The Frontline

Wisdom and advice from a few of the kickass female academics at MQ


Words || Katelyn Free

This women’s issue Grapeshot had the privilege of getting to know some of the intelligent, passionate women doing great things at Macquarie. You may know them, you may not. They may have failed you in MECO310 or given you a HD in LAWS398. But either way, they have a wealth of experience and wisdom between them. So without further adieu, let’s get to know these impressive women.

Zara Bending – Law

What is your field of work?

My areas of expertise are environmental, criminal, and medical law with inputs from criminology, sociology, conservation science, and historiography. My current research revolves around the illegal trade in wildlife (IWT).

How long have you been doing what you do? 

I’ve been involved in conservation research and policy (including IWT) for about a decade!

How long have you been working at Macquarie?

I’ve maintained my connection to Macquarie since my undergraduate days (2007- present), started publishing in 2011 and have worked in teaching programs since 2012.

Which units are you involved with?

I’ve taught across undergraduate and postgraduate offerings, including Foundations of Law, Criminal Law, Civil & Criminal Procedure, Climate Change Law, Health Law & Bioethics, Introduction to Criminology, Policing and Crime…

What are some of the key achievements of your career?

My role as a teacher is something I hold near and dear to my heart, so receiving teaching awards at MQ (Faculty of Arts and Vice Chancellor’s Teaching Awards) and SIBT (back to back Teaching Excellence certificates) comes to mind. In 2018, I was a semi-finalist in the NSW/ACT Young Achiever Awards in the category ‘Women Creating Change’ where they recognised my mentorship of girls and young women which was very special. 

In the research arena, I was honoured to be part of the global team that delivered the first ‘horizon scan’ into the Illegal Wildlife Trade and have made multiple submissions to Parliamentary Inquiries including two expert appearances before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement Inquiry into trade in elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn. This year, I did my first stint as an expert upon request by the Crown in an Australian wildlife trafficking matter and was cited in the judgment.

Last, but not least, my relationship with the Jane Goodall Institute Australia is something I cherish, not only because of my connection to Dr Goodall, but with the team in Australia and around the world who are inspiring actions that connect people with animals and our shared environment every day. I’m proud to co-lead our ‘Roots & Shoots’ volunteer stream at the Centre for Environmental Law with another incredible woman, Dr Shireen Daft, including supporting the design and launch of JGI’s global campaign to end wildlife trafficking, ForeverWild

What did you do to work towards these achievements?

Formal education is important, but my rule since my 20s was to work hard and ensure that I was having a positive impact where I could. I wasn’t going to wait until the ink was dry on my testamur to get out there. Specifically, I always have at least one service role or community project parallel to my education/professional responsibilities. When you’re in the trenches with your tribe as an intern, volunteer, committee member, board director etc., you forge strong relationships and grow your networks. Those are the people who will lift you up, collaborate, and celebrate your successes as their own.

How has your experience as an academic/professional been shaped by your identity has a woman?

*sips tea* I could go all night but let me limit my response to two points: 

Firstly, while men and women can experience doubt and anxiety in their work, ‘imposter syndrome’ is rife for women in academia and beyond. We empirically observe that men overestimate their abilities and performance whereas women underestimate both. I’ll never forget reading the study that showed that men apply for jobs or promotions when they meet 60% of required criteria whereas women tend to apply only once they’ve satisfied them 100%.  It made me reflect on how many opportunities I had let go by the wayside because I didn’t believe I was good enough. Worse still, had this influenced the advice I had given others?

Secondly, despite a groundswell of women from diverse backgrounds entering both fields I’m most known for (law and conservation) you can’t escape the classic ‘isms’ (sexism, racism, ageism, elitism, classism, and other baseless garbage that has broken the world). Unfortunately, I’ve learned that some people respond to these ‘isms’ by taking on the attributes of their oppressors and, in doing so, treat women poorly to jockey for position. Think ‘Mean Girls’ except with less sleep, more conference papers and even more side-eye.

How have these experiences shaped me? They’ve taught me that as women we will face threshold moments when we can either choose to be cruel or kind to ourselves and each other. Always choose kind. Smashing the patriarchy begins with embracing your own excellence and being compassionate. Who woulda thunk it?

