STEMM PROFILE: Professor Gretta Pecl, PhD | Marine Ecologist | University of Tasmania | Hobart |TAS

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Dr Gretta Pecl, Director of the Centre for Marine Socioecology and ARC Future Fellow [Image: University of Tasmania]

 “Whilst I am thrilled with increased awareness around gender-equity issues in science, I also worry that younger women may become less interested in science if they perceive it as a struggle and incompatible with family life. We need to also show that it is possible to have a productive career and a happy family life”

I’m a Professor at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at The University of Tasmania (UTAS). I’m a local and started my undergraduate degree at UTAS before transferring to James Cook University in North Queensland for Honours and then a PhD. As a marine ecologist I have worked mostly on life history and population dynamics of commercially fished species. Yet as my career progresses, I’m working more and more on the people-side of the equation. Much of my research is interdisciplinary in nature, and aims to address questions critical to both the ecological understanding of our marine systems and sustainable management of resources. I’m passionate about science communication and actively engaging the public in some aspects of my research.

After my PhD I secured a three year job back at UTAS as a Research Assistant and then an ARC postdoctoral fellowship to study the spawning behaviour, movement and population linkages of calamari… but it included a few spawning episodes of my own and so three years turned into 5 or 6 as I went part-time to look after my two girls. Institutional, mentor and family support over that time was phenomenal and I’m very grateful for that. The following few years were pretty tough with shorter-term projects funded with external grants, and intermittent (although thankfully short) unwanted career breaks. A Fulbright Fellowship in 2010 seemed to be a turning point for me and I was able to secure a series of longer-term contracts after that.

Recently I was successful with an ARC Future Fellowship, exploring the physiological and ecological mechanisms underpinning the large-scale redistribution of species occurring throughout our marine systems. I’m also the Editor-in-Chief of the international journal Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, and have been a Deputy Associate Dean of Research at IMAS, since the start of 2014. My focus has shifted to understanding impacts of climate change, and in working with marine industries and communities in helping to develop practical ways to adapt to changes in marine systems. The waters off the east coast of Tasmania region are experiencing a high rate of ocean warming, and consequently, many species and population responses to this. I extended this work to the warming waters of Alaska with a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (based in Juneau), researching the impacts of climate change on red king crab (a.k.a. “The World’s Deadliest Catch’ TV show!).

Now I’m one of a team of scientists developing the Global Marine Hotspots Network which aims to connect researchers, policymakers and stakeholders from across fast-warming marine regions of the world. As the years go by I’m getting less interested in research that would be traditionally viewed as ‘important’ in our field and more committed to work I think will be significant in the longer-run.

What has been the biggest barrier you have faced in your career and how did you overcome it?

Definitely juggling multiple short-term contracts with part-time work and young children! On the research side of this equation, I purposely sought a cohort of high quality PhD students right at the time I was going part-time. I knew I would provide quality supervision for them regardless of whether or not I was in paid employment, so I did it anyway despite my employment uncertainty. At the time this was interest driven, I saw this as a way to remain engaged in research even if I couldn’t be full-time or potentially get paid. In retrospect I think this strategy saved me as the students were so productive, and therefore, so was I. On the personal side, my husband is awesome and has been as invested in our kids upbringing as I have, and we both have extended family around us that help enormously too. I totally take my hat off to academics that have had kids without extended family around them!  

Why did you study science?

I have always been very curious about how the world we live in worked, especially how individual animals operated and how all the components of an ecosystem worked together to make a functional system. The ocean seemed particularly mysterious to me. Growing up, my father (who has a very different attitude these days), had very gendered expectations – studying science was part of my rebellion to those expectations.

What is the biggest challenge to all women pursuing a career in science?

I think unconscious bias is a big challenge to gender-equity in general, regardless of the field. There is so much research now demonstrating that both men and women evaluate women much more harshly in many ways. It’s frustrating we don’t recognize that more broadly given the evidence. I was taught a trick to identify such bias very early on my career: when you have a negative reaction to a woman in the workplace run the same scenario through your head with two or three men at equivalent level and see if you’d have the same response. At the start I was horrified and surprised at my own gender bias – but that’s exactly the point of unconscious bias – it’s unconscious, and it’s pervasive throughout our whole society. But we can all do something about addressing it, starting with ourselves.

What is one thing you would change to improve the gender balance in senior ranks of scientists?

Unconscious bias training for all women and men on selection panels for jobs, awards and conference speakers etc.

How can we change the scientific work culture to improve work/life balance?

Oh I wish I knew the answer to that one! The more senior and successful of us need to lead by example that’s for sure, but that is much easier said than done. I try to have proper holidays and switch off, and I have the best intentions of not working late etc, but the bottom line is I’m not tenured and I need to stay productive to stay employable. I think it’s a very complicated and difficult question. I think the nature of many of us is also part of the problem – I keep thinking up things I want to start and be involved in, I am my own worst enemy!

How do we keep more females engaged in scientific careers? How do we retain women?

Addressing unconscious bias so that women get due recognition is an absolute must, as well as practical support for both men and women juggling families and careers. Meetings that don’t start till 9.15 so you drop the kids off to school, being able to claim child care so you can go out into the field or overseas to a conference, and extra support for people returning to work after career breaks for maternity/paternity leave. I also feel strongly about those of us that have successfully navigated the family-career juggle being ‘available’ as approachable mentors and visible as role models. Whilst I am thrilled with increased awareness around gender-equity issues in science, I also worry that younger women may become less interested in science if they perceive it as a struggle and incompatible with family life. We need to also show that it is possible to have a productive career and a happy family life. Academia isn’t for the faint-hearted, but I’ve got two healthy happy girls (now 9 and 10), a wonderful home and family life, and by many standards a pretty successful career. And I get to travel the world, work with totally awesome people and conduct research that I think is really important, useful and significant.

Follow Gretta on Twitter: @GrettaPecl

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