A life and work motivated by issues of equity
Heather McEwen’s first experience of inequity and the possibilities of change was in the potato fields of Norfolk, England, when she challenged a farmer’s pay scales.
Heather was just a teenager on a school holiday job following the tractors to fill plastic baskets with potatoes that were heaved to the end of the row to fill large skips. It was back-breaking and dirty work. The women worked in ‘gangs’ divided by age and payment was made for each skip filled at the end of the day.
Heather discovered that the younger women were paid less per skip than the mature women. When challenged on this the farmer said the younger women would have to prove they could work as hard if he was going to pay them more. So Heather challenged the leader of the mature women’s gang to a race to fill the skips. “She laughed at me,” Heather recounts, “and said I’d never do it. I won, and we all got paid the same from then on.”
As an adult in a succession of advocacy roles – in consumer affairs, for people living with HIV/AIDS and for international agricultural research – Heather has always been a bit of a “champion of the underdog”. She credits her parents and her upbringing for this attitude.
Heather was born in Belfast to a father with a completed aircraft factory apprenticeship but no job and a mother who could make the best of any situation. They moved to London seeking better opportunities but found it difficult to even find accommodation. It was the early 1960s and boarding houses displayed signs stating “No Blacks. No Irish.”
On a particularly bleak day Heather’s father stepped into a Royal Air Force recruitment office and asked whether they recruited 24 year olds. They did and Heather’s dad turned the family’s fortunes around. When they moved into married quarters at RAF Oakington, Cambridgeshire, Heather’s mum “thought she was in heaven – a house all to herself with everything down to the mustard spoon provided!”
The family were posted to Singapore, where Heather started school, and had tours in Germany and England each lasting three to four years. Heather once asked her parents where “home” was. Her father said “Wherever your mommy is.” Her mum answered “Wherever your daddy is.” And that’s the way Heather still feels today.
Heather’s mum has been a particular inspiration: “She made a home wherever we were and with whatever she had”. Despite her own childhood being hard and cruel in the way that poverty often is, Heather’s mum grew up with strong women: her mother who had been abandoned by her husband when she and her sister were still toddlers; her grandmother who was nearly blind; and aunts and cousins who lived in a series of terraced houses in East Belfast. Not surprisingly, Heather’s mother left school at the age of 14 to work in a linen factory. “Mum is,” says, Heather, “kind, stoic, gutsy, hard-working and selfless.”
Although Heather has been in Australia for 30 years she still thinks of herself as coming from Belfast as she feels she was “very much shaped by my early childhood, my parents childhood and their values, as well as by my time as a RAF brat.”
This shaping includes “a strong work ethic; a healthy disrespect for authority unless it is honestly earned; a very real sense of injustice, inequality and ethical behaviour; and a big dose of self-reliance and independence thrown in.” Being working class and Irish Heather’s parents knew what it was like to be judged because of money, class, rank and culture – but they didn’t judge anyone. “That’s rubbed off onto me,” says Heather.
These personal attributes do not necessarily make for an easy fit in a large bureaucracy such as a university. This possibility was recognised by Professor Dereke Tribe the founding director of her former employer, The Crawford Fund for International Agricultural Research, on whom she was counting for a good reference when she applied for a position at ANU. His written reference said that Heather would be an unusual choice for a university, but they would be lucky to have her.
The chair of the selection panel had a different concern: she confided to Heather later that she had not thought Heather would last more than a year because she would become bored.
It did take Heather time to find her place at the University – but as for being bored? “In my 10 years here that’s almost never happened,” she says.
One difficulty was, says, Heather, “that hierarchy and labels are almost meaningless to me – we’re all equal in my eyes and we all need to put our shoulders to the wheel to get things done.” When a senior woman in ANU administration told her that she felt administrative staff at ANU needed a degree, it put Heather’s “dander up”: with her diploma in marketing and communications Heather became determined to prove her wrong.
It was hard to fit in. “After I’d got my fingers burned a few times,” Heather recalls, “I learned how to be a little more subtle.”
It helps that Heather is “endlessly fascinated” by what her academic staff and graduate students do. She may not understand the depth and complexities of their work but she knows that the end results benefit us and the world we live in and she is happy “basking in the reflected glory of knowing that the world has academics like these in it to do what they do best.”
She calls herself an engineering and computing “fringe-dweller” who “missed out on the maths gene that dad had” despite his best efforts to teach her. Heather was actually “very fond of physics” at high school but found herself a bullied minority in a class full of boys.
Realistically, Heather was probably never going to be a scientist but she has some regrets about that: “I think any woman that has the intelligence to do science, especially engineering or computing, should think seriously about it because I wish I’d had the brains, the opportunity and the drive to do it.”
Heather sees her role as Marketing Manager in the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science as assisting academics to promote their work beyond the academy. It is not simply in their interest to do so: Heather feels it is their “duty”.
“As a taxpayer,” she explains, “I feel that academic staff have a duty to publicise what they do since they are essentially spending my money on it.”
In saying that publicly funded research should be publicly disseminated Heather is echoing the thoughts of Julian Cribb, a former colleague at the Crawford Fund, who expressed them in an article he wrote for The Australian several years ago. Heather does see the university sector moving towards an acceptance of this view that academics need to engage with the broader community who fund them.
In her marketing position Heather has been able to continue her challenges to inequality, especially gender inequality. “I have,” she explains, “been responsible for outreach programs that encourage girls to think about doing engineering or computing; I’ve created events and workshops to support women in their disciplines; I’ve sought funding to support those events; I’ve been involved in development of my college’s Affirmative Action Plan for academic women. I’ve contributed, I hope favourably, to University committees dealing with equity and diversity issues, and I’ve been a vocal advocate, sometimes to my detriment, of equity in the workplace.”
Through this work she has gained respect and admiration for the professional staff in administrative roles which whom she works. “Let’s face it,” she says, “it’s not always easy being the people that have to enforce policies and legislation in the workplace: making sure that we dot the i’s and cross the t’s is sometimes a thankless task.” But the administrators in our University, most of whom are women as Heather observes, combine this chore with a very real pastoral role for students that is not always fully acknowledged.
Heather is inspired by strong women and men with humanity and compassion. But her biggest inspiration continues to be her mother is who is now dying from a preventable cancer that should have been picked up through routine screening. “I’m heartbroken,” says Heather, “that a strong and wonderful woman will probably not be here by the time this piece is published.” Heather has returned to England to care for her.
The research quest for preventing and curing cancer has touched Heather in a very personal way and she is particularly excited by the contribution her own college is making to the overlapping areas of engineering, computer science and medicine.
Her mother’s cancer has also renewed Heather’s interest in what drives people into research. She has recently created a series of colloquia called ‘Inside the Researchers Lab’ which is based on the idea of the Hollywood show ‘Inside the Actors Studio’. “We’ve invited leading researchers,” she explains, “to answer our ten ‘Prousts Questions’ to find out what makes them tick and what drives them – and to help them to inspire and motivate others.”
Heather does not see herself as inspiring and motivating others but her fearlessness in being outspoken on issues of diversity and equity is an example more of us could follow.