What advice would you give to female students?

Authenticity is your superpower, but only you can unlock it. It sounds corny, but putting time and energy into being something or someone you’re not isn’t only exhausting, it will inevitably erode your love of what you chose to pursue in the first place. Studying is just as much about personal than professional growth, so immerse yourself in it and excel at being you (as they say, you’ll have no competition).

Dr Kate Rossmanith – Media

What is your field of work?

I have a background in Performance Studies, a discipline between theatre and anthropology, and completed a PhD in Performance Studies in 2004. This led me to becoming interested in relationships between performance, emotion and the law. 

A decade ago, I began researching criminal law. Since then I have studied how judges assess offenders’ remorse in the courtroom, and how offenders enact contrition. I have observed more than one hundred hearings and sat in on private meetings of the NSW State Parole Authority. I have interviewed judges, lawyers, parole board members, offenders and victims. Nowadays, I continue to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in the criminal justice system. I am basically a legal anthropologist.

I am also a creative nonfiction writer. In 2006 I had the honour of being selected to take part in masterclasses with award-winning writer Drusilla Modjeska. She mentored five of us, all recent PhD graduates. She taught us how to develop creative nonfiction writing from our scholarly research. It was a life-changing year for me. I began writing creative nonfiction for The Monthly.

How long have you been working at Macquarie?

In 2008, I joined Macquarie University in the then Cultural Studies department.  

Which units are you involved with?

I teach literary journalism and creative nonfiction writing: MECO211 Music & Arts Journalism, MECO310 Telling True Stories and MECO843 Writing the Real. I also deliver guest lectures in other units.

What are some of the key achievements of your career?

A key achievement of my career has been the publication of my first book: Small Wrongs: How we really say sorry in love, life and law (Hardie Grant Books, 2018). It is about remorse in the justice system and remorse in our everyday personal lives, and is a work of creative nonfiction writing. 

In it, I weave together fieldwork research, philosophy and life writing. The book was the culmination of seven years of research and writing. I am proud to have completed it; I am also proud of the impact it is having, both in the field of criminal justice and in the field of creative nonfiction writing. It is influencing the working practices of judges and lawyers in Australia and overseas, it is educating the public about remorse in the law (for example, I was lucky enough to appear on ABC Conversations with Richard Fidler), and it has also been nominated for literary awards nationally and internationally.

What did you do to work towards these achievements?

In 2006, when I took those masterclasses with Drusilla Modjeska, I learnt what creative non-fiction could do from a research and writing perspective. It became a form of writing I was passionate about. I wanted to become better and better at it. It meant developing a new skill. And, while I began publishing essays and articles in this form, it wasn’t until I wrote Small Wrongs that I had to really grapple with this sort of writing. 

The writing process for Small Wrongs was arduous. It was like pulling teeth, a lot of the time. I wrote several hundred thousand words and then re-drafted and re-drafted, editing the manuscript down. It felt as if I would never, ever finish it. Finally, in 2016, after having been writing for three years, I reached a point where I had a 90,000-word manuscript. 

I was pleased with it. My literary agent was pleased with it. We showed it to a major publisher. The guy really liked it, but he said it needed work. He told me ‘There is a 60,000-word book in this 90,000-word manuscript’. I almost died. I went home from the meeting and cried because I knew he was right. Over the next six months I cut 40,000 words and wrote 20,000 new ones. In 2018 my book was published. For me this was a lesson in never giving up. It was also a lesson in striving to make your work, the best work it can possibly be, even if the journey feels heartbreaking. 

How has your experience as an academic/professional been shaped by your identity has a woman? 

Something I reflect on these days concerns academic leadership. I am the Research Director of my department of 50 academics. I am also chair of a faculty committee. As an academic, when you reach a certain point in your career, you might take on these kinds of positions. Whether or not you are in formal positions such as these, you are still required to demonstrate academic leadership (this can come in all sorts of ways) and you must narrate this leadership to your manager. 

