Everyone needs to hear ‘you can do it’

This ground-breaking social researcher and teacher has shown that for ideas to flourish, they must be thoroughly interrogated and patiently nurtured

It is immediately clear when meeting the gently spoken but authoritative Professor Valerie Braithwaite that she is passionate about the pursuit of ideas.

Her world-leading explorations into the relationship between people and policy makers have brought understanding to the mismatch between the good intentions of legislators and human behaviour. Her work tracks the ways in which legislators and regulators create defiance in the population; defiance that extends well beyond those who might reasonably be fearful of new laws.

Twenty-five years of research into how governments and citizens dance around each other, sometimes to defy and sometimes to cooperate with policy initiatives, has given rise to motivational posturing theory; a theory of how citizens use a sophisticated set of signals to inform government of how they intend to respond to policy initiatives.

Valerie explains: “The assumption is that law controls the excesses of people’s behaviour. This expectation is reasonable if people see the law as beneficial, just and deserving of their obedience. Policy fails because mutual respect, mutual trust and hope for a better future are not there.”

As she completed her PhD in Psychology from the University of Queensland, an investigation into how shared values link us to the institutions on which we rely, Valerie could not have known it was to set in train a 35 year career at the ANU: “I didn’t start with a hankering to be an academic but quickly became hooked: dangling by my finger tips as I chased opportunities that revolved around what I love to do.”

Valerie has taught in social and clinical psychology programs at undergraduate and graduate level, and held research appointments in gerontology in the NH&MRC Social Psychiatry Research Unit and in regulatory studies in the Administration, Compliance and Governability Project in the ANU Research School of Social Sciences. She was instrumental in the creation of an inclusive interdisciplinary community of scholars working on regulation across a range of policy areas and on crime prevention and restorative justice at the Regulatory Institutions Network (RegNet), also at ANU. For a period she headed her School and was also a Deputy Director of the Research School of Social Sciences.

At ANU she has been the beneficiary of an intellectually robust support network. Valerie acknowledges the University’s role in the success and influence of her work. Where else, she points out, but “in the interdisciplinary environment of a university can you be working one minute to improve the lives of at risk children and advising government on tax policy the next?”

Valerie has investigated ageing and care giving, affirmative action, nursing home legislation and workplace safety. The responses to research have changed lives. She has been able to demonstrate how government can work in partnership with civil society, through such projects as, in the 1980s, easing stress and supporting those providing care for parents, partners and children with disability, and in more recent years, through building care capacity for at risk children within their local communities.

In partnering with the Australian Government to head the Centre for Tax System Integrity Valerie continued to break new ground. She and her colleagues brought a unique perspective to the “vexatious relationship Australians have with this resented instrumentality of government” and what makes people accept the obligation to pay tax even when it is possible to avoid payment.

She ran workshops and briefings on the adoption of responsive regulatory models by public sector agencies: “Governments that build on the practices that work in communities and are responsive to community needs and values not only extend their capacity to offer benefits to their communities, but are able to control harmful practices in democratically supported ways.”  And, as an in demand international speaker, she has rattled a few cages with her game changing ideas.

At the time Valerie joined the ANU and was given tenure, women were not so well represented at the most senior levels of the University. While women are now represented in all levels of the University Valerie points out that “there are still pockets that are male dominated, and even more that are dominated by a masculine way of viewing the world.”

The obstacle to change remains working environments attractive to women from the perspectives of career path and work-life balance. “Women, perhaps more than men, need a belief that academia, rather than the private or public sector, can make the best contribution to their own lives as well as their families.”

Valerie urges women who are challenging the status quo to maintain their belief: “If I’m going to make gender generalisations, women can have more self doubt and find daunting the mental toughness of pushing forward new ideas in a university environment. Women are often less sure about how to compete successfully when advancing new ideas. Mistakes are part of the process of pushing boundaries, but this isn’t an easy place to make mistakes in.”

And she asks them to remember that breaking through and changing attitudes takes time. “Seven years seems to be the magic number”, she says. “I often see at about the seven year mark, after I’ve given up hope of seeing interest in something I have published, people will start citing my work. Be patient.”

She also points out that all academics suffer from our geographic isolation, despite the globalisation brought about by the online world. “It’s still difficult for Australian ideas to be accepted internationally as we’re out of the main US and European loop. But the imprimatur of the global standing of ANU helps.”

Valerie sees academia as a strange combination of collective activity and lonely pursuit: “The paradox is that you are rewarded as an individual but rely on the creative stepping stones and encouragement of others – even if that help is in the form of harsh criticism. Out of the tears comes the excellence and academic rigour that you’ll be recognised for.”

She believes that academia actually suits clever, capable women who like working in teams. “Women actually have an advantage because we’re much better at admitting to what we don’t know and learning from others as we undertake the solo work of carving out a unique research path.

“I think we are also better at taking pride in the success of our co-workers, and that builds a research group’s morale. We can enjoy the buzz associated with the success of someone else in our group and this helps us find pleasure in our own endeavours.”

“My best work has come out of robust, and sometimes bruising, criticism. It fires you up; you have to think clearly for your ideas to survive. I’m a beneficiary of being trained and encouraged to push through despite the doubting Thomases.”

Valerie’s skills, knowledge, expertise and outstanding work performance were recognised by the University with the awarding of the prestigious Vice Chancellor’s Award for Career Achievement in 2005. And her broader intellectual contribution was acknowledged when elected Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in 2009.

Beyond her intellectual contributions to the ANU, Valerie has brought her natural compassion and concern for the well-being of others into her workplace ensuring positive experiences for those around her – academic and professional colleagues as well as students.

“I was always fortunate in that my family, friends and colleagues believed in me more than I believed in myself. When things got tough it was others who gave me the confidence to go on. Having been on the receiving end of this luck, I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to give whatever support is needed to help others keep going in this highly competitive world.

“By sharing your stories and listening to theirs you help students and colleagues to push through the times of ‘I’m confused’, ‘Is this really worthwhile?’.”

Everyone needs to hear ‘You can do it’.”

“Doing it” does not necessarily mean doing it all easily. Valerie has had to take the work and domestic balancing act philosophically: “I’ve always scrambled and never expected any order in my life.”

There has certainly never been much space available in Valerie’s life for recreational activities “I understand that meditation would be good for me but…”

Even in semi-retirement, there seems to be little discernible difference to Valerie’s working week: the exception being that, having been freed from all administrative responsibilities and the hectic schedule of departmental meetings, she has “just the pleasure of the ideas and the privilege of continuing to work with exceptional students and colleagues.”


Updated:  7 November 2012/Responsible Officer:  Convenor, Gender Institute/Page Contact:  Web manager, Gender Institute