It’s easy to write off women’s achievements as a matter of luck, but as conservationist Professor Kerrie Wilson reflects, you make your own luck through hard work, sacrifices and opportunity.

Until a short time ago, when people asked me about my career, I would tell them that I have been lucky. Only recently, I have started to ask myself why I do that, and whether that is an appropriate or accurate response.

I got high grades during school and university, was awarded a university medal, have been awarded two consecutive highly competitive AustraliaResearch Council (ARC) Fellowships, and have secured a fully tenured position and full professorship in my 30s.

There was quite a lot hard work and sacrifices in achieving those things, but not a lot of luck per se.

Graduating from UQ with first class honours in 1999.

Kerrie with UQ Vice Chancellor Professor Peter Høj.

Professor Linda Richards awards Kerrie the Life Sciences Research Award at the Women in Technology awards.

"I was 38 weeks pregnant and my feet were so swollen that I couldn’t wear my shoes to the interview"

I chose to meet my career goals while working in both industry and academic environments, and also having a family. My colleagues and I applied for an ARC Centre of Excellence bid just before I went on my first period of maternity leave and I got tenure when I was 38 weeks pregnant and my feet were so swollen that I couldn’t wear my shoes to the interview.

I was awarded my second ARC Fellowship while (literally) giving birth to my first child. I deliberately chose to return to academia from industry, knowing that it was a more family-friendly environment (the comparative maternity leave and flexible work arrangements is a testament to that).

I took two full years maternity leave and worked part-time for five years to see both of my children into school. As working parents, my partner and I have perfected the art of juggling.

My work-life balance has been a contributing factor to achieve both personal, as well as academic goals in my life to date. Despite common misconceptions, rather than slowing my career, these decisions (to have a family and also move into academia) have rather enhanced the personal satisfaction I obtain from my work, and enrich the quality and efficiency of my professional contributions.

Perhaps I consider myself lucky because I have a passion for the biological sciences, which is a field of science that has the most women participating at higher levels.

Or perhaps I’m lucky because my university employer has (at least in recent years) been very proactive in supporting female academics.

Or perhaps it is because the colleagues that I value the most don’t discriminate based on sex.

Or perhaps, more importantly, I was born into a family where nobody ever suggested that I couldn’t do something because of my gender.

Reflecting on these things I know that it is not only inaccurate to say that I have been lucky, but also highly inappropriate - none of the above contextual factors should boil down to luck. 

All people regardless of gender, race or religion should be able to achieve what they are capable of achieving. Gender equity and equality is a key piece of that puzzle.

Here are my five suggestions for every one in STEM trying to navigate the puzzle themselves, based on my own experiences and observations:

1.    Recognise your biases and do something about them.

2.    Speak up – call out discriminative behaviour and policies. Tell the person that it is inappropriate and report it to your line manager or human resources personnel.

3.    Challenge the status quo and ask - why? For example, when you don’t feel genders are being equitably represented (e.g. at a conference, in a panel, in tutorials, on staff), ask the organiser why they’ve made this decision.

4.    Become informed about women’s issues, gender equality and what governments, universities and businesses could do to achieve cultural change.Write letters. Encourage choice. Encourage flexibility.

5. Be yourself and follow your values (but first, find out what your own values are).

Kerrie winning the Prime Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, 2016.

Kerrie recieving the 2017 Nancy Millis Medal for Women in Science.

Kerrie with colleagues in Borneo.

My career to date feels like a whirlwind of unplanned adventures.

While there have been specific discoveries along the way, one of my greatest achievements has been identifying the common threads between these discoveries, to place each of them in the bigger, interdisciplinary context of how we can make better decisions for the environment.

Being awarded a EurekaAward in 2014, the Prime Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year in 2016, and the Australian Academy of Science Nancy Millis Award in 2017 were significant recent highlights. While there has been little structure to mycareer planning, a consistent theme has been being surrounded by supportive and fun colleagues including Cath Lovelock, Hugh Possingham, Erik Meijaard, NielsStrange, Jonathan Rhodes, Jenny Martin and Karen Hussey, to name just a few.

Being surrounded by great colleagues makes any outcome richer still.

Learn more about  ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions Director Professor Wilson’s work  at her lab website.

Or follow her on Twitter  @kerrie_a_wilson.