I have found that, when it comes to reporting on our academic leadership practice, women tend to use different verbs to men. For instance, a woman who organises a national research symposium might say she ‘liaised’ or she ‘facilitated’. Whereas a man organising such an event might say he ‘led’ and ‘directed’ it. Women tend to frame their work as ‘liaising, facilitating, supporting’ whereas men learn early to use terms such as ‘leading, directing, managing’. These days I think very carefully about the verbs I use to describe the work I do. 

What advice would you give to female students?

Find out what it is you love doing – what makes your heart sing – and then work out who will pay you to do it. 

Have boundless courage. 

Have boundless patience.

Find female mentors in your chosen line of work who will advise you on how to build your career. 

Whenever you feel frustrated by gender inequality, remember that we are all part of the larger feminist project. Our role is to improve things for the next generation. 

Dr Heather Handley – Science

What is your field of work?

I’m a volcano scientist and use the chemistry of volcanic rocks and their crystals to understand how volcanoes work. I’ve also applied my geochemical knowledge to investigate the timescales of sediment transport (landscape evolution) and the magnitudes and sources of environmental contamination. 

My key interest at present is in using the chemical histories stored in volcanic crystals to unravel magma plumbing systems and magma transport speeds within ‘active’ volcanic regions in Australia and New Zealand. I’m also interested in understanding perceptions of volcanic hazards and risk and so I’m currently working with social scientists on this aspect.

How long have you been doing what you do? 

I’ve been working on volcanoes since 2001 and have been able to travel to and work on some incredible active volcanoes around the world. 

How long have you been working at Macquarie?

I started at Macquarie in 2007 as a postdoctoral researcher on a one year contract. I spent time in Europe between 2008-2009 and came back to Macquarie as a researcher in 2009. In 2012 I was awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship as a Senior Lecturer and in 2018 became Associate Professor and continuing staff member.

What units are you involved with?

It varies from year to year but this year I’ve taught within several undergraduate first, second and third year units: Earth Dynamics (GEOS125), Volcanoes and Igneous Processes (GEOS207), Magmas, Ores and Geochemistry (GEOS343), and I’m helping to develop new content on volcanoes for the Introduction to Field Geology unit (GEOS226). This year I’ve also supervised three PACE students and a student project within the Advanced Geoscience unit (GEOS881). I’m convening the GEOS373 unit in semester three, Active Geosystems, which is a 10 day field trip to New Zealand in January 2020.

What are some of the key achievements of your career?

Some of the highlights of my career to date include the Australian Research Council Future Fellowship and the 2014 NSW AIPS Tall Poppy Award in recognition of excellence in research and science communication. However, I think the achievements I’m most proud of are within the diversity and inclusion in geosciences and women in STEM space. 

For example, last year I co-founded the Women in Earth and Environmental Sciences Australiasia (WOMEESA) network of which I am President. WOMEESA aims to create a unified network of women working in industry, government and academia. We’ve gained over 400 members so far in 10 countries and one of our most recent initiatives is the creation of a database of women working in these fields to increase their visibility and opportunities.

How has your experience as an academic/professional been shaped by your identity has a woman?

One of the most significant challenges I’ve encountered as a woman in science was when wanting to start a family just over 5 years ago. 

My lab work with hazardous and radioactive chemicals meant that I needed to stay out of the labs prior to and during pregnancy and breastfeeding, which was a much longer period of reduced research productivity than the formal time that is usually recognised – that of the actual parental leave period taken.

It was also extremely challenging in an academic role to actually be on leave for extended periods of time. I found myself still trying to keep up with students, research and funding deadlines, meaning I had very little and broken sleep for a period of 4 years, while on full- and part-time leave for my two children, which definitely took its toll on my health and well being at the time.

What advice would you give to female students?

Macquarie University and Australia in general are making great strides in addressing gender inequity and equality but there is still much to be done in terms of making women role models more visible and reducing some of the barriers for women to progress their careers in STEM subjects. 

My advice to female students would be to find mentors and champions that motivate and empower you to follow your career aspirations and to seek out and join relevant supportive societies and associations in your field to expand your networks. Also be aware of the university or professional event codes of conduct that detail appropriate and inappropriate behaviour and report (for yourself or others) any discrimination, bias and harassment, and keep an eye out for women-centred events ran by your department, faculty and the university.