From programmer to professor via motherhood

Proof that there are many paths to success for a determined woman

The journey to academic prominence can take many different paths. For as many career scholars who completed, maybe even started, their undergraduate studies knowing that they are destined for the academic world, there are those who come to it late or who combine scholarship with other professional interests. Professor Shirley Gregor, Foundation Professor of Information Systems at ANU is a prime example of the latter and is ever keen to highlight to others the alternative routes that can be taken towards career goals.

“I give presentations at PhD events and so on and often get asked to talk about family matters and work-life balance. So I always try to let people, particularly mature people, know that you can have an unusual career or life progression and still end up doing very well.”

Shirley’s own progression has been one of three separate careers: industry, motherhood and academia. Leaving university, as she says, without knowing what to do, she was able to take advantage of a government scheme seeking to bring new recruits into the IT world and received training as a computer programmer. It fired an enthusiasm for IT which has stayed with her ever since and led to a career working as a programmer, business analyst and project leader which she greatly enjoyed.

Leaving a fledgling career that she loved behind to have children was a wrench, but firmly believing that her children deserved full-time care, she became a stay-at-home mother. When it came to think about finding work again, she realised there were few avenues for employment living in a central Queensland town.

If chance had played a role in the genesis of her early working life, her step into the academic world was even more random.

“I was living in Rockhampton and I wanted a part-time job. I looked in the paper and there was an ad for a tutor. It was a complete accident really. I was a tutor for six months, and then the man in charge went away to Singapore and said to me, you can do this subject. I said, I’d never done this, I’m actually shy, I don’t think I can do this, but he said yes you can, you’ve been a good tutor, so then I became a lecturer.”

It is typical of Shirley’s wry self-deprecation to underplay her academic credentials (she describes herself leaving school as “having no academic leanings at all”), and to emphasise the role of chance in shaping a career that now sees her as one of the most respected figures in the world of information systems research, a highly cited author, and a recipient of the Order of Australia.

The real ingredients of her success are not in doubt, however. On top of a natural talent for mathematics, a great passion for academic enquiry and problem-solving, and an engagingly unassuming personality, she is a woman of tremendous personal drive.

“I am an extremely determined person. My mother would have said this. If I start something I want to get it done.”

It was this determination that drove her to make the most of her teaching opportunity by retraining, obtaining a Master in Applied Science, and continuing on to a PhD, all the while raising a family.

In the years that followed, Shirley rapidly established herself as one of the foremost researchers in her field, making significant contributions to the advancement of information design theory and engaging in a series of applied projects of great public importance – none more so than her seminal work with the beef industry in Queensland, which demonstrated how a  well-organised flow of information can have a massive impact on supply chain management, facilitating good communication and greater cooperation within an industry.

Working on industry and government collaborations like this has enabled Shirley to grapple with real-world problems and recreate something of the early working life that fired her enthusiasm for the field in the first place. She stresses too, that it is a vital ingredient in the advancement of knowledge.

“Great discoveries have happened more when people actually engage in problem-solving. Take Louis Pasteur – he was engaged in trying to solve a problem with fermentation in the brewing process, and through that research he went on to make all his famous discoveries in microbiology.

“That’s the way it actually happens: it’s not blue sky research to practice, it’s the other way around... When you are doing research you always want to see how things actually affect outcomes, then you’ve got something that can be fed back into practice.”

Whilst real-world problem solving really drives her passion for her subject, how those solutions then become knowledge has also been an abiding interest for Shirley, and has led to some of her most important work.

“When I finished my science degree I studied philosophy part-time while I was working. It has always been an absolute passion. I’m really interested in knowledge: how we can know things, and what we can prove.”

Initially this fed in to work on artificial intelligence that formed part of Shirley’s PhD – exploring how knowledge might be stored in artificial beings. It has gone on to be perhaps the area of her greatest academic success.

“What I’m known for is to do with the philosophy of science, although it is really, more specifically, the philosophy of technology. We have methods for science – well accepted methods for testing scientific knowledge – but it is not so well known how we justify and formulate knowledge for design, in design disciplines such as IT.”

Information systems is a relatively young academic discipline, which has brought together researchers from diverse backgrounds. Shirley sees inherent value in drawing on the resultant range of different perspectives on the nature of theory and knowledge, but sees that there is work to be done to define the theoretical parameters of design science as distinct from the natural sciences.

“We need to recognise the worth of the knowledge produced in these disparate disciplines and show how it is also ‘legitimate’ scientific knowledge. It is just knowledge of a different type, in that what is studied is the product of human activity, such as surgical procedures, regulatory environments, and information systems and not pre-existing natural phenomena.”

Shirley has been amongst the top researchers in information systems in the world for over a decade, contributing considerably to the advancement of knowledge in her field: Her 2006 paper, The Nature of Theory in Information Systems, has been cited over 800 times, a very high number for research in this area. In 2009, her paper, Building Theory in the Sciences of the Artificial appropriately won the Herbert Simon Best Paper award at the Design Science Research in Information Systems and Technology conference, providing further testimony to her leadership in championing practical science.

At the same time, she has applied that knowledge to great practical benefits in the public sphere, as with her work in the beef industry and more recently a project helping to develop eGovernment in Bangladesh. Her commitment to such work was given fitting public recognition with the award of the Order of Australia in 2005.

Women in IT are hard to come by but Shirley is keen to stress that this is more to do with social mores than prejudice within the industry itself.

“When I got my first job they were taking people from philosophy, from education, from all kinds of backgrounds, and it didn’t matter a scrap if you were male or female. They would have been happy to get a broomstick if it could program! There were (and still are) a shortage of people who could do it well.

“Thinking analytically is highly prized, so if you are good at it people won’t care if you’re a man or a woman. I don’t think I’ve ever had any prejudice against me because I’m a woman.”

However, she contends, women have been traditionally ‘socialised’ away from such areas, largely due to, she says, misguided notions of innate mental incapacities:

“We are indoctrinated from a young age: we learn that we are not as strong as men, that we can’t get our way by shouting – so we don’t behave that way. We are told that women don’t have the ‘wiring’ in our brains to do maths. I don’t think that’s the case, because our brains are very plastic and can change. But because women get to think this, they don’t take up maths and their brains don’t develop that way – that’s a socialisation process, that’s not about hard-wiring in the brain.”

If proof were needed, then Shirley herself is a perfect example. Moreover, with three careers under her belt, and no sign of her academic commitments abating, her energy and dedication is inspirational. The secret, as she explains with characteristic humour is her motto: “keep from being bored!”