage with research societies, and influenced groups to work harder and balance all genders in committees/councils. Once in these positions, I consult widely with the groups I am hoping to create change for and bring a diverse voice to the solutions/policies proposed and encourage, support, and advocate for more talented and diverse voices to join me.
How do you juggle full time work, extra-curricular activities and family life? You seem to be able to do it all and I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
Looks can be deceptive! Truthfully, I am exhausted a lot of the time, but I really love what I do and I am passionate about making change. It’s very hard, particularly with caring responsibilities and no family support. There are days where I do feel like I’m hopelessly failing in one or more areas. My biggest piece of advice is to stop comparing yourself against others. It’s not productive, helpful or healthy. We are all different and we all have different levels of support and responsibility. We also all have different views of what success is. The quote ‘comparison is the thief of joy’ has been really resonating with me lately. Once I stopped comparing myself to others and let go of the guilt I was putting on myself, I found more joy and a healthier relationship with my work and life commitments. Practically, on the day to day, I strictly manage my time and schedule absolutely everything in the shared calendar with my partner. I also negotiated flexible working conditions, well before COVID to suit my personal caring commitments and work / life needs and effectively work shifts that suit me. I was very fortunate to have a supportive boss who worked with me to find workable solutions, and I actively encourage others to seek out arrangements that suit them. Lastly, I ask for help.
What is it that I can do right here and now as a straight, white male to make a difference and to better support and promote female leadership?
We need more people like you to listen, learn, and champion change. My advice is don’t be a bystander. Call out bad behaviour and bias (conscious or not) when you see it. Don’t leave the heavy lifting to the women and minorities. Mentor a junior staff member, help connect them with networks and opportunities that will help develop their skills. If you are a senior leader – listen to the women and minorities in your team. Learn what the real barriers are for them. Create the environment where these barriers are removed. Commit to increasing all diversity. Reflect on your career – can you honestly say that you would be where you are if you were female? A minority? At the intersection of both? Look at the structures that supported you – it is possible these are the ones that need to be dismantled.
If you haven’t already, I also highly recommend you start reading some ‘women focused’ books on barriers to career progression. I highly recommend Stop Fixing Women by Catherine Fox and The Wife Drought by Annabel Crabb. They provide a wonderful description of the challenges facing women in the Australian context.
What’s the best piece of leadership advice you’ve ever been given?
Speak last. Be authentic. Admit mistakes and learn. I was once told a leader is the person at the back of the team. From this position they can see everything before them, the interactions of team members and can provide support as needed. A great leader will have empowered a team to work together to achieve their goals. Another great piece of advice I use is that a leader should always speak last. This not only gives others a voice it allows them to really listen and learn in order to formulate an inclusive, diverse and equitable outcome. Two other examples of good leaders include people who are genuinely authentic and will admit to mistakes when made. A true leader never deflects or blames if something has gone wrong. They own it. They learn from it. They grow from it.
How do you deal with perceptions that you only got to where you are because you are a woman?
This attitude, is a reflection of systems where those who have traditionally had power, feel they are no longer in control. Unfortunately, it remains insidious to women in engineering, at least in the academic space, and particularly those that remain extremely male dominated. I have heard many different formulations on this theme, including ‘we cannot sacrifice quality for gender equity’. These perceptions are wrong, offensive and symptoms of an intolerant system. They cause hurt and damage; they hurt the women, and they damage institutional reputation. Unfortunately, I expect to come up against this attitude. If I can, I simply ignore it, as it’s not true and not worth engaging with – but this is tough. I may choose to use reflective questioning to deflect the attitude back, for example by asking “I’m not too sure why you think my gender is why I got this highly competitive job and achieved [insert your achievement]. Could you please explain it to me?” But the biggest way I handle this is to promote and support all women I work with and continue to help advocate for the hiring of more women – all highly capable, exceptional, and brilliant engineers.
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