STEMM PROFILE: Professor Kay Latham | Inorganic and Materials Chemistry | RMIT University | Melbourne | VIC

Professor Kay Latham

“So, I would ask that each time we are faced with a decision…just stop for a moment and question our decision – is it gendered?”

Born in the 1960s in the Midlands of the UK, all that was required of me was to ‘do my best’, and eventually get a nice clerical job and ‘settle down’. But, I was not that kind of kid. From a very young age I was always making, designing and building things. I was fascinated by plans, patterns and instructions. I questioned everything, was very stubborn, and if anyone said, ‘you can’t do that… you’re a girl’, well that was that. They had just given me another challenge !

Until I was introduced to science, I was pretty bored at school. But, suddenly, I knew what I wanted to do. I was inspired to a great extent by my teacher, who although tiny in stature, had tremendous presence, and was obviously passionate about her subject. There were some obstacles on the way in my dream ‘to be a chemist’. No one in my family had ever been to University. So, I left school at 17 and went to work in the labs of a local paint and printing ink company. There, I was lucky to be sent on day-release to continue my education to degree level. This took 7 years.

I continued to work in industry for another 3 years and then left to study for a PhD. I had always felt a bit of a misfit before, but academic life suited me and I began the slow search for that tenured position. Some 10 years, and a change of continent later, I accepted a position as Lecturer at RMIT. Since then I have taken on the academic promotions system three times: A to B to C to D, and always volunteered when something needed doing. Now, as the first female Head of Chemistry at RMIT and Deputy Dean, Learning and Teaching, and also the first female President of the RACI –Victoria, I strive to be a good role model, and to create opportunities for women and men alike. It’s been a good career to-date.

Kay in New Zealand [Image: M. Adams]
How do you cope with self-doubt? How do you cope with imposter syndrome?

Everyone feels this from time to time. The ‘Oh God, there sure to find me out soon!’ feeling. I try to remove myself from the issue, to get some perspective. I have a soak in the bath, or take the dog for a walk, and reflect on how far I’ve come and what I have achieved. Then I am ready to move on.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?

I don’t dwell on this. Science has rewarded me well and I wouldn’t change that. There are, however, some careers I might have considered had I known about them. Perhaps, architecture – that would have satisfied both my scientific and artistic side.

What one thing do you feel that all (public and scientists) can do to most help the position of women in (Australian) Science?

Thankfully in Australian society, blatant gender bias is rare. But, the majority of us are guilty of unconscious bias from time-to-time – that we might favour a man over a woman in our decisions without being aware of it. So, I would ask that each time we are faced with a decision that affects another – be it as a parent of boys and girls, a careers’ advisor in schools, an industry boss considering recruitment to a high-level position, etc., to just stop for a moment and question our decision – is it gendered?  

What would you say is your most valuable personal attribute that has helped you succeed?

Just one ! I’m not sure I can do that. But, I would say a combination of grit, doggedness, and a strong desire to contribute and shape the world we live in, even if in some small way.

What support structures did/do you have in place that have facilitated your success?

Throughout my academic life, my now husband has been a tremendous support to me. He has always encouraged and facilitated me in my career. He has been my toughest critic, and my most loyal fan, depending on what I needed at the time. I owe a lot to him.

LinkedIn: Kay Latham

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